Compression Clothing: Is it Worth It?

In the last few years, compression clothing has become increasingly more popular, particularly among athletes. Used in conjunction with exercise and recovery, compression garments stabilize the soft tissue and are used in hopes of improved performance and reduced risk of discomfort or injury. To do so, they aim to alter intramuscular pressure through stress and strain to increase blood, and therefore oxygen, circulation. However, while some athletes find it helps during exercise or recovery, the actual benefits of compression clothing are debatable and require more research.

Current research focuses on the type of exercise performed while wearing the compression garments. For endurance athletes such as long distance runners, compression clothing had no significant changes in blood-oxygen concentration or blood lactate levels. However, for cyclists the compression clothing increased cycling performance along with StO2 output. The variance in success rates could be due to the motion of the athlete or the amount of time the clothing is worn. It also raises the question, how does the material impact the effectiveness of the garment?  The stress/strain forces between the garment and the skin creates a difference in pressure that only works when the compression is properly fitted. For the clothing to increase blood-oxygen levels there should be enough restriction to increase blood flow, but not so much that circulation could decrease. Finding the perfect material and fit for each athlete impacts effectiveness.

While there was no significant improvement in performance when wearing compression clothing during exercise, it may have a positive impact on an athlete’s recovery time. Many athletes saw benefits in wearing compression clothing after exercise to decrease muscle soreness. While this is not directly increasing oxygen intake, decreasing soreness can help athletes recover faster after exercise. Compression clothing is often used for medical purposes such as decreasing inflammation, which could explain why it works for sore muscles.

Based on current research, there is a lack of proof that compression clothing is beneficial during exercise.  The results can be impacted by the type of material used, fit, duration and type of exercise, or even the placebo effect, but there is still a lot to discover through measuring blood oxygen levels and recovery times in athletes wearing the garments.  Additionally, there does not seem to be a negative effect from wearing compression clothing.  If you are an athlete looking for a change in performance, compression clothing may not be your answer.  However, if you struggle with soreness or inflammation after exercise, you may benefit from wearing compression clothing.

Questions to Consider:

Have you used compression garments in conjunction with exercise? Recovery/injury?

If yes, did you find that they improved your experience compared to times when compression garments were not used?

Is there a potential health risk from using compression clothing?

Do the negatives of compression clothing (comfort, thermosensitivity, ergonomics) outweigh the positives? Is it worth wearing compression clothing for a slight change in performance?

How long does an athlete need to wear compression clothing to see a difference?

Further Reading:

Beliard S, Chauveau M, Moscatiello T, Cros F, Ecarnot F, Becker F. Compression Garments and Exercise: No Influence of Pressure Applied. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 2015;14(1):75-83.

MacRae B.A., Laing R.M., Partsch H. (2016) General Considerations for Compression Garments in Sports: Applied Pressures and Body Coverage. In: Engel F., Sperlich B. (eds) Compression Garments in Sports: Athletic Performance and Recovery. Springer, Cham

Engel F., Stockinger C., Woll A., Sperlich B. (2016) Effects of Compression Garments on Performance and Recovery in Endurance Athletes. In: Engel F., Sperlich B. (eds) Compression Garments in Sports: Athletic Performance and Recovery. Springer, Cham

Boucourt B, Bouhaddi M, Mourot L, Tordi N, Menetrier A. Changes in Tissue Oxygen Saturation with Calf Compression Sleeve: before, during, and after a cycling exercise. Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015 Dec;55(12):1497-501. Epub 2014 Oct 6.

Ali A, Caine M.P., Snow B.G. Graduated Compression Stockings: Physiological and Perceptual Responses During and After Exercise. Journal of Sports Sciences. 20 Feb 2007. 25(4): 413-19.

MacRae, Braid A., Cotter, James D., Laing, Raechel M. Compression Garments and Exercise. Sports Medicine. 07 Oct 2012. 41(10): 815-43.

Dermont T, Morizot L, Bouhaddi M, Ménétrier A. Changes in Tissue Oxygen Saturation in Response to Different Calf Compression Sleeves. Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015;2015:857904. doi:10.1155/2015/857904.