The Effectiveness of Compression Garments in Sport

A Commentary on the Literature
by Nancy Rebel, Director of Library Services, SIRC

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the use of compression garments to improve performance and recovery in sport. Whether the intentions stem from style, performance enhancement, recovery or from injury prevention, compression garments have created a new niche in the sporting goods and apparel marketplace. Originally compression garments were designed and developed for use in therapeutic medicine. It was extrapolated that many of its therapeutic benefits were also applicable in the exercise and sporting environment. Research began to show interest in examining the impacts of compression garments for use in exercise. Consequently there is more and more anecdotal and research evidence that suggests that compression garments can enhance exercise performance. However evidence of their effects on sport performance warrants further investigation. This article aims to compile the research in the area of compression garment effectiveness in exercise and sport and to summarize some of the findings. What we can identify from the literature are several common themes in terms of the applications of compression garments in exercise and sport performance. Areas studied in the research on sport and compression garment use include the following:

  • muscle physiology (fatigue and power production)
  • circulation
  • thermoregulation
  • recovery from exercise or sport
  • injury prevention
  • placebo effect

Muscle Physiology
Research examines the effects of compression garments on muscles from two perspectives: performance and fatigue. In general, research seems to indicate that compression garments: warm the muscles and increase their flexibility; decrease muscle fatigue; aid in the generation of power and torque; and dampen muscle vibrations. In terms of performance, one study found that in sports where explosive power is required, fatigued athletes in spandex shorts had a 10 to 20% average improvement in force and power in their legs. Other studies indicate that compression shorts enhanced repetitive jump power by reducing muscle oscillation, improving proprioception and increasing resistance to fatigue. It is also suggested that the tight fit and elastic nature of the compression garment aids in torque production around the hip joint in the flexion and extension range of motion during sprinting.

Traditional uses of compression garments have been in the treatment of various circulatory conditions. Consequently it has been extrapolated that the use of compression garments for circulatory benefits in sport would aid in enhancing performance. Studies have shown that compression garments used in athletic performance increase blood flow velocity and improve blood circulation. Unsubstantiated observations suggest that the circulatory effects (increased stroke volume and cardiac output) of the use of compression garments may improve endurance performance.

Another consideration when investigating compression garments is to take a look at how they are worn. More often than not these garments are worn underneath normal playing attire during sports and exercise. This practice lends itself to an examination of the effects of these garments and layering of clothing on the regulation of body heat during exertion and recovery post-exertion. In studies there seems to be two ways of looking at the thermoregulatory effects of compression clothing. Firstly there have been observations of an increased rate of warm-up to the muscles and skin. Secondly, there is examination of the effects of compression clothing on core body temperature and performance, including a study that investigates whether wearing compression garments as a base layer could possibly increase heat storage. In the second case, findings suggest that during ambient temperatures wearing compression garments as a base layer had no benefits or detrimental effects on core temperature, physiological performance or dehydration. However, there did appear to be higher sweat rates when wearing the added compression garment layer. More research is required before significant conclusions can be drawn. What may be noted was that during the studies on core temperature there was higher skin temperature which may in the end more affect individual preference for wearing compression clothing under playing attire.

Much of the above described research looks at the effectiveness of wearing compression garments during sport or exercise. Many studies also examine the benefits of wearing compression garments during or during and post-exertion to aid in recovery. Often it has been found that there is no difference in many of the recovery indications (blood lactate concentrations, oxygen consumption, and heart rate) between those who wore compression garments during exercise and those that wore them during and post-exercise. What is also observed is that there needs to be more studies examining the effects of wearing the compression clothing solely during the recovery time period. While it is clear that lower blood lactate concentrations have been observed during exercise and recovery, in general it is still unclear as to the true effectiveness of wearing compression clothing solely for the purpose of aiding or speeding recovery after exercise or sport exertion.

Injury prevention
Along with the physiological effects of compression garments on performance observations have been made to support the benefits of tight clothing on preventing injuries. In particular studies have seen less muscular damage associated with compression garment use during and post-exertion. And while there is not significant evidence of improved recovery from fatiguing exercise, there are frequent self-reports of reduced muscle soreness with compression clothing use. Besides the muscle damage and soreness prevention, evidence also suggests that the tight clothing helps in the support of joints and muscles in the prevention of injury to these structures. Finally, skin abrasions and chaffing are reduced with the use of these types of clothing.

Placebo effect
An interesting observation has been made of anecdotal evidence of a placebo effect on some athletes. There has been self-reported improvement of skill level, less fatigue, or a general sense of improved performance when wearing compression clothing. Much the same as how technical improvement in equipment often produces perceived improvement in performance, perhaps these observations suggest a need for investigation into the psychological effects of compression garments.

While there seems to be evidence that compression garments have their applications in the sporting environment data supporting the use of compression garments for recovery and performance enhancement appears to be in need of further research. In particular it is recommended that sport specific studies and those dealing specifically with the elite athlete population are required to further elaborate upon the physiological impact of compression garment use in this context.

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