Sports science: Does compression gear benefit your workout?

"No amount of compression can outdo a bad night's sleep or 22 vodka Red Bulls."

These are the no nonsense words of David Joyce, trainer of AFL team, the GWS Giants.

"The most important thing for recovery is food and sleep," he explained at a SKINS Compression media briefing on Thursday morning.

Still, his players use compression gear on flights, to prevent blood clots and for recovery.

"It's about getting the extra percentage."

It's an extra percentage that could be beneficial to amateur exercisers as well as professional athletes.

A new study by the University of Essex Human Performance Unit has found that compression tights can improve energy expenditure while exercising, hasten recovery and improve proprioception.

The researchers took eleven recreational runners and over four sessions, used analysis software, took blood tests and measured oxygen levels as they ran and jumped in fitted or oversized compression tights.

"The runners demonstrated that they used less energy when running at a sub maximal speed," the authors concluded, meaning they could run for longer at a faster pace.

"Wearing compression clothing during running may decrease muscle oscillations and alter running gait/posture, thereby promoting lower energy expenditure at a given intensity."

Unlike previous studies, however, the researchers did not see changes in lactic acid levels (the byproduct that leads to muscle burn during intense exercise) as a result of the clothing.

Compression gear has become a favourite among amateur and professional athletes alike, and anecdotally improves performance, enhances recovery and provides support to help prevent injury.

The results of studies however have not been conclusive enough to convince everyone that the expensive pricetag - a pair of tights costs around $140 - is worth it.

Some have criticised the designs of different studies, while the outcomes have been inconsistent. Some research supports athletes anecdotes while other research has found no differences between compression clothing and normal running gear.

"For the average fun-runner and keen amateur sportsperson, there are probably more effective ways of improving performance, preventing injury and enhancing recovery than wearing compression tights," was the conclusion of a recent Choice report.

"If budget is a concern, take a cold bath and use ice for recovery. It will be more cost-effective," Pete McCall, exercise physiologist for the non-profit American Council on Exercise, has said.

"I don't know if they're more or less effective [than cold baths], they are just another tool," says Sports Integrated Director, Nick Morgan, who was involved with the Essex University study.

Research is still quite young and controls remain problematic, Morgan admits.

He says that this partly explains conflicting results from different studies, along with different variables in studies' designs.

"It's important people understand the strengths and weaknesses of compression gear," he adds.

"There's not the breadth of work to get a consistent picture. It will get there."

While the evidence is mounting in support of compression wear, even for us fun-runners, the anecdotes are enough for now, Morgan says, because, whether the result of placebo or real effect, people feel better wearing the tights.

This, in itself, can give a performance edge and lead to a more enjoyable exercise experience.

That's assuming you haven't had 22 vodka Red Bulls before you work out, that is.


Compression gear

"When you apply compression to specific body parts in a balanced and accurate way, it accelerates blood flow," according to SKINS. "This gets more oxygen to your working muscles – and boosts your performance.

"Better blood flow also helps your body to get rid of lactic acid and other metabolic wastes – which helps you work at a higher rate for longer. Plus, improved oxygenation reduces the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness and accelerates muscle repair. So engineered gradient compression and dynamic gradient compression play a big part in helping you recover from exercise too."


What to wear

Nick Morgan suggests full length tights for recovery, calf socks to help blood flow while running or cycling shorts for muscle support and help with muscle oscillation and vibration.


Published by The Sydney Morning Herald, July 23, 2015. Author: Sarah Berry