I got sucked into the hype of compression wear recently and went out to get myself a couple of pairs of compression tights/leggings. It turns out that I might have jumped the gun a little too quickly. As with anything new, it’s always worth while to do a background check to make sure the facts are really the facts. Compression wear, it would seem, is no different.
Why Use Compression Wear?
I guess we should talk about why we would even want compression wear in the first place. According to the manufacturers, compression wear can:
- optimise blood flow
- reduce leg fatigue
- reduce muscle soreness
- prevent injury
- facilitate removal of metabolic by-products
- dampen muscle vibration – thereby improve strength, power and endurance performance
It should probably be stated that compression is generally more relevant to high impact workouts. If you’re only pulling weights in the gym, you probably don’t really need them.
How Does Compression Wear Work?
According to theory, these are the things that compression wear can do for your body:
- Enhances blood circulation to peripheral limbs
- Increases deeper tissue oxygenation
- Reduces blood lactate level during maximal exercise/training bouts
- Enhances warm-up effect via increases in skin temperature
- Reduces muscle oscillation upon ground contact
- Improves proprioception (the awareness of position of joints in space)
But I like Dr Reed Ferber’s explanation because it’s nice and simple:
[compression wear is] trying to either clear blood more quickly from areas, or it’s trying to prevent injury in the first place, by not allowing the body to move in specific ways.
…you rely on what’s called your musculovenous pump. You rely on muscles contracting, and that’s what’s going to move the blood up from your lower legs into your heart.
The faster, and the more blood you can get out of your legs and back into the general circulation, that blood’s going to get scrubbed. It’s gonna have all the metabolic byproducts of injury and exercise cleaned out of it.
Your body jiggles.
There’s a certain amount of vibration that occurs. Your muscles need to tune to whatever environment you’re running on. If you’re running on something soft, like the grass, there may not be as much jiggle. If you’re running on the hard pavement, your muscles have to work a little harder, because that’s gonna be a bigger shockwave travelling up your system.
…the more your muscles have to tune, the more prone they are to injury, the more byproducts, like lactic acid, your body’s going to produce. …[compression wear] act to minimize the jiggle, and thereby decrease those metabolic byproducts of injury.
Is Compression a Hype?
It sounds great, but just because an idea is makes sense doesn’t mean it works in reality. Does the theory translate to practical gains? Or is the effect negligible? If you ask the scientists, they’ll tell you that the evidence is mixed. Some studies support the use of compression and others show no effect. Even if they do agree that there are some benefits, they all believe that further studies are warranted.
The bottom line: as far as performance goes, at the very least, compression can help a bit. Is it enough to make a noticeable difference? Probably not.
It’s in the Mind
The greatest benefit, it would seem, is to your mind. Just wearing compression wear can make us feel better and what the mind believes, the body will achieve.
There is a reason why scientists perform blind tests in studies – where they give one group the test drug and another group a sugar pill that offers no benefit. The belief that we’re getting medication to make us better can be so strong sometimes that it can be as effective as taking the real thing. They call it the placebo effect.
In the science of sports performance, the placebo effect can be very powerful. This alone may be reason enough to put on your compression wear.
The Recovery Benefit
If you’re looking for the real benefits, then the only reason you would need to wear compression is to aid your post-workout recovery. That means you ought to wear your compression gear after rather than during your workout.
the benefits of compression garments seem to be most pronounced when it is applied for recovery purposes 12-48 hours after significant amounts of muscle-damaging inducing exercise.Active SG
Whilst there is still more work to do to validate all the claims made about compression there is now adequate evidence to prove that it protects muscles during and after activity.The Sports Edit
As far as I am aware, the scientific evidence supporting a positive effect of compression garments on recovery is more convincing than on any performance-enhancing effect.Abigail Stickford, a researcher at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine in Dallas
Although, you could get the same benefit from cold baths and light exercises. These have been found to be as effective for post-recovery and a cheaper option to boot. It seems the argument for compression is looking a bit thin.
Compression or Tight?
If you’re still sold on compression, then you ought to know that not everything labelled compression really is compression. Compression leggings are not synonymous with a pair of tight leggings that make your legs look good. Even Lululemon – which has been my go-to for workout leggings – differentiates their compression leggings under a separate line called “all the right places“.
How do you know when it’s compression versus a really tight pair of leggings? Real compression leggings are graduated – they are designed to be tightest at your body extremities. If you’re wearing true compression tights, they should be difficult to get on and off your ankle/foot. They should also be tight – like, “I think I bought a size too small” tight. If you’re still unsure, check this article.
Alternatively, you could just shop 2XU, because their stuff is legit compression wear.
Like I said at the start, I jumped on the compression band wagon before I really understood it. Having seen a few of my favourite Spartan Athletes sporting Virus compression wear, I decided to give them a go. Well, that and because they have some interesting colours and designs – like this vermilion orange. Yes, I am a crow – I love shiny, colourful things.
I also like the fact that they have large side pockets big enough to fit your phone, car keys and a power gel or four. Since I started collecting Pokemon, I need to collect mileage for candy and egg-hatching. That also means I need my phone to track my mileage. No pockets – no phone. No phone – no mileage. No mileage – no candy. So yeah, that’s my primary requisite for all my leggings now – does it have a pocket large enough to fit my phone?
Virus boasts compression properties, but they do not feel as snug as compression wear ought to be. I don’t know if this is because the sizing runs large or if this is the way it is designed. According to the size charts, I am supposed to wear size S. I see creases that suggest I could go down a size but the current size fits well enough. Most importantly, it still looks good – it gives me a butt I don’t have – and it is very comfortable to wear.
Do they have compression benefits? Honestly, I haven’t worn them enough to know for sure. Given what I have read about compression wear, I seriously doubt I would notice if there was a difference. What I have noticed is that I have managed to get through a spin class without knee guards and walk away feeling okay. Was it in my head? Possibly.
My only gripe is that it changes colour when I sweat. It becomes a darker orange that looks fine unless I sweat unevenly. Then it just looks like I peed myself and it is not a good look. When they say it wicks away sweat, what does that really mean? Is it supposed to stay dry? Have I just defied the science of sweating with my excessive sweating ability? The sweating isn’t a problem when I wear the black leggings, but did I mention I was a crow with a love for bright colours? Besides, I also have other colourful leggings that don’t give me this sweat-changing colour problem so perhaps Virus can work out a way around this.
Oh yes, one last thing – don’t wear dark knickers. It’s not squat-proof. Other than that, I really like them. Compression benefits or no, I’d still wear Virus.