A look at the science behind compression garments
Updated: Aug 4
While compression garments have become synonymous with recreational gym users, comfortable brunch sessions, and a visually-aesthetic weekend recreation, their use for elite athletes remains their ability to promote recovery and improve performance.
Current research shows that compression garments may improve joint awareness, local blood flow, waste product removal, improved running economy, reduction in swelling and muscle oscillations, and decreased post-exercise muscle soreness, while showing no negative impacts on performance.
However, much of this research has proven to be inconsistent, in particular in relation to the gradient and customisation of compression for each athlete.
Competition periods and intense training regimes can lead to exercise-induced muscle damage, which is the cause of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). As a result, there has been a substantial growth in recovery-enhancing techniques such as massage therapy, foam rolling, electrical stimulation, whole-body vibration, water immersion therapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and the use of compression garments.
Influences on recovery
↓ in post-exercise oedema
↑ removal of waste products
↑ local blood flow
↓ perception of delayed onset of muscle soreness (DMOS)
↓ concentrations of creatine kinase
↓ in muscle oscillations (muscle vibration)
Influences on performance
↑ joint awareness
↑ in perfusion
↑ muscle oxygenation
↑ skin temperatures
↓ perception of fatigue
Compression garments are worn not only to improve chronic recovery (between training sessions), but also as a method to enhance acute recovery (during training sessions). However, there appears to be little evidence supporting their ability to enhance acute recovery during squatting, jumping, sprinting and agility tasks. Though compression garments may not improve acute recovery during training sessions, it is important to note that no negative effects on performance have been observed whilst wearing them. This suggests that whilst compression garments may offer no additional acute recovery benefits, they are certainly not going to negatively impact performance.
Issues with compression garments
Perhaps one of the largest current issues with compression garments is the sizing and applied pressures of the clothing. As the product is typically referred to as a ‘compression’ garment, it would seem obvious that the pressurising effect of the material would be significantly important. Despite this, there is a substantial neglect to mention the pressure gradient of the garment within the current body of research.
Of those research papers that did mention the pressure gradient, there are large variances between those gradients, this makes it extremely difficult to draw accurate conclusions. Within the current body of research the typical pressure gradients of compression garments ranges between 10-30mmHg (millimetres of mercury), whilst normal diastolic blood pressure averages around 80mmHg.