They are worn by the world’s greatest athletes. Lebron James is rarely seen on the court without one wrapped around his right arm, like some kind of cyborg prosthesis. For Usain Bolt and every other lightning-fast, high-flying Olympian, often they are standard uniform. Superheros wear them, too. Spiderman is suited head-to-toe, Superman apparently never takes his off (is it his skin?), and Lebron James — mentioned already, I know, but he counts as a superhero, right?
It wasn’t always like this. Decades ago, hardly anyone used compression garments besides patients with circulatory problems. The garments’ purpose was explicitly medical. Today, however, compression garments are marketed quite differently. Sportswear brands have led us to believe that they will somehow make us run faster, jump higher, recover quicker and perform better. And, for the most part, we’ve wholeheartedly bought their message. But is it bullshit?
“Based upon the scientific published research, the claims manufacturers make are largely hyperbole. There is really no convincing, statistically significant data to back the claims,” says Dr. Steven Devor, Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and Professor of Exercise Physiology at Ohio State University.
As far as science can tell, yes, it’s bullshit.
In a 2008 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 14 compression-clad rugby players from New Zealand were closely monitored for any changes in athletic performance. None were found. In 2011, Sports Medicine dissected a large volume of existing scientific literature on compression garments, and summed up its findings with a collective shrug: “More work is needed to form a consensus or mechanistically insightful interpretation of any demonstrated effects of [compression garments] during exercise, recovery or — perhaps most importantly — fitness development.”
So, as far as science can tell, it’s bullshit. Compression garments do not aid athletic performance. But there is an important distinction to make here: when sportswear brands say compression garments improve athletic performance, they’re talking about in-sport movements, like running or jumping. Athletic recovery is another matter entirely.
“Recovery from a hard training session, or competition, is where the somewhat positive news is found with compression garments,” Devor says. “Recovery does seem to be enhanced, to a small degree, and is likely related to blood flow return to the heart in order to decrease venous pooling.”
Jared Berg, an exercise physiologist at Colorado University Sports Medicine and Performance Center, one of the world’s leading sports science institutes, agrees: “There have been a few different studies that have proven some compression garments can increase performance over a longer bout. So, you’re not going to be able to jump higher in a one-off, specific jump, but you jump higher for repetitive jumps. Is the compression actually mechanically making you jump better? No, but it’s probably limiting some of the detrimental effects of continuously jumping. And that allows you to jump better.”
There have been a few different studies that have proven some compression garments can increase performance over a longer bout.
Compression garments, Berg says, benefit muscle recovery because they help facilitate the flow of toxins called metabolites — an umbrella term for specific proteins, carbohydrates, lactates, acids — away from stressed muscles. Blood flow is quickened, toxins are washed away and the muscle is fed a supply of cleaner blood — thereby hastening the muscle’s recovery. Additionally, Berg says, compression garments limit recovery-slowing muscular vibrations by hugging muscles into submission: “When a compression garment is working, one thing it’s doing is limiting the oscillation in the muscle, both longitudinally down the muscle and horizontally across the muscle. If it can limit the amount of vibration in your muscles, then it’s an effective garment.”
The science is clear. Compression garments, whether they are worn before, during or after muscle-straining activity, can aid muscle recovery by boosting blood flow, and by preventing muscles from literally shaking away hard-earned regenerative progress.
What all this means is that you should wear compression garments more often — just don’t wear them to perform better. They won’t help you do that. Wear them because you want to recover faster.
What then, exactly, should you look for in a compression garment?
“The best compression garments have higher levels of actual compression — a tighter fit. And often a graded level of compression, meaning higher compression as you go up the garment,” Devor says. “Think of a compression sleeve or sock; as it goes further up the leg, the compression would become greater. I also like the garments that offer ice pack pockets on the outside of the garments. So you get compression with cold. This can be very helpful to reduce inflammation after a hard training session or competition.”