Former AFL players Shane Crawford and Tony Woods trained in tights back in their Hawthorn days. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
Lenny Bernstein tries to find out whether tight is right when it comes to compression gear.
IT SEEMS you can't head to a gym or run down your favourite trail these days without finding someone wearing compression garments. Weekend warriors and elite athletes alike are squeezing themselves into knee-high socks, tights and even full body suits that promise to improve performance and speed recovery from hard workouts.
Those claims might be true. Or they might not be.
A good bit of research has been conducted on the effectiveness of compression gear, and the results are inconclusive.
Two Indiana University studies released in 2010, for example, found no impact on running performance when highly trained distance runners were outfitted with lower-leg "sleeves" and no effect on jumping ability when 25 average guys wore upper-leg compression garments in three different sizes.
Yet Canadian researchers concluded in a 2012 study that compression socks improved blood flow to calves and "may enhance performance, especially in sports that require repeated short bouts of exercise".
As for recovery, the evidence is somewhat more in favour of compression. Australian researchers who put rugby players in waist-to-ankle tights during "active recovery" runs on a treadmill (what you and I would call a cool-down period) discovered that compression helped remove lactate from their blood. Lactate is the byproduct that causes your muscles to burn during intense exercise. And University of Connecticut researchers who put men and women in "whole body compression garments" after intense weightlifting found that they helped reduce fatigue, swelling, muscle soreness and other side-effects of exercise.
How to make sense of all this?
"The bottom line: for runners who buy four pairs of $120 shoes at a time, invest in compression garments for recovery – they won't hurt," Pete McCall, exercise physiologist for the non-profit American Council on Exercise, said in an email. "If budget is a concern, take a cold bath and use ice for recovery. It will be more cost-effective."
We all know that fitness fads come and go. Competitive athletes are constantly looking for an edge and the rest of us are certainly willing to try new short cuts and techniques if they're safe and effective.
But it's equally fair to conclude that we in the real world might be out ahead of the scientists as we search for new, different and better. Pregnant women have been strength training for a while, despite a dearth of formal research to determine whether it's safe.
So, in the absence of any serious conflicting evidence, I'm inclined to believe Alyssa Smith, a 39-year-old recreational runner who swears by her compression pants, which have panels sewn into certain spots, such as the knee joints, where extra support is helpful during and after a run.
Support and the idea that the garment helps return blood to tissues more quickly, bringing them oxygen and flushing out lactate and other by-products, are the main concepts behind compression. The socks have been used for decades by travellers on long plane rides to prevent blood clots.
During a long run, the tights hold Smith's back and hips tightly and help keep her knees aligned as she becomes fatigued, she said.
After long runs - Smith runs 50 to 60 kilometres a week - she now wears them instead of taking an ice bath, which she never liked, to reduce inflammation and swelling.
"I almost feel that it does what an ice bath does, but [it's] not as cold," she said. "The tights you can wear all day and sleep in them at night."
(Ice baths, by the way, are not grounded in good research, either, according to Kenneth Knight, a professor of athletic training at Utah's Brigham Young University who has spent his career studying cryotherapy for athletes. But many athletes love them.)
One last, fascinating thought about compression garments: at least one researcher has found a placebo effect when it comes to recovery. That is, athletes recovered better in them because they believed they would.
In July, Rob Aughey, a senior lecturer in sport physiology at Melbourne's Victoria University's School of Sport and Exercise Science said: "When testing CGs in elite athletes, we found that wearing them did result in an improvement in the perception of pain and fatigue for the athlete.
"However, we found no evidence to suggest that the garments can help improve the actual rate of physical recovery."
The Washington Post