Manufacturers of compression clothing claim that the clothing provides ergogenic benefits such as an improved sports performance, a reduction in injuries and an enhanced recovery following exercise. These effects are thought to be the result of a decreased oscillation of the muscle and an increased muscle oxygenation due to an improved blood flow. Are these claims supported by scientific evidence?

Sports performance

Conflicting findings have been reported with regard to the effects of compression clothing on sports performance. For example, a recent systematic review found that the effects on running performance such as the time to complete 5-km or a half marathon was trivial (mean effect size = 0.03; range -0.23 to 0.23), while there where usually small to moderate effects on time to exhaustion [1]. These positive effects on time to exhaustion tests are likely related to a reduced perceived rating of exertion which in turn may be related to a placebo effect (i.e., the individuals thought the compression clothing enhanced their performance and therefore they perceived the exercise not as heavy and gave up later). In most endurance sports, the goal is to complete a given distance as fast as possible, rather than to exercise at a given intensity till exhaustion. Therefore, compression clothing is generally not useful to enhance endurance sports performance. Furthermore, explosive sports performance such as vertical jumping and sprinting is generally also not improved by wearing compression clothing [2]. Therefore, compression clothing is likely generally not useful to enhance sports performance.

“Compression clothing is generally not useful to enhance sports performance.”

Injuries

Compression garments have been reported to reduce muscle oscillation [3]. However, there is currently no evidence to suggest that this also leads to a reduction in the number of injuries, although there is only limited research on this topic (e.g., [4]). Nevertheless, claims that compression clothing reduces injuries are currently not supported by evidence.

“Claims that compression clothing reduces injuries are currently not supported by evidence.”

Recovery

The effects of compression clothing on recovery following exercise are also inconclusive. For example, measures of sports performance such as jump performance and maximum strength usually recovered faster following exercise when compression clothing was worn [1, 5, 6]. Further, one meta-analysis reported also moderate magnitude positive effects on measures of muscle damage such as creatine kinase (effect size = 0.42) [5], while another meta-analysis reported almost no effects on creatine kinase (effect size = -0.02) [6]. Nevertheless, both analyses agree that the effects on perceived muscle soreness are larger than the physiological effects, suggesting that compression clothing has primarily a placebo effect. Since a faster recovery by removal of metabolic by-products may attenuate adaptations, it is likely only useful to use compression clothing to enhance recovery between important competitions.

“Compression clothing enhances recovery, although this may primarily be related to a placebo effect.”

Conclusion and practical applications

Compression clothing is generally probably not useful to enhance sports performance, there is no evidence that suggests it reduces injuries and the faster recovery may primarily be related to a placebo effect. In addition, the faster recovery may only be useful between important competitions and not after each training session as this can attenuate the adaptations. For most recreational athletes, compression clothing is therefore likely a waste of their money.

Compression clothing and recovery, injuries and performance

References

1. Engel FA, Holmberg H-C, Sperlich B. Is There Evidence that Runners can Benefit from Wearing Compression Clothing? Sports Med. 2016;46(12):1939-52.

2. MacRae BA, Cotter JD, Laing RM. Compression Garments and Exercise Garment Considerations, Physiology and Performance. Sports Med. 2011;41(10):815-43.

3. Doan BK, Kwon YH, Newton RU, Shim J, Popper EM, Rogers RA et al. Evaluation of a lower-body compression garment. J Sports Sci. 2003;21(8):601-10. doi:10.1080/0264041031000101971.

4. Moen MH, Holtslag L, Bakker E, Barten C, Weir A, Tol JL et al. The treatment of medial tibial stress syndrome in athletes; a randomized clinical trial. Sports Medicine, Arthroscopy, Rehabilitation, Therapy & Technology. 2012;4(1):12.

5. Hill J, Howatson G, van Someren K, Leeder J, Pedlar C. Compression garments and recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage: a meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2014;48(18):1340-6. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-092456.

6. Marques-Jimenez D, Calleja-Gonzalez J, Arratibel I, Delextrat A, Terrados N. Are compression garments effective for the recovery of exercise-induced muscle damage? A systematic review with meta-analysis. Physiol Behav. 2016;153:133-48. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.10.027.

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