The faster you can recover from a workout, the sooner you can train again. And generally, the more you can train, the better you’ll get.
To achieve this end, many athletes and weekend warriors are turning to compression clothing as an aid to better training training and faster recovery. But, what is compression clothing? And how does it work?
Depending on who you ask, compression garments make a huge difference, or they’re just really tight underwear. Some controlled studies have yielded interesting results, while others are completely inconclusive. Overall, though, most people can agree on the following basics:
Increasing Blood Flow
Compression garments have a long history of being used with patients with circulatory issues to help promote blood circulation and prevent blood from pooling in the extremities. Wearing compression socks has also gained some traction with athletes taking long flights to competitions, as it seems to reduce the foot and ankle swelling that tends to happen on airline flights.
Think of blood flowing through the blood vessels like water through a hose—when pressure is applied to the end of the hose with a finger, the water flows faster. This same principle is very important to athletes. Increasing pressure on the limbs causes the blood to flow faster, increasing blood circulation.
During activity, increased blood flow allows you to warm up faster, allows faster delivery of fuel to the muscles, and allows for faster removal of metabolic waste like lactic acid. During recovery, increased blood flow prevents blood and metabolic waste from pooling in the muscles and helps the body deliver nutrients to help refuel and repair the muscle faster. And quick recovery is essential in helping top athletes train day after day at high intensities.
Reducing Muscle Oscillation & Providing Support
An additional advantage of highly compressive garments is that they can limit muscle damage and soreness from activity. Running and biking for hours or making high-speed, change-of-direction movements can cause the muscles to be thrown around quite a bit. Given the length and thinness of most limb muscles, the ‘belly’ of the muscle can oscillate, which may cause additional muscle and tendon damage. This muscle and tendon damage is believed to contribute to delayed onset muscle soreness and possible injury. Additionally, not having compressive support can lead to the recruitment of smaller muscles to help stabilize larger muscles, resulting in more energy used and leading to unnecessary injury. Compression clothing helps stabilize muscles, reducing the oscillating muscle damage and maximizing muscle efficiency.
Increasing body awareness is very important for athletes as far as being in the best position possible during sport. Having compression clothing up against the nerve endings of your body’s largest organ, your skin, increases your awareness of your body in space, providing a constant stream of data to your brain. This helps improve posture, stance, agility, and stability during activity. Compression tops also can reinforce good posture while running and cycling, which helps improve breathing and, in turn, makes you more aerobically efficient. Likewise, good compression tights can reinforce proper running mechanics, making you more mechanically efficient.
“Compression” is a word that’s used pretty loosely by a number of manufacturers. The kind we are talking about here generally cost more, both because of the materials and the engineering that go into each garment. True compression garments are almost always made from high-dernier, heavyweight stretch fabric that’s going to be much more, well, compressive and durable than ordinary Lycra fabric. Materials of different weights, knit patterns, and stretch are often combined in one garment to achieve specific aims, be it targeted support or circulation assistance.
Socks & Calf Sleeves
Socks are probably the most versatile form of compression as they can benefit both athletes and the average adult. Socks provide the benefits of increased blood flow and recovery in athletes while keeping muscles in place during high intensity activities. Compression ski socks are going to be particularly useful for keeping feet warm since they encourage the circulation of warming blood. For anyone who is on their feet all day, compression socks can help with increased blood flow reducing lower leg and foot soreness, as well as preventing blood from pooling in the lower legs causing the feet to swell.
2XU and other companies like CW-X, Zensah, CEP, and Smartwool use what is called graduated compression, where compression is greater at the far end of each limb to help push blood flow back up each limb to the heart.
Aside from boosting circulation, compression socks and calf sleeves can offer support and reduce vibration, which can be particularly valuable for anyone suffering from shin splints and calf issues. An additional benefit of theses socks is that because the fit is very close, you’re not likely to get wrinkling or bagging of the sock that will cause hot spots or blisters.
Compression socks can be difficult to fit because size is based on both calf circumference and foot length. This puts people with longer feet and skinny calves or people with shorter feet and thicker calves at a disadvantage. If you fall into these categories then you should be looking at compressions calf sleeves instead of compression socks.
In addition to fit issues, calf sleeves are a great alternative when you want to choose a different sock on your foot while still getting the benefits of a compression on your lower leg. Some examples include: trail running with your favorite sock, having to constantly switch into dry socks, wearing dress socks, wearing warmer socks, and wearing Vibram shoes or sandals.
Tights, capris, and shorts are a very popular form of compression. 2XU offers a variety of styles of compression bottoms ranging from active to purely recovery based on the amount of pressure applied by each garment. Its tights feature both graduated compression and its MCS (Muscle Containment Stamping) technology, which is traced directly over key muscle, tendon, and fascia groups to reduce muscle oscillation and damage.
CW-X, another leading manufacturer of compression garments, uses its patented Support Web technology, which mimics kinesiology taping techniques used by trainer to support muscles and joints and improve biomechanics.
Any of these pants are great for skiing, running, hiking, warming up and passive recovery. In particular, if you’ve never skied while wearing heavy-duty support/compression tights (as opposed to regular long underwear), you might want to treat yourself. Consider getting 3/4-length capris to avoid excessive fabric (tights as well as socks) under your ski boots.
Compression Tops and Arm Sleeves
Compression tops and arm sleeves are great for increasing upper body blood flow and reducing oscillation damage in the arms for field sport athletes and runners. For sports like cycling and skiing where posture can put a lot of stress on the back, compression tops help pull your body back to a natural alignment. As with the calf sleeves, arm sleeves may be a better option when choosing your own top or when you want your arms and shoulders completely free for complete range of motion.
One final note: when it comes to the fit compression clothing should not just be tight. The technology built into each piece is designed to offering varying degrees of support and compression at very specific points, so having a properly fitted garment is crucial to getting the most benefit out of it. Make sure to look at sizing charts for every company, as sizing will vary based on height, weight, and limb circumference. When wearing it, there shouldn’t be any bagging or sagging of the fabric, the fit should be as smooth as possible.