By Dr. Mercola
Compression helps healing by minimizing swelling and fluid build-up that can delay healing. It also increases blood circulation, which means your muscles receive more oxygen while acids and other byproducts of physical activity are removed more quickly.1
Medically speaking, there are certain times when compression garments appear useful. For instance, if you have venous circulatory or blood clotting issues in your lower body, such as venous leg ulcers, wearing compression stockings may be an important part of your therapy.2
However, compression garments have become all the rage in many fitness circles, with athletes using them for their purported beneficial effects on performance and recovery. This is a much grayer area, with conflicting research on whether such garments are actually useful or not.
Compression Garments May Improve Recovery… If You Wear Them for 24 Hours
I’m venturing to say that when many weekend warriors don compression garments, it’s only during their workouts. But research suggests the benefits may only appear if you keep the compression going for 24 hours after your exercise is finished.
For instance, among rugby players, a full-leg length compression garment was worn continuously for 24 hours after performing a series of circuits (designed to simulate a rugby game). After the 24-hour recovery period, the circuits were repeated again, and once again one week later.
Compared to players wearing a similar-looking placebo garment, the compression group experienced improvements in average sprint times and diminished fatigue. They also enjoyed lower levels of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) 48 hours after initial testing. The researchers concluded:3
“Wearing compressive garments during recovery is likely to be worthwhile, and very unlikely to be harmful for well-trained rugby union players.”
Separate research among male strength trainers similarly found that compression garments led to decreases in perceived soreness and swelling while promoting recovery, but again only after the garments were worn for 24 hours or more.4
That being said, yet another study of the use of compression garments on the thighs of soccer players found less total injury in the compression thigh compared to the non-compression thigh (by an average of nearly 27 percent less), as well as reduced DOMS. In this case the garments were worn during the exercise session and appeared to still be effective.5
Can Compression Garments Improve Performance?
The science is also conflicting when it comes to compression garments to improve athletic performance. According to TIME:6
“[Dr. Mike Hamlin, an associate professor of exercise and sports science at New Zealand’s Lincoln University]… mentions one 1996 study that found trained volleyball players were able to increase their average — but not maximum — leaping height when wearing compression shorts.7
But he says there’s ‘little evidence’ that endurance athletes perform better while wearing compression tights and tops. A recent study from Indiana University looked into lower-leg compression among distance runners and failed to find meaningful gains.”8
On the other hand, another study investigated the effects of wearing whole-body compression garments on prolonged high-intensity intermittent exercise performance. Wearing the garments lead to improvements in physical performance in this case, likely due to increases in muscle oxygenation and associated metabolic benefits.9
Still, in a review of 23 studies published in March 2015, the researchers again noted:
“The effects of wearing compression garments during exercise are controversial, as most studies failed to demonstrate a beneficial effect on immediate or performance recovery, or on delayed onset of muscle soreness.”10
The review did point out that compression garments tended to show a beneficial effect when worn during recovery, with improvements to both performance recovery and DOMS demonstrated.
What makes the use of compression garments even trickier is that they vary in the amount of pressure applied and there are no guidelines available to help athletes know how much compression to apply, how long to wear the garment or whether to wear it during or after exercise.
In the case of the March 2015 study, the amount of pressure applied didn’t even seem to matter. “There is no apparent relation between the effects of compression garments worn during or after exercise and the pressures applied, since beneficial effects were obtained with both low and high pressures,” the researchers noted.11
Does the Material of Your Compression Garments Matter?
Compression clothing is typically made of a combination of spandex and nylon that is stretchy while still maintaining compression. Synthetic fabrics have become popular for workout wear with or without compression added because it’s lightweight and fast-drying, although it may pose a problem with odors.
Certain fabrics will make you stinkier than others, although it’s not the fabric itself that’s to blame. It turns out that Micrococcus bacteria prefer the open-air lattice of synthetic fibers over cotton.
Research shows polyester shirts were “significantly less pleasant and more intense” and smelled “more musty, sour, and ammonia-like than the cotton” after a workout.12 This could pose a problem for compression wear, which generally needs to be worn for a period of several hours (or more) after your workout to aid in recovery.
Some synthetic fabrics are also treated with triclosan, a widely used antibacterial chemical. Research has shown that triclosan can alter hormone regulation and may interfere with fetal development, so this is one chemical you want to avoid in any type of clothing you wear.
Compression Gear May Work Because You Think It Will…
When compression gear is studied, it’s difficult to “blind” participants to whether or not they’re wearing a compression garment. Even a similar-looking placebo garment will lack the tightness of a true compression garment, letting participants know which option they’re wearing.
It’s thought that people’s beliefs about the garments’ effectiveness may therefore influence their perceived results. Billy Sperlich, a professor of exercise science who has researched the garments at the University of Würzburg in Germany, told the New York Times:13
“Since beliefs are strong performance enhancers, I would recommend compression clothing to persons who believe in the performance-enhancing effect.”
And really, there’s no downside to wearing them, especially if they feel good to you and you notice an improvement in your performance or recovery. But remember, in order to be effective the garments must fit tightly, which is a sensation some people enjoy and others can’t stand.
Dr. Sperlich said his research suggests about 50 percent of people like the feeling of compression, 30 percent are indifferent, and 20 percent dislike it… so listen to your body and do what feels right.14