Compressionwear 'does not help'

Slick compression sportswear makes you look good, but is unlikely to improve athletic performance, say scientists

LONDON • Ultra-tight clothing could give you extra mileage as a fashionable athlete, but do the items make you look good performance-wise too?

Well, yes, if the biggest sportswear brands are to be believed.

The sale of sexy, slick compression garments across the webpages of adidas, Under Armour, Asics and more is almost ubiquitously associated with phrases such as "increase muscle power", "go further and faster" and "optimise performance".

Going by the revenue generated, such slogans clearly do their job.

Some of this revenue comes from the sale of bodyshapers, such as Spanx, but a third comes from sales of compressionwear leggings, socks and stockings.

Such is the belief of consumers in the value of these products that they are even prepared to tolerate premium prices, with retail margins for compression garments standing at 46 per cent, compared with 43 per cent for regular sportswear items.

However, a recent study funded by Nike appears to pour cold water on the supposed performance benefits of compression clothing.

Putting 20 experienced runners on a treadmill for 30 minutes at 80 per cent of their maximum effort, while completing a series of fatigue tests before and afterwards, they found no difference in the levels of fatigue between those wearing compression garments and those wearing normal shorts.

To some, this is far from surprising. The scientific community has long thought that compression clothing makes little or no difference to athletic performance - even if the wearer stands out fashionably on court or outdoors.

"That's my belief based on the research I've read and conducted," said Dr Jessica Hill, programme director for applied sport and exercise physiology at St Mary's University, London.

"If you wear it to compete in a race, it's not going to do anything for you. The theory has been that the garments will increase blood flow and therefore oxygen uptake to the working muscle, which could be a benefit.

"But this hasn't been scientifically proven."

Scientists suspect that any benefits felt when wearing compression clothing during exercise may be down to the placebo effect - the large hole left in the wallet from the purchase may leave the wearer willing it to make a difference.

Where compression garments may prove helpful is for post-exercise recovery, particularly in reducing the risk of injury.

Their use in this area has a medical origin, with limb compression used in clinical settings to treat a range of inflammatory conditions such as deep vein thrombosis and lymphedema.

"If you exercise, whether you're working out in the gym or running, you have some microscopic tears in your muscle and during the repair process you feel some soreness," said Dr Florian Engel, a researcher at Heidelberg University in Germany.

"There is some water in your muscle cells and, as soon as you're passive and you stop moving, the volume enlarges and this causes the pain.

"The compression works a little bit like a pump, helping to circulate and remove muscle metabolites, enhancing transport and elimination of the water, reducing the space available for swelling and improving the lymphatic outflow.

"During exercise, the effect of compression is not strong enough to enhance performance, but it is during recovery."

Dr Hill said many of the garments that people buy off the shelf are fitted based on somebody's height and weight.

"But if I take 10 people who are all a size medium based on their height and weight, they've all got very different body types. Some might have large thighs, some might have large calves.

"So you're better off if you can find a company that will fit the garments based on something such as limb circumference, which is a little bit more accurate."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2017, with the headline 'Compressionwear 'does not help''. Print Edition | Subscribe