Do compression garments improve athletic performance?

CrossFit Seven South Central Team Member Lucas Allen

More and more athletes, whether elite or aspiring, seem to be using compression shorts, shirts, suits, tights or sleeves.  Do these things help?  Do they help in sports like CrossFit or Olympic Lifting?  There has been some research on compression garments of varying type.  Most of the research has focused either on people who have some form of circulatory impairment or on healthy young adults on stationary bicycles. A lot of tests of exercise physiology are done with cycling because its more practical for researchers to monitor people on a stationary bike than it is while they are running on a treadmill or doing something like CrossFit.  That would be a tough one. So . . . keep in mind that the studies discussed here may not apply to your sport.

Full Body Compression Suits: did not help exercise performance, cardiovascular function, temperature regulation or comfort (MacRae et al. 2012).   Cyclists were used as study subjects.  They were monitored during a one hour event, as well as during a 6km timed all out trial.

Compression Socks: several different strengths of compression socks were tested in male runners to see if there were any effects on heart rate, blood oxygen, lactate concentrations or red blood cell flexibility.    No differences were seen for different levels of compression.  High compression produced the same measures as low compression.  Why does red blood cell flexibility matter?  It matters because a flexible red blood cell is able to carry oxygen through capillaries and between cells better than a rigid one.  Flexible red blood cells help carry oxygen to the tissue that need them during exercise.  In trained athletes exercise makes red blood cells more flexible.  The researchers noted that wearing high compression socks (but not low ones) lessened red blood cell flexibility (Whal et al. 2012).  As to whether or not this would matter in a competition is not known.

Compression Knee Socks:  No effect on cardio-output, heart rate, blood lactate or oxygenation was seen in endurance trained young men wearing compression socks while running (Sperlich et al. 2011).  This is admittedly outside my field, but why would you expect these measures to change with a pair of socks?  On the other hand, would the average person have expected to fine less of an upsweep in red blood cell flexibility when they put on compression socks?

Let’s look at something else . . . like the effects of compression clothing on recovery, strength and muscle wobble.   We will continue the question of “Do Compression Garments work?” in the next post and hopefully get some insight from Top Ranked Master Ken Cutrer of CrossFitEST and three time Individual Competitor Candice Ruiz of CrossFit Iron Horse.

Chris Lofland at CrossFit EST

Sperlich B, Haegele M, Krüger M, Schiffer T, Holmberg HC, & Mester J (2011). Cardio-respiratory and metabolic responses to different levels of compression during submaximal exercise. 
Phlebology / Venous Forum of the Royal Society of Medicine, 26 (3), 102-6 PMID: 21228356  

MacRae BA, Laing RM, Niven BE, & Cotter JD (2012). Pressure and coverage effects of sporting compression garments on cardiovascular function, thermoregulatory function, and exercise performance. European journal of applied physiology, 112 (5), 1783-95 PMID: 21901265
  
Wahl P, Bloch W, Mester J, Born DP, & Sperlich B (2012). Effects of different levels of compression during sub-maximal and high-intensity exercise on erythrocyte deformability. European journal of applied physiology, 112 (6), 2163-9 PMID: 21964909

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