Compression socks or calf sleeves (referred throughout as ‘garments’) are popular amongst endurance athletes, particularly runners and triathletes. They are typically worn by athlete either during training/racing to improve performance or after exercise to augment recovery. Regardless of what the actual scientific evidence might be in support or opposition of these potential benefits, many endurance athletes wear them because it mentally makes the athlete feel better or just ‘feels good’ in general to be wearing compression garments. But what does the scientific evidence say? Is there evidence to support the use of compression garments to improve performance and enhance recovery? Let’s find out.
What are the Theoretical Mechanisms Behind Compression Garments?
The potential mechanisms proposed as to why compression garments help athletes can be divided into two categories:
Compression garments worn during exercise is thought to reduce microtrauma and damage as well as reduce the energy expenditure of the the working muscles. This reduced overall energy demand and damage that normally occurs during exercise is thought to improve performance while wearing the compression garments.
Compression garments worn after exercise is thought to improve venous return to the heart, accelerate the removal of metabolic by-products, limit swelling, and increase blood flow, and thereby oxygen delivery, to the musculature utilized during exercise.
These proposed mechanisms of action are all theoretical art this point as no research has yet tried to prove or disprove these theories. There has, however, been research that has looked at the benefits or impacts of compression garments worn during and after exercise. This is the research we will discuss next in order to see if compression worn during or after exercise provides any real-world benefit.
Does the Evidence Support Compression Garments as Helpful or Beneficial?
A 2015 Systematic Review published by Beliard and colleagues aimed to synthesize the available literature on compression garments at the time and answer the question as to whether wearing compression garments during and/or after exercise confers any benefits. From the 24 original research articles included in the review, the major findings were as follows:
There are conflicting and inconclusive results regarding the benefits of wearing compression garments during exercise and performance. In other words, some studies showed compression garments worn during exercise had a benefit, but many others showed no benefit.
There was a general trend towards improved recovery metrics (reduced soreness, faster recovery of strength or power) when compression garments were worn after exercise.
There was no relationship between various pressures applied by different compression garments and the benefits, or lack thereof, that were recorded.
I have looked at some select studies previously on compression garments and their potential benefits, and I will be honest, this paper changed my opinion on compression garments a bit. Previously, I would have suggested that there were no real benefits of wearing compression garments, but I have to change that statement to say the following instead. There may not be any performance benefit to wearing compression garments during exercise, but wearing them after exercise may have a benefit on recovery, namely reduced soreness and faster recovery of strength and power following exercise. That’s the beauty of science, keeping up-to-date with it has a way of changing and altering one’s suggestions and beliefs over time as newer research emerges and is compiled. Hopefully this brief write-up herein helps inform your feelings on compression garments as well.
Beliard S, Chauveau M, Moscatiello T, Cros F, Ecarnot F, Becker F. Compression garments and exercise: no influence of pressure applied. Journal of sports science & medicine. 2015 Mar;14(1):75.
Happy training and racing!
-Ryan Eckert, MS, CSCS
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