Can Compression Clothing Prevent Sore Muscles?

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Compression Garments

Compression clothing are super tight garments that exercisers wear during and after workouts to improve performance, increase blood flow, and reduce post exercise soreness. But do they really work?

The New York Times recently published an article about the questionable effectiveness of compression clothing, citing several studies with mixed results. Maybe they work, may they don't. Maybe they do work, but only because we think they do.

After reading the article in the Times, I really wanted to try compression clothing out for myself. I borrowed two pairs of compression calf sleeves from a very generous friend. The brands I tried are 2Xu ($49.95) and Zensah ($39.99).

So, what are compression garments supposed to do for you exactly?

The 2XU website says, "Compression clothing has been proven to improve athlete performance before, during and after activity through improved circulation, muscle containment and reduced muscle vibration." Zensah, the other brand I tried, lists the same benefits as 2XU but is a little more chatty about who they think would benefit from compression. The Zensah website says, "Studies have shown that those that have gained most by wearing compression are those transitioning from an inactive to active lifestyle. Older populations have experienced great benefits from use of compression socks and sleeves. Amateur athletes may see physiological improvements through using compression." Didja catch that "may"?

study published in The International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance shows that compression doesn't do much of anything for runners. Dr. Stickford, who led the study, told the New York Times, “Based upon the results of this study, lower-leg compression sleeves are unlikely to improve endurance running performance.” Another study by the Department of Sport Science in Wuppertal, Germany proved that compression shorts actually reduced blood flow during high intensity cycling, even though increased blood flow is one of the most touted benefits of compression clothing. A third study published in the International Journal of Sport Physiology and Performance said that compression clothing had "small to moderate" positive effects on performance and recovery, particularly when the exercise was short and explosive, like vertical jumps or sprints.

So, is this stuff for real or what?

Test 1: I don't run anymore. Once upon a time, when I was childless and worked only at night, I used to clock in 6 miles every other day. Sometimes if I'm out of town or can't go to the gym I'll take a short run, 2-3 miles, and that feels like plenty for me. But I've been so busy training in the gym lately that I haven't been running for 6 months or so. So this past Monday I put on the 2XU pair of calf sleeves and set out to punish my legs by completing a grueling (for me!) 5.5 mile run that included some steep hills and an annoyingly powerful headwind.

During: While I was running everything from my belly button down was in pure and hellish agony. Except for my calves! They felt warm and comfy, encased in their pretty pink wrappings. I was super impressed and surprised, since the research didn't really support what I was experiencing very much. I wouldn't say my actual performance improved (especially that part where I limped over to the water fountain and and just leaned on it for like 5 minutes trying not to die), but my calves were the only part of my body that didn't hurt.

The Aftermath: When I woke up the next morning, I was really, really beat up. Everything was sore, including my calves. It's tough to say, but the soreness in my calves seemed to be a teeny bit less excruciating than all the other muscle groups. It also might have been completely in my head.

Test 2: I felt so on the fence about the compression sleeves that I wanted to take them through another workout. This time I used the Zensah pair and attended an hour long HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) class that usually leaves my calves pretty sore, depending on the exercises the instructor chooses.

During: My calves were still really ouchy from the first test, but having the sleeves on helped with my discomfort. Something about the snug fit was soothing. Additionally, they kept my calves really warm, which always helps. I definitely didn't feel any performance improvements. I was not at my best, maxing out and tiring much more quickly and than usual. But that was really due to the run I took earlier in the week and a bit of a cold I felt coming on.

The Aftermath: The next day I was feeling better, but still sore. It's impossible to say if the calf sleeves helped. I want to say that I felt better just because I was 4 days out from that run. And I always feel my muscles the day after HIIT class, so...who knows.

The Takeaway: I liked wearing the calf sleeves while exercising mainly because of the tight fit. I feel like that's the biggest benefit I got out of wearing them. Perhaps if I wore them over a long period of time I would see other effects. I feel like compression keeps your muscles warm and helps make you more aware of where your body is in space. I'll admit that I think that compression eliminates or reduces soreness very little, if at all. Because I enjoy the sensation of compression, I would wear calf sleeves or any other piece of compression clothing if someone ever donated any to me. But I probably wouldn't pay for any because they're pretty pricey.

Do you like compression? If you have experience with compression clothing, let me know! I'd love to hear your story.

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Image: Sarah Olive Bergeson

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