Have you ever wondered why athletes wear skin-tight clothing when they’re competing, training or after they’ve completed what they’re doing – some even sleep in it?
Well, it’s definitely not for fashion! They’re actually wearing compression clothing for performance reasons, it’s a biohack.
Does compression gear work? Yes, compression garments do work and for even better results manufacturers have designed specific compression clothing for specific situations, reasons and people too.
What are the benefits of wearing compression gear?
- Reduction in muscle fatigue and soreness
- Faster recovery
- Improved blood flow
- Helps prevents muscle strain
- Protects skin
- Provides stabilization to joints and helps with muscle alignment
- Helps with body temperature control and provides warmth
- Can increase agility
These skin-tight clothes, which are generally made of flexible but supportive fabric like Spandex and Lycra, are known as compression garments. This is an umbrella term used to define clothes that provide joint support for people who engage in physically demanding sports and activities for long periods of time, so they’re not just for elite competitors.
The Biohacking Science behind Compression
To have a better understanding of the real benefits of compression garments, you need to understand what impact they have on your body, and how that‘s related to muscle recovery and an increase in explosive performance and stamina too.
To begin with, let’s take a look at what actually happens to your body when you’re working out and using your muscles.
It all starts with the heart. The heart pumps oxygen through the body so it reaches our working muscles and the volume of blood also varies. That’s why your heart rate rises during exercise and why we have different ways of fueling muscles in the short term (anaerobically) and over a longer period of time (aerobically).
The arteries leave the heart and take oxygenated blood to the muscles, and the cells there use the oxygen along with other nutrients to produce energy (to help this process you can also use supplements). In this process, lactic acid is produced as waste, and deoxygenated blood takes that back to the heart via the veins. And then the process begins again.
What does it mean for your muscles?
The more oxygen the muscle cells have to work with, the better they function. The muscles start to run out of energy when oxygen flow is reduced and this means lactic acid doesn’t get back to the heart as efficiently, and therefore your performance is naturally restricted – it’s your body’s way of protecting itself.
What does compression have to do with this? Very simple, compression helps with blood flow. With the optimal level of compression on a consistent basis, the artery walls get dilated and increase blood flow.
According to studies, with optimal compression level, blood flow increases up to 40% while working out. Not just that, it increases up to 30% during the recovery period too. It basically helps the heart pump more oxygenated blood along with nutrients to give the muscles more fuel.
As a result, the muscles don’t run out of energy so quickly. In addition, the veins bring the lactic acid back to the heart much quicker, resulting in a much faster recovery.
On top of that, compression helps to stabilize the working muscle and surrounding area, reducing the amount of muscular vibration during activity.
This reduces fatigue as more muscular vibration means the muscles burn more fuel, as it’s less efficient. It also provides additional support and, as most serious injuries occur around the joints, this is a major benefit too for ligaments and tendons that, if they get damaged, tend to take more time to heal, if they heal fully at all.
So, if you think compression garments are nothing more than a fashion statement, I’d encourage you to think again, and take a look through the benefits below.
And it’s not just athletes and coaches that see the advantages compression gear can deliver, certified healthcare specialists confirm these benefits too, they also use other compression techniques and tools to help, for example, Intermittent Pneumatic Compression (IPC) devices for the legs, arms and hands – these increase blood flow through your veins.
Reduction in muscle fatigue and soreness
With more oxygenated blood on board, the muscles are able to work for longer periods of time without running out of energy. If you choose to wear compression socks or sleeves, you won’t feel muscle fatigue as quickly, and they’ll help extend your workout periods for longer.
Some people are simply too
When deoxygenated blood removes lactic acid quicker, your muscles will recover faster from a physically demanding activity. This helps you continue your workout routine consistently every day.
Improved blood flow
We all know muscle cramps are painful and you’ve probably experienced them at some point in your life, stopping you performing to your best ability.
One of the main reasons we get muscle cramps is inadequate blood supply. This generally happens when you overuse your muscles. Compression helps in two ways, more blood supply and extended fuel for the muscle, so it’s definitely a win-win.
The other benefit of improved blood flow is the improved removal of waste toxins like Lactic Acid that naturally occur during strenuous exercise, if you can manage this better you can train or perform better too.
And if you’ve ever had shin splints, compression socks or calf sleeves can help because improved blood flow help reduce the inflammation of the tissue around the shin bone.
Helps prevents muscle strain
Muscle strain happens when a muscle is torn or overstretched. It generally occurs through overuse, fatigue or possibly improper use of your muscle.
One of the most common examples of muscle strain is a hamstring injury. Athletes suffer from hamstring injuries all the time, but it doesn’t have to be such a common occurrence. Compression garments reduce fatigue, boost recovery and keep the muscles in place, which all contribute toward a reduced risk of muscle strain.
If you do an activity that involves a lot of body movement, like running, for example, you may be prone to chafing and rashes.
Chafing happens because of repetitive friction. Loose fitting clothing creates a lot of friction by continuously rubbing against the skin and it might lead to rashes too.
Compression garments work as a protective layer, and because the flexible but supportive fabric doesn’t stick to the body, it doesn’t create the same friction as regular sportswear.
You’ll also find compression gear helpful when taking on events like obstacle course racing (OCR), a Tough Mudder, Spartan Race or Rat Race, the compression clothing provides that bit of extra protection as you climb up ropes, wade through water and mud and crawl through tunnels on your hands and knees.
It’s also helping you in the other ways it can too, which over hours of physical activity is a real help.
Provides stabilization to joints and helps with muscle alignment
Compression garments provide additional support to joints like ankles, knees, elbows and so on. Joint stabilization is really important when you’re doing intense physical activities. In fact, the ankle joint has to endure 8 times your body weight while running, so an unstable joint could potentially cause serious injury.
Compression garments help keep different parts of the joint in place and also withstand pressure.
The other factor with joints and muscle alignment is that poor posture and functional movement will increase the risk of injury and reduce performance, so compression clothing can help put you in the right position and also make you aware of your position too, which is a biohack with immediate and long-term benefits.
Helps with body temperature control and provides warmth
In all types of physical activity your body temperature is critical to performance so not only does good quality compression gear keep you warm it also helps regulate body temperature but holding and expelling heat as your body temperature fluctuates.
When it comes to the cold, outdoor sports like running or cycling don’t stop during the winter months, and people still want to get out and keep fit.
Sports jerseys alone won’t protect you from the cold, wind and rain, but wearing the right compression garments will give an added layer of protection.
It’s obviously not a substitute for full winter clothing, but it‘ll keep your muscles warm and make you feel much better too because of the temperature regulation that it provides.
Can increase agility
Compression clothing can help your power when jumping, landing and travelling in multiple directions, something that’s often the cause of injury.
The support and the clever design of that support not only supports the muscles and joints, it can also help you change direction and improve what they call mind-muscle connection – which is basically the first step towards muscular contraction as it’s a signal sent by the brain to the muscle giving it the instructions of what to do.
Types of Compression Clothing
There are sports specific compression garments, and gear for when you’re training, racing and even separate versions for recovery, but the most common types of clothing include:
- Calf Sleeves / Guards
- Tights / Leggings
- Shirts and Sleeveless Vests
- Arm Sleeves / Guards
These apply pressure to the foot, and if they are longer, lower leg too, helping maintain blood flow, which can reduce inflammation. Typically runners use these but there are also medical versions to help people after surgery or even while flying to help stop Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), which is when a blood clot develops, usually in the lower leg.
Calf Sleeves / Guards
These work well if you suffer from or want to avoid conditions like shin splints as they help lower leg blood flow, lower leg stability and also provide protection to the shin and calf, which is especially helpful during an obstacle course race or when running over rough terrain.
Tights / Leggings
These not only support the legs and glute muscles, and can be found in a variety of full and ¾ lengths to suit men and women of all sizes and shapes, the also provide the other benefits such as temperature control and even body shaping too.
These are similar to leggings but they come in a variety of lengths and focused on the upper legs and glute areas, not the whole leg.
Some compression shorts come in 2 parts, an inner and outer, so the compression part is hidden or below a standard looking pair of shorts.
Compression shorts can also be bought in versions suited to running, gym work, cycling, triathlon or activities like yoga and Pilates with compression, material, seams and padding placed according to the activity.
Shirts and Sleeveless Vests
Long sleeve, short sleeve and sleeveless, these tops provide various levels of support across the upper body, shoulders, arms, core and even your back, it will also help posture.
And you’ll find that different designs work for different people, whether they’re lifting heavy weight, involved in contact sports, run or cycle and and there are specific versions for men and women too.
Arm Sleeves / Guards
Many sports have dynamic movement through the elbows and forearms, so not only do these arm sleeves and guards protect this area if you’re scrambling across rough terrain during a Spartan race, they also help people who play tennis, basketball, row or do gymnastics.
Most of the time compression gloves are not a sports related item, they help with blood flow, swelling and tings like rheumatoid arthritis, but some are designed to not only help those things but also improve grip too and even incorporate features like copper fibers in the material, as this is claimed to help those who suffer from arthritis.
How to Choose The Right Compression Gear
If you’re thinking of using compression garments, I’ll run through how to choose the best ones for you.
First, consider how you’ll use the items, as compression gear can be designed generally or for a specific use, whether that’s during a sport, for recovery or to help prevent or relieve an injury. They even have compression gear designed for women that are pregnant or who’ve recently given birth and are getting back to exercise.
Consider the fabric. Even though Spandex is a popular choice, and the one often recommended, there are other options like polyamide, Lycra, elastane and cotton available. The use of fabric also determines things like warmth, wind and rain protection.
Think about the breathability of the fabric and any clever features like antimicrobial properties that help prevent bacteria, or practical features such as reflective areas to make you more visible in low light and a secure pocket in leggings and shorts to hold your keys.
Next, you need to make sure the garment doesn’t feel too tight or too loose – it should be skin-tight but not restricting blood flow. Check the manufacturer’s size chart and compare that with your body measurements. If you’re wearing compression garments for the first time, it’s normal for them to feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but you quickly get used to it.
And finally take a look at how the manufacturer has designed the compression garment to work as they can structure panels in clothing, different types of fabric and even the seams to provide a specific range of benefits, target specific areas with more or less compression and even graduate compression as this helps the garment’s effectiveness.
Compression Clothing Brands
Most of the big sportswear manufacturers like Nike and Adidas have compression gear in their ranges, but there are some companies who’ve partially built their businesses on it and they’re a good source of information as well as selling highly researched compression clothing, these include:
So now you know that compression gear isn’t just designed to make you look good.
It’s got specific measurable benefits during and after exercise and it could be a biohack that not only increases your ability to perform well while running, cycling, in the gym or on the playing field, it can also help you recover from a tough session or injury faster and even prevent problems in the first place.