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December 6, 2012

Compression garments: So, does tight mean right?

It seems that you can't head to a gym or run down your favorite trail these days without finding someone wearing compression garments. Weekend warriors and elite athletes alike are squeezing themselves into knee-high socks, tights and even full bodysuits that promise to improve performance and speed recovery from hard workouts.

Those claims might be true. Or they might not be. A good bit of research has been conducted on the effectiveness of compression gear, and the results are inconclusive.

Two Indiana University studies released in 2010, for example, found no impact on running performance when highly trained distance runners were outfitted with lower-leg "sleeves," and no effect on jumping ability when 25 average guys wore upper-leg compression garments in three different sizes.

Yet Canadian researchers concluded in a 2012 study that compression socks improved blood flow to calves and "may enhance performance, especially in sports that require repeated short bouts of exercise."

As for recovery, the evidence is somewhat more in favor of compression. Australian researchers who put rugby players in waist-to-ankle tights during "active recovery" runs on a treadmill (what you and I would call a cool-down period) discovered that compression helped remove lactate from their blood. Lactate is the byproduct that causes your muscles to burn during intense exercise.

And University of Connecticut researchers who put men and women in "whole body compression garments" after intense weightlifting found that they helped reduce fatigue, swelling, muscle soreness and other side effects of exercise.

How to make sense of all this?

"The bottom line: For runners who buy four pairs of $120 shoes at a time, invest in compression garments for recovery — they won't hurt," Pete McCall, exercise physiologist for the nonprofit American Council on Exercise, told me in an e-mail. "If budget is a concern, take a cold bath and use ice for recovery. It will be more cost-effective."

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