The truth about compression gear: it works, sort of, but not how you might expect

Is it really running if you do it without compression gear?

Is it really running if you do it without compression gear? Photo: Getty

From elite athletes to the average Jane and Joe, if you’re doing any sort of regular physical activity, you’ll most likely have invested in a pair of compression tights.

They certainly look sharper than tracksuit pants if you want to keep your legs warm, but do they do anything more?

A recent study found that compression garments didn’t impact muscle strength, at least for the experienced male distance runners who took part in the Ohio State University testing.

But Dr Ben Rattray, an assistant professor specialising in exercise science at the University of Canberra, says there’s more to the theory behind compression gear than muscle strength.

“What’s pushed out to the consumer is two main roles: one is the influence on performance at the time and the other is how it helps with recovery after activity,” Dr Rattray told The New Daily.

“There’s better rationale for the recovery aspect.”

Dr Rattray explains that whenever we do any form of physical activity, the stress on our bodies does cause some level of damage, even just slight swelling of the muscles.

“It’s largely related to the idea of inflammation and whether there’s swelling in the legs that you could help minimise and therefore when you go to do your next performance that might help,” he said.

Meanwhile, his own research seems to support the Ohio State study findings.

“We ran a study recently in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Sport to look at the in-performance impact on cyclists,” he added.

“We couldn’t find a difference in terms of performance, but we measured blood flow to the brain as well, and what we did see was a difference in the cognitive performance of individuals wearing compression garments while they’re doing physical activity.”

Dr Adam Castricum, former Chief Medical Officer for Athletics Australia and currently at the Hawthorn Football Club, says elite athletes see compression gear as a “one-percenter”.

“When you’re looking for a significant effect in research, you’re looking for something like five per cent, but sometimes in sport one per cent is a performance advantage,” he told The New Daily.

“It may mean the difference between winning a gold medal, making a final, or even making a team.


Compression gear is popular among AFL players. Photo: Getty

“In football, we only have six or seven days – sometimes only five days – to recover between games, so anything that the players can use as a recovery aid is going to help them, especially something that’s low cost that doesn’t have any side effects.”

In his role as President of the Australasian College of Sport and Exercise Physicians, Dr Castricum is just as concerned about the wellbeing of the general population.

“If people do buy activewear it means they’re going to do a bit of exercise,” he added.

“As far as I’m concerned if it gets people out and doing physical activity then that’s got to be a good thing.

“Someone who’s a bit overweight might prefer wearing a compression garment so their body doesn’t move around as much when they’re exercising and often they just feel better, so that can improve someone’s mood or feeling of wellbeing while they’re exercising.”

Dr Rattray shares that view.

“If it’s allowing people to be more physically active – and we know there’s a massive physical inactivity issue across Australia and much of the Western world – if that’s going to get you out the door, that’s still money well spent, in my view,” he said.

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