You’ve seen compression gear — knee-high socks, arm sleeves, calf sleeves, and full tights worn by dudes looking for an edge on the court or in the gym. But despite zealous claims about better speed and strength, the jury’s still out on the science behind the trend. To date, studies point to an overall neutral effect on athletic performance (some positive results, some negative results), except for in one area: Recovery.
Compression and Recovery
Possibly the most convincing study pointing to the role of compression apparel in aiding workout recovery is a January 2016 review and meta-analysis published in the journal Physiology & Behavior. After looking at what amounts to a relatively paltry number of studies — ranging from two to 15, depending on the markers analyzed — researchers concluded that compression might enhance muscle recovery, but “findings need corroboration.” Not exactly a robust outpouring of confidence.
The cause of the recovery benefit isn’t quite clear. According to this review, a few studies point to a facilitated clearing of lactic acid from the muscles, while others point to a reduction in muscle swelling. And, perhaps most significantly, 15 studies indicate improved “perceptual measurements.”
In other words, people who use compression garments tend to feel better after having used them. A chapter in Compression Garments in Sports: Athletic Performance and Recovery by Rob Duffield and Judd Kalkhoven points specifically to the placebo effect as a possible mechanism for the post-workout benefit.
“It’s extremely hard to determine if wearing compression actually helps me or my athletes,” says Kyle Kranz, a South Dakota–based running coach who happened to be wearing compression socks while we talked. However, Kranz doesn't discount the potential placebo benefit. “I try not to make such judgements, as our opinions are extremely powerful,” he says. Instead, he references the growing body of evidence pointing to the role compression plays in recovery, ultimately noting that it doesn’t matter if the effect is physiological or mental, as long as it’s beneficial. “I do recommend my athletes throw on some socks or tights after a hard or long run for the remainder of the day,” he says.
The Importance of Compression Profile
The whole point of compression gear, allegedly, is to promote blood circulation, essentially helping “squeeze” the blood from your feet, up through your calves, and on through your thighs, returning it to your heart and lungs more easily and efficiently — though a 2015 study looking at elite runners showed no difference between runs with and without the gear. But if you're in the same camp as the NBA players who stand by their tight threads, you should at least look for the real deal — meaning a compression profile with higher levels of pressure at your feet and ankles, gradually reducing the “squeeze” higher up your leg.
Compression profiles are rated in mmHg, a measurement of pressure. The lower the number, the lighter the pressure. Typically, compression garments for sport use range from 15 to 20 mmHg, and those developed for recovery and medical use range from 20 to 30 mmHg. But just because a manufacturer claims a certain compression profile, that doesn’t mean it’s accurate.
An independent research study commissioned by CEP Compression and performed by the Hohenstein Institute compared the compression profiles of 11 different popular compression brands. Somewhat shockingly, many of the socks tested had “upside down” compression profiles, with less compression at the ankles and greater compression just below the knee. The best performers in the bunch included CEP, Smartwool, and SLS3, in that order, with CEP offering the highest compression profile overall, at 23.9 mmHg at the ankle, and 18.6 mmHg just below the knee.
Yes, the company that paid for the study ended up the victor. But there are some legitimate reasons why this might be the case. Namely, CEP is part of a medical compression company, so they manufacture gear to meet FDA and ISO certifications for medical compression. Not all brands follow the same standards.
Here's the thing: The evidence on the uses for compression gear is, for the most part, incomplete. But if you're going to spring for compression gear, which can get pretty expensive, don’t just look for products that slap the word compression on their label and call it a day. If what you really want is the look of compression gear, just get a pair of tights and save yourself the extra cash. “There’s a huge difference between ‘compression gear’ that is simply skin tight and gear designed to medical-grade standards,” Kranz says.
So if you’re going to shell out $50 or $60 for a pair of recovery socks, do your brand research before making a purchase.