The Compression Sportswear Craze

Mj 618_348_the compression craze
Photograph by Justin Steele

It’s impossible to watch sporting events now – a marathon or an NBA playoff game – without spotting skintight socks, shorts, and shirts. The Heat’s Dwyane Wade claims his knee and arm bands help keep him injury-free; top U.S. marathoner Meb Keflezighi believes his compression socks diminish soreness and tightness; Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III gives the gear credit for his speed. “When I put it on,” he says, “I feel faster.” While many claims come hand in hand with lucrative endorsement deals, there is growing evidence that compression has some very real physiological benefits – even if most of it occurs after the game. As anyone who has had a massage after a workout knows, direct, applied pressure can reduce inflammation and soreness. Similarly, when the gear is worn for a few hours after a workout, it has been shown in research to measurably reduce swelling and fatigue. It may have other recovery advantages, too: In one study, a group of cyclists over the age of 60 had significantly less lactic acid after wearing compression socks. These socks, sleeves, shirts, and shorts act as a circulatory pump, pushing blood through the veins, a fact that some athletes think gives them an edge during competition. One study showed that runners wearing compression socks had a 1.5 to 2.2 percent increase in pace and could run 4 percent longer. That’s about the difference between fourth place and Usain Bolt in the last Olympics. This is one small study, though, and similar performance boosts have yet to be re-created out of the lab. Ben Greenfield, a trainer and Ironman triathlete, largely dismisses such speed and strength claims, saying more research is needed to prove them. For recovery, however, Greenfield is a believer. “I’m flying over to race in Japan tomorrow, and I’ll wear compression tights the whole time,” he says. “They keep my blood flowing when I can’t make it flow myself.”

Upper Body 
Wearing a tight, supportive shirt after sports or weightlifting can apply the kind of pressure that has been proven to cut down on swelling and inflammation.

Quads, Glutes, and Hips 
These second skins can help squeeze blood back to the heart, slowing fatigue. This is why NFL linebacker Bryan Scott always wears compression shorts. “I sleep in my recovery skins during training camp,” says Scott. “By week two or three, when the other guys are dragging, I come out like it’s my first day.”

Swollen ankles are common after a long run, but they also occur during flights, long drives, or time behind a desk. Compression socks can reduce the risk of deep-vein thrombosis, a blood clot usually found in the leg.

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