Sports Compression Tights: Do They Actually Do What They Claim?
These days sports compression tights are fairly big business in the sports and fitness industry with several big company’s manufacturing them and more and more new manufactures popping up every year. Many of these manufacturers make claims regarding the benefits around wearing their sports compression gear. So, how accurate are these claims and is there any significant difference between the brands or can you just go for the cheapest option and achieve the same results…?
“Skins” Compression Wear, Australia’s Own
Coming about on the back of the use of medical compression for almost 100 years and a study in 1987 in the American Journal Of Physical Medicine concluding “…compression in a sporting context had a positive result.” In 2002 SKINS where the first to think about bringing compression, in a sporting context and introduced the first-ever Compression Sportswear to the market this year. Originated in Australia Skins were the first company to make a name for themselves in the sports compression wear market and spread world wide in 2007. At this point claiming that their “…compression tights and shorts provide the right compression in the right places to get more oxygen to your muscles. They also wrap and support key muscle groups, so you’ll notice improved core body control and power, as well as less post-exercise muscle soreness.” Skins have previously been recommended and endorsed by the Australian Physiotherapy Association and qualifying for registration as a therapeutic device by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration.
On their own website it states that Skins are the most researched compression garments and that research has found Skins compression tights to make a difference in a number of areas :
- increase venous return
- reduce exercise induced muscle damage (EIMD)
- accelerate recovery processes
- remove lactic acid faster
- increase strength and power
- improve endurance
- increase muscle oxygenation
- improve body temperature control
- Reduces in-flight ankle oedema
2XU Compression Tights
Another leading compression garment brand 2XU also suggest:
- wearing their compression tights will improve circulation pre-exercise “…for a faster, safer warm up…”
- and wearing their tights during exercise “reduces muscle fatigue & damage, heightens agility, improves performance”
- Post exercise use of 2XU tights will aid in ” faster recovery, decreases soreness, helps reduce the risk of DVT.”
Compression Tights: What Is The Research?
So what does the research on compression garments actually say? And should I bother buying compression tights? And if so which brand is best and how should I wear them? There are so many questions around the use of sports compression garments.
- A studying comparing three types of full-body compression garments (Skins, Adidas and Under Armour) on repeat-sprint and throwing performance in cricket players found analysis between respective brands of compression garments revealed no statistical differences as well as this no benefit was noted when wearing compression garments for repeat-sprint or throwing performance. However, the use of the garments as a recovery tool, when worn after exercise, may be beneficial to reduce post exercise trauma and perceived muscle soreness.
- Another study looking at lower limb compression garments and recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage in young active females indicated that individuals who wore “Skins” lower limb compression garments for 12 hours following exercise inducing muscle damage, experienced up to 20% less functional muscle decrement and lower perceptions of muscle soreness in comparison with individuals who had a passive recovery.
- Again another study looking at lower limb compression as a recover strategy following exercise found that the results indicate that compression clothing is an effective recovery strategy following exercise-induced muscle damage.
- Yet another study investigated whether compression garments could benefit metabolic recovery from eccentric exercise. The specifics were following 30 minutes of downhill walking the muscle metabolites of eleven subjects were evaluated at baseline, 1 hour and 48 hours. Found that compression garments may alter potential indices of the repair processes accompanying structural damage to the skeletal muscle following eccentric exercise allowing a faster cellular repair.
- An Australian study looking at wearing compression tights during flights of greater than 5 hours showed significant differences in ankle circumference and symptoms of Economy Class Syndrome. Results found that participants wearing gradient compression garments (SKINS) during air travel experienced reduced flight-induced ankle oedema and subjectively rated travel symptoms of leg pain, discomfort and swelling, and improve energy levels, ability to concentrate, alertness, and post-flight sleep.
- A study investigating the physiological and performance effects of lower-body compression garments during a one-hour cycling time-trial in well-trained cyclists demonstrated limited physiological benefits and no performance enhancement through wearing compression tights during a cycling time trial.
- A study using Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking to examine performance measures looking at compression garments on performance measures in netball found performance enhancing effects of compression garments were minimal.
Research Supports Compression Tights As A Recovery Tool
Basically statements such as those previously made by Adidas stating that their compression garments “focuses your muscles’ energy to generate maximum explosive power, acceleration and long-term endurance.” don’t actually have a lot of research supporting these claims. There has been substantial research done on compression tights and their effect on performance and recovery and to date the majority of research that I am aware of supports them being used as a tool for recovery following exercise. Sadly not a lot of research exists supporting the wearing of compression tights as a way to improve sporting performance.
Answering The Questions Around Compression Tights
Should I bother buying compression tights? If you are a athlete who exercises regularly, exercises intensely and due to the frequency of training (or competing) your recovery time from exercise is crucial, then the answer from me would be YES! However if you exercise inconsistently, or train at very low intensities and the quickest possibly recovery isn’t vital to your activity needs then there may not be a lot of merit in you going out and buying some sports compression wear. As at this stage there is little to suggest they do anything much to help other than assist recovery and an enhanced recovery is either not vital or that noticeable to you at lower levels of training intensity and frequency.
Which brand is best? The answer to this is I don’t know, quoting one of the research papers stated above suggested there is no statistical difference between the individual brands (Skins, Adidas and Under Armour) and therefore it doesn’t matter which brand you go for. But this research is old and technology is ever changing and compression wear is no exception to this rule. You could suggest that given “Skins” is the brand with the most research undertaken on their product if you are looking to ensure you get out of your purchase what the research suggests then going with Skins would be the educated choice. But as with running shoes frequently comfort and aesthetics are two of the biggest drivers in peoples purchasing habits so research and function often get pushed down the pecking order.
Something to consider is that for tights to claim that they are “medical grade” they will have to actually prove they are to the TGA; Compression is measured in mmHg (or millimetres of mercury) which is a measurement of pressure, such as measuring someones blood pressure. With regard to compression to be considered medical grade they tights need to prove the provide specific levels of compression and then they can make claims of being “medical grade”
- CLASS A prevention.
- CLASS I (18-21 mmHg)
- CLASS II (23-32 mmHg)
- CLASS III (34-46 mmHg)
- CLASS IV (>49 mmHg)
Noting that if on your tights claim the provide 15-20mmHg, then this suggests they provide graduated compression ranging between 15-20 millimetres of mercury providing slightly more pressure the further away from the heart you get so they assist in facilitating movement of fluid (being your blood and lymph fluid) back towards the core. Meaning compression in this instance will be firmest (20mmHg) at the ankle and will reduce but not go below 15mmHg as you move higher up the leg.
How should I wear my compression garments? It would seem that wearing compression tights during exercise hasn’t been shown to have any significant benefits. However, in saying that they also certainly didn’t appear to have any negative effects on performance so you could either wear them during and after exercise, or worn more as a recovery tool for which they have a body of backing from the research. In this case it is suggested that they are worn for around 12 hours post exercise.
And as one study suggests, wearing compression tights during long haul flights to reduce DVT risk. Use like this could be considered potentially even more relevant if you are exercising soon after landing on the other end of that flight (an overseas match, or simply general training or having trained prior to boarding the plane).
You Need To Buy The Real Deal, Budget Options Won’t Work The Same
Sports compression tights are made with tighter elastic than your average spandex pants and the design component of compression tights creates graduated pressure throughout the garment. Meaning you can’t just go into “Supré” or “Lowes” and try and find some stretchy-ish pants and hope they enhance your recovery. However, if you bite the bullet and decide to go and spend the big bucks on a pair of Skins long compression tights will they help you “Train longer, perform stronger + recover faster”…? The later possibly, but train longer and perform stronger the research at this stage suggests perhaps not. As mentioned there are a number of brands out there and the “optimal” pressure points for each garment might not work in your situation with your exact body type and shape so trying on a few brands to see which you find the most comfortable is always a good idea. Remembering the process of getting approved to be listed as medical grade by the TGA is challenging so you know if a brand has a “medical grade” product they will want to make sure everyone knows it. And if they aren’t medical grade, all of what they claim may actually be quoting research done on other “similar” products…
Disclaimer: Sydney Physio Clinic does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products mentioned. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance on compression tights should consult his or her general practitioner or physiotherapist.