Photography by Hamish Weir and Krystle Williams.
Compression garments including compression socks, is one of many recovery strategies currently being used by individuals to address symptoms associated with exhaustive exercise due to their potential biochemical and physiological benefits. Studies supporting the use of a compression garments is a little sketchy, as there isn't any consistent findings between studies, with half supporting the use and half finding no evidence. In saying that though, more studies have supported the use of compression garments for recovery then performance enhancement during sport or exercise.
One of the most commonly experienced symptom following exhaustive exercise is delayed soreness, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). It typically starts to develop 12-24 hours after the exercise has been performed and may produce the greatest pain between 24-72 hours following. Activities which cause DOMS all cause muscles to lengthen while force is applied, this is called eccentric muscle action. Examples of eccentric muscle actions include the lowering phase of a bicep curl exercise or the lengthening of the thigh muscles while the limb brakes against your body’s momentum as it walks or jogs down a hill.
Jogging or running on a flat surface, or a high number of repetitions (compared to low number of repetitions) can elicit DOMS symptoms for those who are unaccustomed to this type of activity. The severity of soreness depends on the types of forces placed on the muscle, other symptoms can include pain, tenderness, inflammation, stiffness, reduced movement and reduced capacity of the affected muscle to produce force.
Some of benefits of the use of compression garments for recovery include:
Blood flow and circulation: Some studies also suggest that venous pooling can occur in the lower legs, which can lead to poor venous return and increase in time for your body to excrete waste products that can cause damage to healthy muscle cells. Compression garments provide an external pressure, this helps in reducing space available for swelling following an inflammatory response post-exercise. This has been associated with a dramatic increase in oxygen to the lower legs, as well as an increase blood flow which is believed to enhance the removal of waste products such as lactate from the exercising muscle.
Lower heart rate: Some studies showed a reduction in heart rate immediately following exercise when wearing compression garments, further aiding their potential use as a recovery tool.
Improved performance when worn after events: Multiple studies have shown a likelihood of improvements in performance, particularly in the reduction of recovery time between sessions/events when compression garments are worn 24 to 48 hours after an event or training. For example one study had found a 2.2% higher repeated sprint ability in rugby players, 2.1% improvement in a 5-minute maximal power output during an 80 minute recovery period, and a 2.6% improvement in run to exhaustion in runners on a treadmill two weeks following a marathon event when wearing below knee compression socks. Another study had found improvements in force production, countermovement and squat jump performance, however a similar study in comparison found little improvements at all.
Muscle soreness: A reduction in muscle soreness 24 hours after an event such as a marathon run or rugby matches/simulation with the use of compression garments was found. This perceived reduction in muscle soreness is suggested to be related in a reduction in structural damage to tissue and/or reduced inflammatory response.
The research concerning the effects of compression garments on performance seems controversial.
Some of benefits of the use of compression garments for performance include:
Temperature/ thermoregulation: One study reported that although wearing the compression garments did not benefit physical performance, it did elevate core temperature and skin temperature with some studies reporting an increase in 1-2 degrees celsius. Therefore, wearing compression garments may have some thermoregulatory effects although this may be on peripheral musculature.
Circulatory benefits: Researchers have suggested that the circulatory benefits associated with wearing compression garments include improving venous return, subsequently increasing stroke volume and cardiac output, resulting in a lower heart rate.
More distance covered: A few studies have reported that there is no significant effect of compression garments on total distance covered in cricketers during a 30-minute intermittent running protocol or during low intensity activity, maximal throwing distance, or prolonged running/cycling performance times. Whereas one study argued an interesting concept, that an individual with a faster recovery during exercise due to the use of compression garments, can translate into more distance covered. Another argued that due to anaerobic and circulatory benefits of compression garments, may increase distance covered during high intensity activity within an exercise bout.
Sprinting ability: Not many studies had focused on sprint performance alone and the use of compression garments. One study mentioned that their was no significant effect on sprint ability in 10 amateur cricket players during a 30-minute intermittent running protocol, however another showed a minimal improvement of 1%.
Power: Although compression garments did not significantly increase maximum jump height in volleyball players, runners, and track athletes, some studies did show that compression garments resulted in greater repetitive ability in jump heights and, therefore, helped maintain higher mean jumping power.
One possible explanation for these results may be enhanced proprioception (which is your body’s ability to sense where your body part is in space) and better muscle coordination provided by the compression garments. Some studies suggested that the enhanced proprioception may help sustain power output. Several research groups have suggested that there may also be a psychological component associated with improved performance.
Motor control: Proper muscular control is critical for not only performance enhancement but also for injury prevention during exercise and athletic movement patterns. One study reported that wearing compression garments can improve motor control in the shoulder during movement while loaded. This may result in additional stability and external feedback stimulated by wearing the compression garment.
Other sport specific benefits: Some research looked specifically at the potential benefits gained in specific sporting codes. Research suggested little ergonomic benefit during cycling when wearing compression garments, however the study did argue that wearing the garment also doesn't hinder performance either; another found no significant performance or physiological effects with compression garments in a field-based netball simulation.
In comparison, two studies found that compression stockings were effective for enhancing performance during sub-maximal and maximal running exercise, stating that constant compression over the calf muscle affected running performance at various metabolic stages. However one study that looked at similar outcomes found no positive effect.
Although most studies have shown no significant improvements in the use of compression garments in athletic performance, studies do support the use of compression garments as a recovery strategy for reducing muscle damage after training and competition. Therefore wearing compression garments during recovery is likely to be worthwhile and unlikely to be harmful for well-trained individuals.
Yours in health,
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