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Home / Reviews / Sports compression wear: What it is and how it works

What is compression wear, and how does it work?

Wondering how compression wear works and whether it is worth buying some? James Broatch, a researcher at the Australian Institute of Sport, explains all you need to know and how athletes can benefit from donning a pair of compression socks, tights or a trisuit.

Credit: James Mitchell

What is sports compression wear?

Sports compression is designed to provide external compression to the body, often increasing in pressure towards the extremity of the limb – this is known as graduated compression. Compression technology can be applied to a range of garments such as socks, shorts, tights, arm sleeves, tops and more. The level of compression power in a garment is dependent on factors such as fabric structure, material and size, as well as the individual’s shape and size.

Why was compression wear introduced?

Compression was first introduced to medicine to treat different circulatory conditions, such as lymphedema, post-surgery swelling and deep vein thrombosis. About 25 years ago, compression was adopted for use in sport in an attempt to improve exercise performance and muscle recovery.

How does sports compression wear work?

In a sports setting, compression has been shown to improve both performance and recovery in a range of ways. A lot of the benefits associated with compression relate to an improvement in blood flow, including both the delivery of blood to the exercising muscle and the return of blood back to the heart. As a result, compression is thought to improve the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscle to improve performance, as well as aid in the removal of waste products after exercise to improve recovery.

Other benefits include reduced muscle oscillation (or muscle movement), greater proprioception (or body awareness) and reduced muscle damage and inflammation post-exercise. When we talk about compression, it’s important to understand that not all compression is created equal. A lot of “compression” on the market is just tight-fitting clothing that doesn’t deliver any significant physiological benefits.

What does the science behind compression wear say?

In the past 25 years, hundreds of research studies have been published regarding the effects of compression. When considering these findings as a whole, there is overwhelming evidence to prove that compression helps athletes both during and after exercise. Specifically, studies of 2XU compression have shown gains of up to 10.6 seconds over a 5km run, a 5% increase in peak power and 18% increase in blood flow to the quadriceps during cycling, up to 47% reduced muscle soreness and a 4.8% increase in blood lactate removal in a 60-minute recovery period. It’s often thought compression is just for elite athletes, but the evidence shows that everyday athletes will also benefit from wearing compression.

How will sports compression wear develop in the future?

From a research perspective, the Australian Institute of Sport will focus on three key areas over the next few years. These relate to the effects of compression on 1) blood flow and the effect this has on exercise performance and muscle recovery, 2) reducing the stress associated with long-haul travel and 3) joint awareness/proprioception and how this relates to foot placement during running. The AIS researches and endorses 2XU compression, and the research we undertake is used by 2XU to advance its compression technology and inform future product development. There’s still a lot we can learn about the benefits of compression in sport, which is really exciting.

Do athletes feel the benefit?

To determine if athletes feel the benefits of compression, research often measures participants’ perceptual ratings of fatigue, muscle soreness and other indicators. In addition to improved physiological markers of recovery after exercise, such as reduced post-exercise swelling and the increased removal of blood lactate, athletes also report an improvement in subjective measures such as reduced muscle soreness and feelings of fatigue.

Is it more appropriate for a certain type of athlete over another? Who would benefit the most?

Research has shown that compression is beneficial across many different sports and activities, from endurance sports such as running and triathlon to high-intensity training and team sports. Studies conducted by the Australian Institute of Sport and other research facilities have reported performance and recovery benefits for participants of all abilities across a range of sports, including those involving high levels of fatigue or soreness such as triathlon. Outside of sport, the circulatory benefits associated with compression suggest it’s also beneficial when travelling to minimise the risk of blood pooling and DVT, or if you’re on your feet all day for work.

Is wearing compression wear more important for older athletes?

There’s no evidence to suggest one age group would benefit from compression more than another. Given that research shows compression can improve joint awareness and reduce muscle oscillation, it’s possible that older people can benefit from wearing compression in their daily lives but there’s no current research to explicitly suggest this is the case.

James is currently conducting applied and mechanistic research to evaluate the effects of compression garments on recovery and exercise performance

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The 220 Triathlon team is made up of vastly experienced athletes, sports journalists, kit reviewers and coaches. In short, what we don't know about multisport frankly isn't worth knowing! Saying that, we love expanding our sporting knowledge and increasing our expertise in this phenomenal sport.