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Compression gear during interval workouts: a new possibility

November 19th, 2011

An interesting wrinkle in the debate over whether compression garments do anything during exercise to improve performance, from a new Australian study just posted in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. The situation so far:

  • Every time you take a step while running, the flexing of your calf muscle operates something called the “calf muscle pump” — basically, your calf literally squeezes the blood vessels in your lower leg, helping to shoot oxygen-depleted blood back toward the heart.
  • Graduated compression of the lower leg (i.e. tighter at the ankle, looser at the knee) is thought to enhance the action of this calf muscle pump, by helping it to squeeze harder. This should reduce the load on your heart and speed the circulation of blood through your body, possibly enhancing performance.
  • One argument against the idea that compression garments boost performance is that, when you’re running hard, the action of the calf muscle pump is already maxed out, so adding more compression doesn’t help. You can’t squeeze more blood from a stone!

The new study put 25 rubgy players through a form of interval workout: basically 5:00 easy, 5:00 medium, 5:00 hard, 5:00 easy, 5:00 hard, 5:00 easy. They each did the test twice, once in running shorts and once in full-leg graduated compression bottoms. The researchers measured a bunch of variables (heart rate, oxygen consumption, lactate levels, blood pH) during each stage of the workout. There were basically only two elements where the data was significantly different between shorts and tights: in the fourth and sixth intervals (i.e. the easy recovery intervals), heart rate and lactate levels were both significantly lower in compression tights.

On the surface, this fits nicely with the ideas above. The tights don’t help when you’re running fast, since the calf muscle pump is maxed out; but during the easy recovery, the compression does help, resulting in lower lactate and heart rate — and, in theory, better performance on the subsequent hard section.

This is the problem, though: the study didn’t actually measure performance. The pace during each interval was predetermined, so we don’t know whether this difference in physiological parameters actually translates into better real-world performance. That’s a point that was highlighted in another Australian compression study that I blogged about back in August. That study also found physiological “improvements” from compression — but in that case, they also measured performance and found no difference. As the researchers wrote:

However, the magnitude of this improved venous flow through peripheral muscles appears trivial for athletes and coaches, as it did not improve [time-to-exhaustion] performance. This would suggest that any improvement in the clearance of waste products is insufficient to negate the development of fatigue.

Bottom line: I remain skeptical that wearing compression during a run will allow you to run faster. (Note that this is entirely separate from the question of whether wearing compression during and after a run will allow you to avoid or recover more quickly from muscle soreness, a claim that has somewhat better support.) This new study raises the intriguing possibility that compression might boost active recovery during interval workouts — but until it’s directly tested in a performance context, it’s just a hypothesis.