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Jockology: compression garments

April 10th, 2009

This week’s Jockology column on compression garments is now up on the Globe site. I’ll be interested to see what people think, because it covers a lot of ground. The science behind compression socks is very different from the science behind compression shorts — not to mention Allen Iverson’s compression arm sleeve, and the full-body compression suits that companies like Skins are hyping — so it’s hard to generalize about whether compression garments in general work.

I was pretty skeptical when I started researching this column, but I uncovered a lot more research than I expected — and I also heard some pretty ringing endorsements from, among others, William Kraemer, one of the very big names in sports research. On the other hand, given the impossible-to-blind nature of compression garments, I can’t quite shake my worries that it’s all a big placebo. Anyone have personal experience with this stuff?

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  1. April 10th, 2009 at 13:39 | #1

    Hi Alex,

    As an expat Canadian and avid amateur athlete, I’ve been reading your column in the G&M for a while now and just recently subscribed to your blog feed. Keep up the good work!

    Re. compression socks, I’m just an n=1 but I truly believe they work, so much that I wrote my own blog post about it, http://smaryka.blogspot.com/2009/02/calf-relief-at-last.html . In a nutshell, I used to suffer a lot from shin splints and calf tightness such that I had to limit my mileage to prevent injury, but since I’ve started wearing compression socks that’s all gone away. As a result, I’ve managed to increase my mileage and intensity, which in turn has improved my speed and endurance.

    For me, the advantage is mostly in my recovery — in that my calves feel much less sore and tired after running — though I do notice on long runs that my legs get fatigued more slowly. I have not noticed the same drastic improvement when wearing compression shorts during running/cycling, or compression tights for recovery, sad to say. But the difference between wearing and not wearing the calf guards for me has been too great to call a placebo effect. In fact, it almost feels like an unfair advantage to wear them!

    According to some (probably a bit biased) manufacturers, compression socks require a “foot” for true effectiveness, but since socks are not allowed in Ironman triathlon swims (my current primary race distance), I’ve gone with just the calf guards so I can wear them through the entire race. If they were outlawed, I could survive the race but I certainly could not go without them in training again.

    And for anyone who wants to try them without putting out lots of cash, I suspect the drugstore-type socks aimed at airplane travellers and little old ladies with poor circulation would be fine as well, at a fraction of the price. The compression level of the ones I can find in the UK is identical to the expensive “sports” ones I’ve got.

  2. Jay Dolmage
    April 10th, 2009 at 17:39 | #2

    Hey Alex,

    Just found the site for the first time today after seeing some of your articles on the Globe site (which I read daily to remember that I am Canadian). Great stuff here. I wonder if anyone has done a comparison between the performance of athletes in compression attire and the performance of hair metal bands. Seems like you could introduce some dummy variables somehow to get something conclusive. See:

  3. alex
    April 10th, 2009 at 21:18 | #3

    Thanks for the great post and the link, Maryka. That sounds like a very tangible effect from the socks — it’s very hard for anyone to tell if they’re running 2% more efficiently, but it’s pretty obvious if your shin splints have disappeared! I look forward to seeing a racing pic with the classic knee-high white socks…

  4. alex
    April 10th, 2009 at 21:28 | #4

    Jay, I think that could be the topic of a entire doctoral dissertation. Actually, when I started researching this topic, I kept coming across references to seminal role of 70s and 80s metal bands (particularly NWOBHM bands, apparently, which I didn’t even realize stood for New Wave Of British Heavy Metal) in popularizing compression tights. What we need is a study like this one that controls for spandex use…

  5. Jay Dolmage
    April 26th, 2009 at 00:28 | #5

    The Brunel U. study is incredible. Like I needed another reason to listen to Glenn Frey. Will you be racing at all this summer?

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