Full-body compression makes your heart work harder


As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


Quick look at a study just posted in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, from researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand. They investigated the effects of full-body compression garments (Skins) on cyclists, looking in particular at three outcomes:

  1. Did it make the cyclists faster?
  2. What effect did it have on their body temperature?
  3. What effect did it have on their cardiovascular workload?

To separate the effects of compression from the effects of wearing a full-body suit in reasonably warm temperatures (24 C), the subjects each did three trials: a control trial in gym shorts; a trial with “properly fitting” Skins; and a trial with oversize Skins. The results:

  1. No difference in cycling performance
  2. Skin temperature was higher by 0.5-0.9 C during exercise when wearing compression gear, but core temperature was unaffected.
  3. Their hearts had to work about 5% harder with the compression gear on, and they finished with a heart rate 4-7% higher than in the control condition.

The authors make their skepticism clear pretty much from the start: the first sentence of the abstract is “Sporting compression garments are used widely during exercise despite little evidence of benefits.” They make several interesting points in the paper — for instance, the vast majority of “evidence” cited for increased venous flow and reduced venous pooling comes from studies of people (generally with some sort of circulatory condition) at rest. Do the same findings apply during exercise? It may be that the “calf muscle pump” — the squeezing of the calf that shoots blood back toward the heart, which supposedly gets a boost from compression socks — is already acting at maximal capacity during vigorous exercise.

Bottom line from this study: the garments didn’t really make much difference (the mild changes in temperature and cardiovascular function, though negative, weren’t enough to be a big issue). The authors are careful to note that the study has nothing to do with whether compression garments help recovery. But as far as wearing them during exercise, this certainly doesn’t change my opinion that wearing a full-body speed-suit while jogging on a hot summer day (and I see plenty of people doing that here in Sydney!) may look cool, but doesn’t do anything for your performance.

10 Replies to “Full-body compression makes your heart work harder”

  1. another great example of a sporting product duping the general public of it’s performance enhancing games without any credible evidence. I suppose there is some evidence for recovery benefits with the compression gear, but they charge exorbitant prices for what are actually just “tight socks”! This reminds me of the power band phenomenon. I’ve seen power bands (a 25cent product) on sale for $40! They claim a simple hologram will make you stronger…..

  2. Thanks for this Alex,
    I’ve always found compression an interesting area, and one where it’s tough to tell if the proof is just coming from the manufacturer.
    It would be interesting to know if the negative effects mentioned returned to baseline (recovered) quicker with or without compression.

  3. But what if you use compression during training to increase the load on the heart, and then don’t wear it during competition. %5 additional pure cardio stress without additional muscle stress sounds like a good idea to me.

  4. @EJ: Great cartoon! Thanks for posting it.

    @Luke: Yes, continuing to measure after the exercise stopped would add another dimension to the study, for sure.

    @example: “%5 additional pure cardio stress without additional muscle stress sounds like a good idea to me.” Interesting idea — though exactly the opposite of what the manufacturers claim! My sense is that heart function, on its own, is seldom the limiting factor in well-trained athletes, but it’s certainly a complex topic.

    @Jenny: “What about just socks? I think there s a reason why Paula Radcliffe wears them!” Well, yes — she wears them for the same reason she used to wear a titanium necklace and rub emu oil on her injuries (and for the same reason that Shaquille O’Neal and hundreds of other pro athletes wear bracelets with little plastic holograms on them): because she believes they work. And of course, thanks to the complex relationship between mind and body, if she believes in it, it way well help her.

    But personally, I’m also interested in whether sports technologies have a real physiological effect that isn’t mediated by the mind. In the case of compression garments, there’s no doubt that they affect the body, so the question becomes: do they affect the body in a way that can produce significant improvements in performance in a consistent and measurable way? I don’t know the answer to that right now: this study is just one very, very small piece in a complex puzzle that will be assembled over the coming years.

  5. Maybe it was the Skins… they should have tried compression garments from a few companies. Australia Institute of Sport did a study using 2XU and found that while wearing compression garments during cycling the athletes had a lower heart rate, improved performance and when they combined that with the recovery in compression, they had a greater reduction in lactate concentrations and decreased swelling… so, maybe the problem isn’t that compression garments don’t work but that you need the right compression garments.

  6. What was the temperature where these studies were being conducted? Big, open basketball courts tend to be colder than a regular sized room. especially in my gym in the winter with little insulation

  7. I have found compression tights to be very beneficial to my muscles recovering much faster after strenuous activity. Case in point, before wearing them, I conducted several hours of extremely strenuous activity that forced my leg muscles to give all they possibly could. That night I used no compression tights and awoke in the morning with legs so sore I could hardly get out of bed. This soreness took nearly a week to subside. Several months later I did the very same activity (as if I didn’t learn my lesson the first time) and again, pushed my legs to their very limit. But this time, I put on compression tights after cleaning up. I went to bed and slept in them. When I awoke the next morning, I had some soreness, but it was still less than 25% of that I delt with the first time. After another full day and night of wearing them, all muscle soreness had dissipated. I can’t help but to conclude that they do in fact, work, and work quite well for me. I am highly susceptible to DVT, so I am now wearing them almost daily while both awake and asleep. If they can keep a blood clot from forming that could travel to my lungs, then they’re well worth every dime spent. On top of that, they simply feel awesome, with the tights being so light that I practically feel naked while I’m walking around outside. Other than the feeling of my muscles being slightly compressed, the tights themselves feel like an extremely thin second skin. They provide a complete freedom of movement for all my muscles and make my legs feel considerably cooler with them on then when I just go out while wearing shorts.

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