Jockology: compression garments


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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


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?

6 Replies to “Jockology: compression garments”

  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, . 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. 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. 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. 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. 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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