People ask me about compression garments a lot. Partly because they kinda feel guilty for wanting to wear them for the slimming effects while knowing very little about any training benefits, partly because there’s a bit of concern for why the darn things are so tight. I mean, for crying out loud – bandage dresses are enough! I gotta wear bandage workout clothes, too?!
Compression garments are more than body-shaping garments, although I won’t lie – they’ll certainly shape you up. In my mind, they have three key components: blood flow concentration, moisture wicking, and body control.
Most compression garments are made of moisture-wicking materials, that pulls sweat away from your body and keeps you from feeling like you’ve got what I lovingly refer to as “swamp booty,” that hot, sticky, sweaty feeling that makes you feel gross and – depending on how bad it is – can make you quit your workout early.
Now, granted, you can certainly get moisture-wicking material outside of compression garments, but since most compression garments are tight enough that the added moisture could cause problems in the genital area, you’d be hard pressed to find compression garments that aren’t moisture-wicking.
Compression garments help with body control, because if you’ve got a jiggly booty or jiggly thighs, compression garments hold it all in a bit better. And, while that could seem like an appearance issue, it’s more so a physical one – think of a woman with a large chest, working out with an improperly-sized sports bra. Her breasts might wind up tiring her out faster than normal, all because there’s this extra “stuff,” for lack of a better phrase, jiggling around. In the midst of a weight loss journey, loose skin in the thighs, in the lower gluteal area, the lower tummy, and the arms can affect how you perform… but the only person who can determine that is you.
Your average quality compression garment will also assist with blood flow concentration, because the right compression garments are going to tighten in certain places – like the joints – and loosen in other places, like your major muscle groups, in order to encourage blood flow and movement of lactic acid (if your muscles are sore, chances are high this stuff is around.)
Lots of marketing for compression garments will lead you to believe these things can make you run faster, jump higher, and perform like a professional athlete. Never forget that the only thing that could possibly make you perform like a professional athlete is actually training like one. While blood flow support is valuable, the benefits of it are being manipulated a bit, here.
The greatest performance-based benefit to compression garments – at least in my mind – is how they help blood flow more efficiently through muscle groups, therefore helping transport oxygen throughout the body, transports glycogen – think carbs – to the muscles (which is necessary for fuel and staving off fatigue), and carrying lactic acid away from the muscles and out of the system entirely. Because blood flow is what helps facilitate all of that, the added squeezes – when applied in the right locations and loosened in others – makes it do its job a bit more effectively and efficiently.
Take this quote from Deadspin:
But I did notice one very helpful benefit—I felt better the day after a long run in compression tights.
That mattered, because training isn’t just about one run on a given day. To log enough miles each week, I have to do long runs on back-to-back days, especially over the weekend. On Saturday, I’ll go for 10 to 12 miles and follow up on Sunday with five to six more. When I wore compression on a Saturday, I felt less muscle soreness and fatigue when I ran on Sunday. That ability to bounce back made for a more effective training run.
But I worried that this could just be a placebo effect. Did I feel better merely because I had convinced myself that my tights had done the trick? Researchers in New Zealand found a way to control for that. In a study published in the February issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and broken down on Runner’s World’s Sweat Science blog, cyclists rode 40-kilometer time trials, then did the time trials again the next day.
During the 24 hours between rides, the cyclists were given tights to wear, but they weren’t told that some were wearing basic spandex tights and the others compression. A week later, they did the trial again, except this time those who had worn spandex the week before got compression tights and vice versa. On the second-day rides, cyclists went 1.2 percent faster when they wore compressing gear during recovery as opposed to spandex.
What’s the underlying biological mechanism that allowed for greater recovery? The researchers weren’t sure, but speculated that increased blood flow helped restock the muscles with their fuel, glycogen. In the Aussie study above, the scientists speculated that compression could aid recovery by helping to clear metabolic waste. Whatever was at work, I certainly felt better. [source]
When it comes to “improved performance,” this is where it comes from. Suppose you’ve got a training schedule where you rest on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, with back-to-back runs on Monday and Tuesday. If compression garments aid recovery and recovery aids performance, then the day you’d most likely experience enhanced performance would be the Tuesday. A back-to-back run means you’d go into your Tuesday run with decreased buildup of soreness-inducing acids and improved recovery, allowing you to perform better than you otherwise would’ve had you not worn compression garments. Make sense?
Someone also mentioned that track and field athletes used to wear this stuff, but under actual workout clothing. They’re made in different ways, now – there’s still the traditional under layer of compression garments, one thin layer of elastic meant to get the job done, but there’s also the kind of compression garments that are well built for being their own outer layer. Some brands even make styles that are both compression AND figure-slimming – most people simply go without the extra layer on top.
Couldn’t you just wear regular tights or leggings? Regular leggin’s are going to be flimsy and possibly too thin for someone to actually work out in. I know people think that’s cute and all, and it might be… but if I’m in the gym – even if I’m in the gym tryin’ to get a boo – I certainly wouldn’t try to catch them by sharing my panties with the entire gym floor. And “being cute” isn’t enough to justify exposing yourself. I’m sure you’re cute enough, without even having to see your undies to determine it.
And actually, depending on the size of your booty in proportion to the rest of your body, you may want to try on any pair of compression tights you want before you actually buy them. Squat in them and make sure you’re not sharing your goodie bag with the world, bend over in them and make sure they don’t slide down from the top, and pretend-jog in them to make sure they don’t fall down. Make sure you’re not playing yourself – test them out.
My personal compression recommendations? I own several pairs of the Nike dri-fit compression tights, that actually come with fleece on the inside to keep you warm in winter weather running. (And I’ve written about the Under Armour Coldgear before!) They’re pretty boss. Nike and Under Armour make the best ones that I’ve trained in personally. And, for the sizes that those brands may not accommodate, Old Navy makes compression tights that have been getting rave reviews. You can also talk to your doctor about getting referrals for prescription compression garments, which I believe are available in sizes outside of what many major brands carry.
In terms of compression shirts, Tommie Copper makes some of the best ones I’ve ever worn. A copper-infused nylon material joins forces with an out-of-this-world spandex for one of the best, most resilient fits ever – the shirts are long enough and sturdy enough that they don’t ride up, they’re long enough to be tucked in to preserve the fit in the lower body, and they come in bright colors (this is a dealbreaker for me!)
What about you? Do you wear compression garments? What’s your favorite brand? Who has comments? Questions? Let’s hear ’em!