A tool in the athlete’s arsenal for speeding recovery has recently gained popularity: wearing very tight compression garments. The current generation of such compression gear has its roots in the treatment of medical conditions such as blood clots or peripheral circulatory disease. Doctors found that wearing compression socks improved blood flow from the periphery back to the heart.
Compression socks or arm garments are designed to become tighter the farther away from the heart; for example, they’re tighter around the ankle than the knee. Athletes often wear compression garments or sports tights after training sessions.
A group of scientists had volunteers perform 10 sets of 10 plyometric jumps to induce muscle damage and soreness. Half the volunteers wore compression garments on their legs for 12 hours. All the participants returned to the lab the next day for retesting. Interestingly, those who wore the compression pants had less of a decrement in their ability to jump—the non-compression group could jump only 85% of their height from the previous day, while the compression group was able to reach 95% of their initial test results.
Imagine the impact such a tool could have on a sport like volleyball, which demands explosive jumps repeatedly during a game and over the several days that make up a tournament. Furthermore, the more successful teams are, the more they have to play—and the more explosive jumping they do. The same can be said for other court-based sports like basketball.
But again, the recently discovered advantage is that using this gear reduces inflammation and swelling. This is great if you have to compete again in a matter of hours, but highly problematic if you want to stimulate the body to adapt positively over the long term. So, while the gear can be helpful in competition, or during a critical high-intensity training block, it should not be used regularly.
Interestingly, it appears that compression gear does not improve endurance performance. Some experts have suggested that compression gear could act like an extra pump, improving blood flow through the veins and back to the heart. Three research studies tested the effects of compression gear on cycling and running, and none showed that performance was improved.
So for now it looks like using compression gear for recovery after muscle-damaging exercise is the way to go, but only if you have to perform at a high level again within a relatively short time frame.