Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Compression Garments May Aid Recovery

It seems that one constant piece of equipment used among athletes spanning multiple sports is compression garments. Usually these are shorts worn under the uniform but they may be full-length, head-to-toe garments. Compression garments are generally marketed to improve performance, prevent injury and aid recovery. Several years ago, the SSO reported on a study that showed minimal effects of compression shorts on performance, muscle strains or delayed-onset muscle soreness when they were worn during exercise (link).  More recently, researchers in the UK  systematically analyzed several key studies that focused wearing compression garments during recovery. They found a consensus that compression garments may have modest effects on recovery by limiting muscle soreness and improving the next day’s performance.


The researchers conducted a meta-analysis using previously published research studies. As mentioned in our previous post (link), a meta-analysis is a compilation of multiple research studies with a goal of arriving at an unbiased, consensus result on a particular topic. The studies selected for this research project included experiments where subjects performed exercises designed to evoke delayed-onset muscle soreness. In each study, half of the subjects wore a compression garment during and/or after exercise while the other half wore regular workout clothing.

The individual studies focused on three key variables measured 24-72 hours after exercise: muscle strength/power, muscle soreness and muscle damage. Using the 12 well-designed studies, the researchers found that muscle strength and power was greater in the compression garment groups compared to those not wearing thee garments. The differences were small (considered moderate by the investigators), but they were statistically significant.

Thus, wearing a compression garment after an intense match or difficult training session can improve recovery be decreasing muscle soreness and muscle damage and by aiding performance during subsequent days’ training or matches. Given that the effects are considered moderate, players will likely still experience some pain and weakness the day after a difficult match or training session. However, the compression garments may blunt this effect (albeit moderately) and enable the player to perform a bit better the next day.

The researchers argue that compression garments may reduce swelling and improve circulation to the exercised muscles. This, in turn may limit microscopic damage to the muscle fibers and reduce inflammation. The result is that pain is reduced and performance is better maintained. There is some debate whether or not this is actually the case but it is a reasonable idea that has some research support.

The hours after many away matches are spent traveling with players seated in a car or on a bus. This is the case for youth players as well as high school and college teams. In a sitting position, the legs are below the heart and players can experience considerable blood pooling and swelling in the legs. By wearing full length compression tights, some of this pooling and swelling may be reduced. This is particularly the case after an exercise bout. This may be a situation where compression garments are beneficial to the recovery process, particularly full-length tights that cover the thigh and calves. None of the studies specifically looked at recovery following a match and sitting for a prolonged period. However, given that compression garments seem to prevent muscle swelling and improve circulation, it seems reasonable to suggest that they would benefit athletes facing a long car or bus ride home.

It is always nice to provide evidence-based advice about a product, diet supplement or training routine. Too often products are marketed with faulty logic and little research to back up their claims. In this case, the research suggests that compression garments may have moderately beneficial effects on recovery after intense exercise. They may be particularly useful following away matches where teams must spend the post-match period travelling.

Reference

Hill J, van Someren K, Leeder J, Pedlar C (2013) Compresion garments and recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage: a meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-092456