Compression Clothing and Athletic Performance

July 31, 2012

You’d think wearing compression clothing was akin to donning Superman’s cape. “Increases power!” “Activates your muscles!” “Boosts energy!” Such claims are commonplace from compression-clothing purveyors like Under Armour, Nike, and SKINS, to name a few. Professional athletes, who routinely wear these garments, add a high-profile endorsement to such statements. But does compression clothing provide any actual, proven benefits?

What is Compression Clothing?
The term refers to a genre of tight-fitting garments that apply pressure to specific parts of the body, whether it’s the legs, torso, arms, or somewhere in between. Such clothes, especially compression stockings, have been used for decades in medicine to help improve patients’ blood flow, strengthen muscles, and reduce swelling, among other benefits. In theory, these same benefits could improve the athletic performance of fit and healthy individuals.

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When Theory Meets Reality
When compression theory meets medical study reality, however, the evidence for performance-enhancing effects is weak. Numerous studies have investigated the potential performance benefits of compression clothing, including increased speed, strength, and endurance. Most provide an increasing consensus that, in general, compression clothing provides essentially no improvement in athletic performance. That being said, it hasn’t been shown to reduce performance either, and a small number of studies have indicated a possible, very slight improvement by certain measures of performance. So it falls into that category of: “It won’t hurt, and it might help, even if it probably doesn’t.”

Compression Clothing Isn’t Totally Useless
Compression garments do offer some proven benefits. A number of studies have found that wearing compression garments after strenuous exercise can reduce muscle soreness and accelerate muscle recovery. Most studies looked at compression stockings, or leggings; it’s unclear how long you need to wear them to get the benefit (many study subjects wore the garments for prolonged periods in the 24 hours following exercise). Other advantages of compression clothing are also true of less compressive garments, such as increased warmth to the muscles and a moisture-wicking layer next to the skin.

Cycling, Hiking, Backpacking
When it comes to outdoor activities, most pursuits center on the lower legs. A few studies have examined the effect of compression stockings on cycling (again with no clear indications of improved performance) but nobody has looked at the potential benefits to hikers or backpackers. In theory, a compression garment could be a potentially lightweight addition to an overnight pack that could make day two less sore, swollen, and painful. Who knows, you might even have an extra spring in your step.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.