Compression Garments: Moving Into Athletics

Previously, we discussed the mechanism by which compression garments aid people from a healthcare perspective as well as how their mechanism of action may not work in athletes.   However, as often seen in science and medicine, tools can be employed in ways not originally intended with great benefit. This is often due to some other mechanism of action.  So, appropriately, the data assessing the actual efficacy of the tool is important.  As a result, we review several recent studies regarding the use of compression garments as training and recovery tools.
Very little evidence can be found in recent literature supporting the use of compression stockings during or after exercise.  Studies vary from comparing explosive type movements to submaximal endurance activity.  For instance, Dufield and Portlus (2007) had cricket players wear compression garments with sprinting and throwing exercise.  No benefit was seen in a second round of testing in sprint, throwing and submaximal exercise performance.  This has been confirmed when looking at training with repeated bouts of high intensity activity (Duffield et al. 2008; Pruscino, Halson, & Hargreaves 2013).  Measuring common physiological variables, researchers have shown a lack of benefit when comparing VO2max and blood lactate levels when the garments are worn during exercise.  Further, there was no difference in performance in well trained athletes when comparing compression stockings, socks, and whole body garments (Sperlich et al. 2010).
Commonly, as coaches we emphasize the principal of specificity in training.  This is the idea that training has to be tailored to the sport and specific to its demands.  Scientific literature also falls under this principal when evaluating variables.  And as such, research specific to endurance performance has been done to evaluate the effectiveness of compression garments.  Ali, Cane, and Snow (2010) found that 10K run performance was not affected when compression garments were worn during the event. More specific to cycling, no benefit was seen during time trial performance.  Additionally, a positive effect under the theory of improved circulation was not seen in regards to lactate threshold, VO2, heart rate, and gas exchange at the working muscle (Scanlan, Dascombe, Reaburn, & Osborne 2008).  And while not performed with endurance sports, the work of Montgomery et al. (2008) evaluated the efficacy of the garments under three day tournament conditions with basketball players.  This would be similar to a stage race or a weekend with racing on consecutive days.  Again, a benefit with compression garments as a recovery modality was not seen.  This is especially true when compared to cold water therapy, which, in itself has its own strengths and weaknesses.
With the bulk of the data showing a lack of support for the use of compression garments, it is important to note that there have been studies showing possible benefits.  Several of these studies, their applicability to competition, as well as issues with the designs and finding will be evaluated in the next posting.