I am seeing them everywhere! I used to see them only on the running trail. Now I go to the gym to pound some iron and I see them there. I go run a Tough Mudder and they are there too. I am even starting to see them popping up on weekly training rides now with the local cycling club, which is unusual in that pseudo-Euro-wannabe, clean-shaven leg, fashionista, wine and cheese crowd. You know what I am talking about, those knee-high compression socks and sleeves.
Endurance athletes are notorious for searching out and dropping money on the newest fad to assist their efforts in setting another PR. Manufacturers promise the world as they peddle their wares to the unsuspecting and often times gullible public in a campaign to separate you from your hard-earned coin. The established medical community has been using basically the same thing for decades in an effort to treat things like deep vein thrombosis, varicose veins, lymphedema, etc. The question is, do compression sleeves work for endurance athletes too?
Let’s start by outlining a couple of concepts on human anatomy and physiology that will aid you in your thought process on the subject of compression. A basic understanding of how blood flows through the body is the key to discerning how compression sleeves work. The heart pumps oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to our extremities. The blood flows through progressively smaller arteries until it reaches a capillary bed where the oxygen and nutrients are exchanged for CO2 and lactic acid, the waste product of a working muscle. The deoxygenated blood returns to the heart via veins before the heart circulates it back to the lungs to be reoxygenated. Easy enough?
We want to supply the working muscle with as much oxygen and nutrient-rich blood as we can and remove as much lactic acid as we can. If we get a buildup of lactic acid we will severely hamper the muscle’s efficiency and increase muscle soreness as well.
Now that we have established how the circulatory system works and what our bodies physiologically need, we can look at the science behind compression sleeves. Compression sleeves and socks work with graduated compression. All that means is that they aid in venous return back to the heart by providing higher or tighter compression at the bottom around the ankle and progressively less compression as you move up the lower leg to the knee.
Recent studies show that compression causes arteries to dilate which will increase the delivery of oxygen and nutrient rich blood by up to 30%. At the same time constricting veins will increase the velocity of blood back to the heart. Think of putting your thumb over the brass opening of a garden hose while there is water running through it. You didn’t change the volume of water passing through the hose, but when you constrict the diameter of the opening with your thumb the rate of flow goes up significantly. That is exactly what is going on in your veins under compression. So we increased the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the worn out muscle and at the same time we sped up the rate of evacuating lactic acid, which will hamper our recovery if we don’t get rid of it. That, my friends, is a win-win! It’s not hard to understand how compression will aid recovery when we look at the science of it.
Now that we have established scientifically that compression sleeves are beneficial to recovery, is there any reason to wear them during competition or training sessions as well? This isn’t as clear-cut as far as I can tell. There just isn’t much evidence out there to clearly show a benefit of wearing compression garments during exercise. Those studies that have been conducted and have shown improvement in performance did not use a control or a placebo, which makes it impossible to tell if the improved performance was a result of compression or from the test subject’s impression of the compression garment.
I can tell you from my own personal experience, I do use compression sleeves for recovery purposes and they do seem to speed up my rate of recovery. In fact, I store them in my running gear bag and I usually head straight from the finishing shoot in a race to my car to don them as soon as possible after I cross the line. I haven’t worn them during workouts myself, but I have yet to see anything touting any problems with wearing them while working out. So no harm, no foul right? What is your personal experience with them? Drop a comment and let us know!