Compression garments have become commonplace at endurance events, especially long-distance running races, multi-day cycling stage races and triathlons.
In terms of efficacy, the principle by which compression garments work is sound and has, in fact, been used by top athletes for many years.
Flushing the system
Physiologically speaking, the compression concept works similarly to ice baths, which causes your peripheral vascular and muscular system to constrict, forcing blood, lactate and metabolic by-products out of the muscle and into the bloodstream.
This increases venous return to the heart and core, where by-products are expelled, blood is reheated and re-oxygenated by the heart and lungs, and the vascular system can also return lymph to the lymph nodes more efficiently. And compression garments aim to elicit the same response.
Therapeutic-rated fabric is combined to create graduated compression, where the degree of pressure applied to the skin and muscle gradually decreases from the outer extremities towards the body’s mid-section, creating a pressure gradient.
Through this process, compression garments can aid the recovery process, sending oxygen-rich blood back to working or recovering muscles and flushing by-products and lactate.
This graduated compression also forces the veins to constrict to a normal diameter, making the valves function correctly and assists the cardiovascular system with its primary function.
And they control the size of superficial veins, stopping them from over-expanding with blood. This prevents a physiological event called ‘pooling’, allowing venous blood to flow more quickly up the leg towards the heart.
There have been other benefits associated with using compression garments, like reducing the vibrational forces experienced by the muscles during exercise. This subsequently reduces muscle oscillations, which are a contributing factor to muscle fatigue, as well as soft tissue damage and micro-trauma.
Due to the size of the musculature in our legs and their relation to our heart, wearing compression tights, shorts and socks tend to provide the greatest benefit.
Degrees of compression
The compression is measured in millimetres of mercury (mm Hg), a unit measure of pressure, and varies per region.
Choosing the right pressure is vital and is usually a factor of fit and fabric composition. The fabric used must be high quality and requires consistency of stretch and weave in both directions to effectively perform its function.
Other aspects like the modular consistency of weight and tightness of the weave are also important for compression gear to work properly.
And good moisture management in a compression garment worn during activity is vital for athlete comfort as this avoids chaffing.