The Basics of Compression Garments
Compression garments can help your legs feel fresh and enhance your performance while riding.
Compression garments have been used for medical purposes for quite a few decades, but their appearance in the realm of sports only goes back a fraction of that time. The idea is that by compressing the tissue of the body part, blood flow is enabled and edema is prevented. Compression is widely used for injuries, as well as chronic conditions, such as diabetes. But, the question remains, is it a viable option to increase athletic performance, be it speed or endurance? And, if so, how do you know what to buy?
While research into compression’s effectiveness in sport is ongoing, there are several studies that provide evidence that, when used properly, compression garments can enable positive performance effects. In New Zealand, for example, a study1 at Lincoln University took 22 well-trained male rugby-union players and put them in either full-leg compression tights or a similar-looking, non-compressive placebo to wear continuously for 24 hours after performing a series of circuits developed to simulate a rugby game. After the 24-hour recovery, garments were removed and they did 10 x 40 m sprints at 30-second intervals, followed by a 3 km run 10 minutes later. One week after the trials, the groups were reversed and testing repeated.
When wearing the compression tights, times for the 3 km run decreased, average sprint times improved and fatigue was diminished during the repeated sprint test. On top of all this, 48 hours after testing the delayed onset muscle soreness was substantially lower in the compression group compared to the placebo group.
While the science is a bit convoluted, the general consensus is that compression garments function to enhance performance in several ways. First, on a biophysical level, they help increase blood circulation and oxygen delivery to muscles, improving athletic performance. This increased blood flow to muscles helps to remove unwanted chemicals, such as the by-products of lactic-acid accumulation. By removing these toxins, post-exercise fatigue and soreness are reduced. Additionally, compression shorts or tights help to reduce the slight muscle oscillations that occur from continuous road vibration. This may also assist with increasing endurance.
On a biomechanical level, the muscle-conforming fit of the garments helps to refine proprioception. Proprioception is your awareness of how your body moves and is positioned while exercising or responding to stimuli, such as climbing on your bike or running. By increasing this perception, you are able to improve your efficiency by utilizing the correct muscles for the motion, rather than relying upon other muscles to take up slack for biomechanical or strength deficiencies. This subsequently may aide in reducing the risk of injury.
Finally, compression gear often functions to wick sweat away from your skin, acting as an evaporative cooling system. Increased core temperature is frequently related to a decrease in performance.
What to Wear
If you have any medical issues, such as diabetes or circulation problems, talk with your doctor to be sure that compression garments are safe for you to wear.
For most cyclists, wearing compression calf sleeves or socks while riding is an option. The only downside is that during the summer, even if they wick sweat, they do get warm. Another option is to look for riding shorts that have compression built into them. While the form-fit of Lycra fabrics are already slightly compressive, a few brands, such as Assos and 2XU (to name a few), feature specifically designed compression riding shorts. Shorts will compress your quads and glutes which are the primary muscles used while riding, and they will also reduce road vibration, which sometimes leads to that deep muscle “itchy” feeling.
For maximum benefits, wearing a set of compression tights for a few hours post-ride will help your legs recover faster and reduce muscle soreness. Personally, I prefer tights that have built-in footies rather than a bottom hem as I find extending the compression beyond my ankles to my feet assists with recovery, but there are many styles available. If tights are not to your liking, a set of compression socks will also do the trick. They are especially nice to wear if you have to be on your feet all day at work after a morning ride. In fact, many people now rely upon compression socks just to keep their legs energized during the workday.
Remember to bring your tights or socks to the Empire State Ride as putting them on each evening will help you feel fresh for the following day. They do not need to be washed daily, and as with other Lycra clothing, hand washing and air-drying is the best way to increase their lifespan.
As far as fit, every company sizes tights differently. While some use waist measurement, others rely upon calf or thigh circumference. It is best to start with the size that matches your measurements. Once you are accustomed, you may wish to size down to increase compression. However, restricting blood flow too much will have the opposite of a beneficial effect and may be harmful. Don’t try to squeeze into the smallest size available.
Remember, there is no magic pill when it comes to training. Compression garments are just one relatively inexpensive way to assist your body with recovery and, so far, studies agree that the effects are generally positive. It’s just one more item to have in your arsenal to help you train effectively for the Empire State Ride.
1 Hamlin MJ, Mitchell CJ, Ward FD, Draper N, Shearman JP, Kimber NE. Effect of compression garments on short-term recovery of repeated sprint and 3-km running performance in rugby union players.