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Compression gear - what does it actually do?

Compression tights

Like botox and Shape-Ups, compression gear started off in the medical realm before becoming mainstream. Originally recommended by doctors for the prevention and treatment of conditions like deep-vein thrombosis on flights, savvy design teams were soon in on the act, changing the nana-beige-coloured stockings to sleek and slimming black, and selling them as the latest and greatest garments for gym-goers.

Each brand has their own claims about what their kit does, but the general theory is you’ll be able to work out for longer, and enjoy a shorter recovery time. Garments are designed to gradually compress the limbs (i.e. leggings are tighter at the ankle than at the knee) in order to increase circulation, getting more oxygen to muscles and decreasing the build-up of lactic acid – that pesky chemical which causes the burning feeling after a hard gym session.

How they work

Several studies have tested the benefits of compression gear, and when it comes to the “working out for longer” claim, the jury, it seems, is out. What the majority of research has found, however, is that compression garments appear to reduce recovery time – very important if you’re someone who favours back-to-back workout days.

The research behind them

In one New Zealand study, cyclists were given either spandex tights or compression stockings to wear after a 40 kilometre ride, without being told which were which. The results, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, showed that those who had worn the compression stockings during recovery rode faster the day after. In a similar Australian study, rugby players wore compression tights while doing active recovery jogs on a treadmill, and researchers noted that the compression garments helped remove lactate from their blood. A University of Connecticut study also found that wearing full body compression garments after exercise helped weightlifters reduce their fatigue and muscle soreness.

Caring for them

If you’re new to compression garments, don’t be concerned if, off the body, they look like they belong to a three-year-old. They stretch, we promise, but you can’t just pull them up like a pair of old jeans. The trick is to roll them up the leg, starting at the ankle.

It’s also a good idea to watch how often you wash them. Each time they’re put through the washing machine they lose a little of their elasticity and compressing power. Try rinsing them out in cold water and airing them between wears – if you’re wearing them for recovery you won’t have sweated heavily in them anyway. 

Recovery time (on a budget)

If you can’t justify the cost, there are other ways to speed up your recovery that don’t include forking out quite so much dosh:
Keep it moving: Try some low-intesity active recovery, like walking or swimming.
Take magnesium supplements: This will help to ease muscle soreness and fatigue.
Have a warm bath: Add some Epsom salts to relax tight muscles.
Massage: Get a family member or friend to give you a massage.

Words by Alexandra Rice