Is your activewear slowing you down?

I've copped a fair bit of scrutiny from friends about my wearing of athletic tights. I wear them regularly when at the gym, running and also as a base layer in cold climates. I usually continue to wear them for most of the day around exercise too, just quietly. Since adopting the trend in 2010, I've pondered, do they improve my exercising? I thought I could do a little bit of digging to find out. This research will fall under the more considered consumption side of The Ponderance as I will hopefully offer some info, useful at point-of-purchasing-activewear.

The first thing I would like to do is list my personal pro's & con's:

  • PRO'S:
  • They are warm. In cold climates (personal experience down to about -10 celcius) they are sufficient chill protection under a pair of jeans.
  • The placebo is real. I make a habit of wearing compression/gym gear when I'm hung over. I believe it tricks my mind in to thinking I'm feeling good enough to work out. When I'm not hungover, I feel more equipped and more dedicated to running or the gym because I look the part, making me less self conscious at the gym or running.
  • They soak up sweat. Running goes hand in hand with sweating, compression gear soaks it up and stops splattering and wet sock incidents from happening. Thats a good thing.
  • CON'S:
  • The lumpy aesthetic. For the men, modesty shorts are vital.
  • The Lies. For the ladies ( and the odd guy), particularly in more juice-bar-filled suburbs, compression garments are specifically designed for active moments in one's day, not pottering about the shops (see parody video below). This directly relates to my hungover point above. I'm not protecting myself at all.
  • The expense. The brand name compression garments are usually more expensive than the daggy promotional t-shirt you were going to throw away, but ended up converting to a gym shirt. 
  • The social hit. You can, quite easily, look like a wanker in them.


Now on to a bit of actual research...

The first and foremost claim is that compression gear boosts your athletic performance. The beneficial effects of compression gear is flogged most heavily to runners and cross-trainers. With this in mind:

Do compressions offer the human body a physiological benefit when engaging in HIT, cross-training or athletic exercise?

The short answer is - no for runners, yes for the gym. Last year, the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University studied 16 high-end, track-letes wearing leg compression gear. The speedy subjects were involved in a test of compression garment performance, that concluded that mid to long-distance runners would only get a lighter wallet from the compression garments. The studied showed 'lower-leg compression does not alter the energetics of running... through changes in running mechanics'. However, in more high intensity or short-burst activities you will benefit from the bio-mechanical support of compression garments.

In a 2013 study by the Department of  Sport Science at the University of Wuppertal, Germany dozens of peer-reviewed studies involving compression garments were analysed. The study found that in both shorter and more intense exercise, compression garments did in fact help - not a great deal - but they helped boost performance and recovery. The specific areas that were cited for receiving the most benefit were sprinting up to 60m, vertical-jump height, delaying exhaustion and time trial performance. So those cross-fit sessions, gym classes and weeknight social sport meets are definitely a great place to wear your tights. 

This opinion appears repeat itself all over the web. With well respected sources such as MensJournal, RunnersWorld, and TIME magazine often pointing to the same collection of vaguely conclusive studies, one can draw the following conclusions:

  • Compression gear does help recovery after exercise, not dramatically, but it does.
  • Compression gear does offer your body some bio-mechanical support when exercising.
  • There are no negative side-effects from wearing them.

Some of the leading manufacturers of compression clothing are only too happy to offer studies that prove the benefits of their products. This seems fair enough, and even appears to be genuine research not paid propaganda in some cases.

Take SKINS for example, I've been brand-loyal to SKINS for years now and I can't fault them, they are comfortable, I love how they look and I offer them no extra care when throwing them in the wash with my other dirty clothing. On the SKINS website you will find 12 scholarly studies pointing to various areas of benefit their clothing offers, from athletic performance to avoiding DVT during air travel. According to SKINS their products (and all reputable brands of compression clothing) offers proven:

  • increases venous return
  • reduces exercise induced muscle damage (EIMD)
  • accelerates recovery processes
  • removes lactic acid faster
  • increases strength and power
  • improves endurance
  • increases muscle oxygenation
  • improves body temperature control
  • reduces in-flight ankle oedema

The research backs this up and it is enough for me to take my SKINS out of the Red Cross clothing donation bag for this month.

But the area I find most interesting is the psychological effect of compression gear. I've already admitted to my own feelings of appropriateness at the gym in my tights.

Is there any science behind wearing super cool compression gear and performance enhancement?

The New Zealand Herald sat down with Professor Andrew Kilding in 2012 to discuss the compression trend. Kilding pointed to the same conclusions about performance during exercise, but explained 'athletes tend to feel as if they have recovered better after wearing them (compression clothing) but more often than not it doesn't translate to a better subsequent performance'. The bit where he says 'athletes tend to feel as if they have recovered better' points to a psychological response to wearing compression gear. My research in to this more specific area offered reiterations of the benefit levels during and after exercise, but not many people are speaking separately of the psychological influence of compression clothing sans physiological chat. 

I won't bother you with the mud sifting research I did, I will simply point to Professor Abigail Laymon from Indiana University's thesis. Her thesis, published in 2009, studies male runners and the effects compression leggings have on the running performance, economy and recovery. It is a long paper so I'll sum the relevant bits up with this quote:

'the positive impact of compression sleeves seen in some athletes may have a psychological basis' (page 51)

As academia goes, spitting out a clear answer is often difficult so Prof. Laymon has both avoided contention and avoided digression from her core topic here. Still it points to how I personally feel about compressions, how the web talks about it, how the PT's and fitness insta-stars are talking about them...

They do help recovery, they certainly make you feel fit and ready for a workout and they have no real negative effects.

If you are going to go out and grab a pair of leggings, or if you already love them, please think ethically about your purchase. I found two lists of brands with some crossovers that point to ethical activewear manufacturers: List 1 & List 2