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 too, just quietly. Since adopting the trend in 2010 I've pondered; do they improve my exercise ability? I did a little bit of digging to find out. Hopefully this article can offer some useful at point-of-purchase info about activewear.


Let me begin with a list, for and against the use of Activewear:

PROs

  • They are warm. In cold climates (personal experience down to about -10 celcius) they offer sufficient chill protection under a pair of jeans.
  • The placebo is real. I make a habit of wearing compression/gym gear when I'm hungover. I believe that it tricks my mind into thinking I'm feeling good enough to work out. When I'm not hungover, I feel more equipped and dedicated to running or doing some yoga because I look the part.
  • They soak up sweat. Running goes hand in hand with sweating, and compression gear soaks it up and stops splattering and wet sock incidents from happening. Thats a good thing.

CONs

  • 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 that daggy promotional t-shirt you were going to throw away, but ended up converting into a gym shirt. 
  • The social hit. You may 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. 

Do compressions offer the human body a physiological benefit when engaging in HIIT, 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 trackletes use of leg compression gear. The study concluded that compression garments would only lighten the wallets of mid to long-distance runners, where '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 also involving compression garments were analysed. They found that in shorter and more intense styles of 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, humankinetics.com and TIME magazine often pointing to the same collection of vaguely conclusive studies, one can surmise:

  • 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 in some cases, rather than premeditated propaganda.

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

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.

But is there any science behind wearing super sleek compression gear for performance enhancement?

As academia goes, spitting out a clear answer is often difficult.

In 2009 Professor Abigail Laymon from Indiana University made a study of male runners and the effects of compression leggings on their running performance, economy and recovery. She found that

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

In an interview with the New Zealand Herald, 2012, Professor Andrew Kilding also suggested that

'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' again points to a psychological response to wearing compression gear, rather than a physiological one. This leads me to conclude that

compression leggings do help recovery, make you feel fit and 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. Checkout these lists of ethical activewear manufacturers - List 1 & List 2