What cyclist wouldn’t be interested in improving recovery, increasing performance, and minimizing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)?   I pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars trying to increase my performance by fractions of a percentage.  Not to mention countless hours of training and various recovery techniques.

Compression garments have been the new fad over the past couple years.  They make some pretty tall claims to market their products.  I went and paid $140 for a set of Skins compression tights to see what all the fuss was about.  Do I think they work?  Well, I think so – I’m not really sure.   I feel like I recover better the next day if I put my Skins on right after a hard ride.  But do they really work?  Is there some hard evidence that prove it?

I’ve talked to many people about how compression garments work. The consensus is the same as what’s said on many of the manufacturer’s websites:

Compression garments  are designed to apply a balanced and accurate surface pressure over specific body parts, it triggers an acceleration of blood flow. This increases oxygen delivery to working muscles to enhance their performance.  The circulation improvements also help the body to eliminate lactic acid and other metabolic wastes. The combination of these effects allows you to work at a higher rate for longer.

The improved oxygenation is most marked in recovery from exercise. As a result, muscle repair is accelerated, with a greater effect if your compression garments are worn for longer, The best effects on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which can last for more than 48 hours, are seen after 8 hours during which time pain, muscle weakness and alertness are dramatically improved.

After hours of scouring through sports science journals that research this topic, I’ve found little evidence that suggests that compression garments decrease injury, decrease muscle soreness, or increase performance and recovery. I should point out that the best article that I’ve found about this topic is done by Dr Victor J. Runco and this was the starting point for this blog post.

The Journal of Science Medicine and Sport 2009, Jan 6 compared the effects of compression garments on recovery of evoked and voluntary performance following fatiguing exercise. Eleven participants performed 2 sessions separated by 7 days, with and without lower-body compression garments during and 24 h post-exercise.  The conclusion was  the effects of compression garments on voluntary performance and recovery were minimal; however, reduced levels of perceived muscular soreness were reported following recovery in the garments.

The Journal Sports Medicine in 2006; 36(9):781-96 compared multiple recovery methods between training sessions to see if athletes could benefit from one vs. another.  Recovery methods such as stretching, ice, massage and compression have claimed to enhance the rate of blood lactate removal following exercise, reduce severity and duration of muscle injury and DOMS.  The conclusion was “no substantial evidence to support the use of recovery modalities between training sessions in trained athletes”.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine Jul; 41(7):409-14 compared three types of compression garments on throwing and sprint performance.  They reported “no benefit when wearing compression garments for sprint or throwing performance; however, the use of garments as a recovery tool, when worn after exercise, may be beneficial to reduce post exercise trauma and perceived muscle soreness”.

The Journal of Sports Science 2008 Sep; 26(11):1135-45 studied the effect of recovery strategies on physical performance and fatigue on basketball players.  There were 3 recovery strategies.  Carbohydrates and stretching, ice bath and full leg compression garments.  The conclusion was that “cold water immersion promotes better restoration of physical performance measures than carbohydrates and stretching or compression garments”.

Even on the Skins website they have a link to “research”.  This was the closest thing that I could find to supporting claims that compression garments do in fact work.  When you open up the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2006) 5, 106-114, the conclusion states “the data suggests that wearing compressions garments in the recovery from eccentric exercise may alter the inflammatory response to damage and may alter the repair process inside the muscle. However, further studies are warranted to confirm any alteration in muscle recovery consequent to wearing compression garments…

Well then, do compression garments have a place in cycling and athletics?