Compression gear is unregulated but beneficial, despite negative study, says AIS

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The Australian Institute of Sport encourages all of their athletes to use compression gear and says weekend warriors should also consider using it, despite a new study which found that wearing compression gear didn’t result in performance improvements.

For the small study, by researchers at Ohio State University, 10 male athletes were asked to run for 30 minutes at 80 per cent, on one occasion while they wore compression tights and on a separate occasion wearing ordinary workout gear.

Using motion capture technology, heart rate monitors and load sensors, they tracked effort, fatigue (the more fatigued the heavier the load is through the foot when we run) and how much the muscles wobbled.   

“When your muscle vibrates, it induces a contraction that uses energy, so the theory was that less muscle vibration would translate to less fatigue,” explained the study’s lead author, Ajit Chaudhari, an associate professor of physical therapy, orthopedics, mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering. “However, the reduced vibration was not associated with any reduction in fatigue at all.”

Chaudhari added: “In our study, runners performed the same with and without compression tights.”

Shona Halson, the senior recovery physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) said the findings were contrary to other research.

She notes studies where compression worn between two 5-kilometre time trials resulted in an improvement of up to 10 seconds, a1.5 per cent improvement in cyclists, a reduction in swelling of one centimetre around the thigh after exercise and faster recovery with less soreness and fatigue. 

“There are multiple factors for what is seen as a discrepancy,” Halson said, suggesting that studies showing positive effects are less likely to get media coverage.

“There’s been a number of meta analyses which examine all kinds of compression research, not just the ones we’ve done but studies around the world. There’s been about four or five of these that show compression actually works. The evidence is there.”

Halson notes however that compression wear is “completely unregulated”.

“So you can have a pair of tights that are lycra and tight-fitting and call them compression garments,” she explained.

The AIS research uses 2XU gear where the compression is graduated so the degree of tightness differs throughout the garment.

“This means the compression is doing what it is supposed to do and that’s moving the blood flow around. We have devices that can measure the pressure,” Halson said. “Potentially the reason we’ve found positive benefits is we’re actually using compression garments that work and are true compression.”

The AIS recommend compression gear for all their athletes, but not always for the same reason.

“It’s used in recovery after exercise for increasing blood flow it’s also used during exercise and, for elite athletes, one of the reasons behind that is to decrease muscle oscillation, so muscle wobble is the non-technical way of describing it. If the muscle is moving less, then potentially you may get less muscle damage and if you get less muscle damage then it might mean you get less soreness and that’s something we do hear people say a lot,” she said. 

“For some athletes it might be more beneficial during exercise, for some it’s recovery or travel and even lower level athletes – your weekend warriors – they may experience more soreness because they’re doing things intermittently, even for them the idea is that if you’re a little bit less sore or a little bit less fatigued you can go out and do an training session.”

Halson says every elite athlete, and many recreational athletes, are striving to go faster, higher, stronger.

“For us, we’re trying to push the limits of what an athlete can do and obviously the caveat for us is that it has to be legal and so here’s a safe, effective means of enhancing an athlete’s performance. Every little thing that we can do to give an athlete an edge is important.”

AIS recovery techniques

  • “We have a pretty strong focus on sleep at the moment,” Halson said. “It’s one of the best recovery strategies.” 
  • “We work around cold water immersion – ice baths.” The AIS athletes do 15 minutes at 15 degrees.
  • Compression. “Our advice to the athletes is pick the tightest pair that you can get on that’s comfortable.”
  • Nutrition
  • Massage
  • “The other area we are stepping into more than previously is psychological recovery, so relaxation, mindfulness, meditation.”    

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