Maybe you've seen them in the gym, or even squeezed into them yourself: super-tight T-shirts, leggings, knee and calf sleeves, even tube tops. More and more athletes are wearing compression garments, hoping they will improve their performance and recovery.
But do they work? This is a question Abigail Stickford, a postdoctoral researcher at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, wanted to answer.
She conducted a small study using compression calf sleeves. Decades ago these were marketed to people with circulatory problems, but today they're also aimed at athletes. Manufacturers claim these garments will help improve blood flow and oxygen delivery to your muscles. Stickford says, "Those things in theory would really benefit your performance."
To test the claims, Stickford gave 16 endurance runners a pair of calf compression sleeves. Then she strapped on masks and monitors to measure the runners' gait and oxygen intake. The same routine was done without the calf sleeves as well, and "we found nothing," Stickford says. No difference.
"When we looked at the averages of our group of runners, all the measures of running gait were exactly the same with and without compression," Stickford says. "And the measures of efficiency were exactly the same."
Here's where it gets interesting. Two men who did show improvements while wearing the compression sleeves were the ones who believed the garments aided in training, racing and recovery.
"The placebo effect is a real effect. It affects performance," Stickford says. "So if you think these garments work, there's not really any harm in trying them out."
That is, if you want to shell out the cash. A long-sleeve T-shirt might go for $60, a "core band" that looks like a tube top for $40 and a full body suit for several hundred dollars.
Stickford's study, published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, was small. But larger research reviews back up the idea that compression clothing has little effect on performance.
So what is it good for? Well, possibly recovery. Compression is effective as a post-exercise recovery measure, says Daniel Cipriani, an associate professor of physical therapy at Chapman University. "Because it helps to keep down some of the swelling that occurs with all the blood flow," he says.
"During the ride, most of them liked the shirt in terms of making their back feel less fatigued and keeping them in a good posture while riding," he says. "But the majority felt it was even more useful after the ride as a recovery shirt."
Cipriani cautions that his study looked at the perceived effects of compression shirts — they didn't measure results. So it is possible that putting on the new garment had more of an effect on psychology than physiology.
Still, he says, it's worth giving compression clothes a try. While there's no evidence the clothing improves performance, there's also no evidence it's harmful.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Today in Your Health, two trends in exercise technology - both are popular, both face questions about whether they actually do any good. We'll hear in a moment about treadmill desks - yes, you heard that right - but first, compression clothing, things like super-tight T-shirts, ankle socks, knee sleeves. Some athletes believe tight-fitting garments like this help with performance and recovery. As for what science says we turn to Lauren Silverman from member station KERA.
LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Let's start with the calf sleeves. Maybe you've seen them in the gym or even squeezed into some yourself. They're tight tube-type leggings that stretch from the ankles up to the knees, and these are not being marketed to people with circulatory problems as they have been for decades. Instead, they're being sold to athletes.
ABIGAIL STICKFORD: They think that it will improve their performance.
SILVERMAN: Abigail Stickford is a postdoctoral researcher at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. She led a study to find out whether these compression sleeves really do what some manufacturers claim.
STICKFORD: They'll say that these garments help improve blood flow; that they help improve oxygen delivery to your muscles, and those things in theory would really benefit your performance.
SILVERMAN: To test the claims, Stickford gave 16 endurance runners a pair of compression sleeves. She strapped masks and monitors on them to measure their strides and oxygen intake. Then the same sprinting routine was done without the calf sleeves and...
STICKFORD: We found nothing.
SILVERMAN: That's right, nada.
STICKFORD: When we looked at the averages of our group of runners, all those measures of running gait were exactly the same, and their measures of efficiency were exactly the same.
SILVERMAN: Here's where it gets interesting - the two men who showed the most improvements were the ones who believed the sleeves aided in training, racing and recovery.
STICKFORD: The placebo effect is a very real effect. It affects performance, so, you know, if you think these garments work then there's not really any harm in trying it out.
SILVERMAN: And if you want to shell out the cash, you can buy entire compression clothing outfits. A long-sleeved shirt might go for $60. A rejuvenating core band, which looks like a tube top, goes for $40. A full body suit may be several hundred dollars. We did reach out to a few of the companies that make the clothing, but got no response. Strickland's (ph) study, published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, was small, but larger research reviews back up the idea that compression clothing has little effect on performance. So what is it good for? Well, possibly recovery.
DANIEL CIPRIANI: Compression is probably much more effective as a post-activity recovery measure because it helps to keep down some of the swelling that occurs with all the blood flow.
SILVERMAN: Daniel Cipriani is an associate professor at Chapman University in Irvine, Calif. He co-authored a study in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine on cyclists who wore compression and posture T-shirts while riding.
CIPRIANI: During the ride, most of them liked the shirt in terms of making their back feel less fatigued and keeping them in a good posture while riding. But the majority of them felt it was even more useful after the ride. They felt like they were more recovered for the next ride.
SILVERMAN: Cipriani cautions his study looked at the perceived effects of compression shirts. So it's possible the garment had more of an effect on psychology rather than physiology. So while there's little evidence compression clothing improves athletic performance, there's still no evidence the clothing is harmful. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.