With the recent boom in popularity of sports and fitness in the general population, technology and systems usually reserved for the elite sporting world have become more accessible and widely used than ever. This extends from middle-aged men in Lycra riding £9000 bikes, through to GPS watches, heart rate monitoring and nutritional supplementation. One of the biggest areas of interest in this field is that of recovery, regeneration and the prevention of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Whilst many strategies are used to enhance recovery, one of the most popular and widely accepted methods is the use of compression garments.
Where has it come from?
Use of compression for recovery benefits, has its roots in a medical setting, where compression stockings are applied to limbs, to treat inflammatory and circulatory conditions for example Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) or varicose veins (Shingler, Robertson, Boghossian, & Stewart, 2013). This is thought to work by improving blood flow, leading to increased venous return, increased oxygenation of muscles and reduced pooling of blood in the lower limbs (Agu, Baker, Seifalian, & Hamilton, 2004). Observation of these effects has led to the proposal that this approach may be beneficial for athletic populations looking to improve their post-exercise recovery.
When we take part in strenuous exercise, particularly unfamiliar or eccentric exercise of a long duration, we cause Exercise Induced Muscle Damage (EIMD), which is most commonly identified by DOMS in the days afterwards. EIMD leads to reduced muscle function and performance (Eston, Byrne, & Twist, 2003), which is obviously undesirable, not to mention the discomfort of trying to complete day to day activities with severe DOMS. As such, the idea of compression garments being able to mitigate these effects has proven to be extremely popular, and also extremely lucrative for manufacturers of these products. Following a huge amount of marketing, specialist athletic recovery garments, including tights, shirts and sleeves are now commonplace among recreational and professional athletes.
How does it work?
In the period following a bout of strenuous exercise, the body has to deal with the mechanical and metabolic damage caused to muscles. This leads to Inflammation and localised swelling, which are both important processes in the repair and adaption of muscle tissue, allowing us to adapt and improve (Lewis, Ruby, & Bush-Joseph, 2012). However, these processes also add to the pain and stiffness associated with DOMS. Whilst there are times in which we want these processes to run their course, so we can reap the rewards, there are also times that this is not convenient (e.g. close to a competition or when competing in multiple competitions in close succession). Compression garments provide an external pressure gradient, which essentially reduces the space within the limb for inflammation and swelling to take place, and therefore reduces their effects (Jess Hill & Pedlar, 2012). Another proposed mechanism is that they act to provide ‘dynamic immobilisation’ and prevent excessive movement of muscles in the recovery period (Kraemer et al., 2001).
Research into the use of compression garments to improve recovery is promising and use of this approach appears to be beneficial, however results are mixed (Hill, Howatson, van Someren, Leeder, & Pedlar, 2014). Due to these commercial products being fitted largely on height and weight, the amount of pressure being applied to limbs may vary significantly from person to person. As such, anyone looking to use ‘off the shelf’ products effectively should ensure a proper fit is achieved.
Use of compression garments following exercise to reduce soreness and improve recovery appears to be a promising method for both recreational and professional athletes. During certain periods of training and competition this may be advantageous, however a proper fit must be achieved if commercially available products are to be used.
By Andy Kay
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Agu, O., Baker, D., Seifalian, A. M., & Hamilton, G. (2004). Effect of graduated compression stockings on limb oxygenation and venous function during exercise in patients with venous insufficiency. Vascular, 12, 69–76.
Eston, R., Byrne, C., & Twist, C. (2003). Muscle function after exercise-induced muscle damage : Considerations for athletic performance in children and adults. Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness, 1, 85–96.
Hill, J., Howatson, G., van Someren, K., Leeder, J., & Pedlar, C. (2014). Compression garments and recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage: a meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48, 1340–6.
Hill, J., & Pedlar, C. (2012). Compression garments: Do they really work? The Sport & Exercise Scientist, 34, 18–19.
Kraemer, W. J., Bush, J. A., Wickham, R. B., Denegar, C. R., Gomez, A. L., Gotshalk, L. A., Sebastianelli, W. J. (2001). Continuous Compression as an Effective Therapeutic Intervention in Treating Eccentric- Exercise-Induced Muscle Soreness. Sports Medicine, 10,11–23.
Lewis, P. B., Ruby, D., & Bush-Joseph, C. (2012). Muscle Soreness and Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 31, 255–262.
Shingler, S., Robertson, L., Boghossian, S., & Stewart, M. (2013). Compression stockings for the initial treatment of varicose veins in patients without venous ulceration. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 12.
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