Endurance athletes seem to be quite interested in new products to make them faster or perform at a higher level, some are even willing to pay a premium for them. I wanted to write up a post that talks about one of these areas that may not be terribly new, but can be quite a source for confusion if you have not done your research... Compression!
Compression clothing is nothing new, in fact it has been around the medical industry for a long time and used for multiple reasons. This product area has been ever growing in the endurance sport area to provide similar benefits to you as an athlete. This posting will talk about many of the high level topics regarding compression in general and I will do some product review to follow based on my experiences. I will be focusing on leg compression, although compression for the arms and torso does exist.
What is compression clothing?
Well, compression is applying force to compact an area or object. Take this idea and add it to clothing and we end up with a garment that is meant to apply pressure across an area of the body. Medical grade compression clothing has been used to increase circulation in extremities.
How it works?
The best way to explain it can be summarized fairly easily without having a degree in fluid dynamics, although you could get a more scientific explanation than I will present, but that is not for everyone! Remember when you were a kid, or maybe just a few months ago when you were running a garden hose without a nozzle on it. There are a few ways to make water flow faster. You can either turn the water pressure up at the faucet, or you can increase the pressure in the hose, by allowing a smaller hole for the water to exit. If you turn the water on low, water flows freely from the end. If you were to add a nozzle at the end or even your thumb to block some of the flow, the water exits the hose much faster than with a larger opening.
Think of your veins like the water hose. We are making the water leave the hose by making more pressure in the hose. Since we do not have a valve to control our veins, compression clothing helps to apply pressure on your legs typically to make the veins smaller, thus forcing blood to flow faster through your legs.
Ok so you now have the basic idea that compression clothing applies pressure to your legs to make blood flow quicker. That is great, but why do we want to increase circulation? Increased circulation allows fresh oxygen to be pumped into our muscles. The more fresh blood that can be pumped through the body, the quicker nutrients are delivered to damaged muscles for recovery and lactic acids are flushed out. Are you following the big picture now?
Compression > Increased circulation and blood flow > Enhanced Recovery > Fresher muscles
Why is it important to me?
The best part is that compression is applicable through all of the skill levels from beginner to experienced professional. You may be an endurance athlete of many years, but I am sure you remember a time when you started exercising. Think about it a minute...the first trip to the gym to lift and the stiffness that followed, your first run on a treadmill and how difficult it was to stand up from a chair for a few days, your first marathon and regretting the split level home which requires you to navigate steps, or maybe even your most recent 20 minute FTP test has made you walk funny. These are just some of the reasons compression can benefit anyone at any skill level.
Expending energy through a number of ways requires action from your muscles, when you are looking to increase the efficiency of those muscles, you are bound to experience some damage to the muscles, that is part of the process. Break them down and let them recover, do this enough times and you will build strength or endurance. Compression is not only for endurance athletes who run and bike hours at a time. It can also be beneficial for a weight lifter or someone looking to add muscle. The concept is the same, we are breaking our bodies down to get stronger and more efficient.
Have I made it clear that ANYONE can benefit from compression? Good!
Why should I care?
No this is not a misprint! The last section said why it is important to you, this section is why it is important to your body. Yes we have discusses the benefits of what compression does, now why should you care? Well to put it simply, to make yourself better. If you are like the rest of the population, you are living in a world with a finite amount of time. If you are not, please let me know as I have a few things I would like to discuss with you. Maybe you are casual athlete who enjoys exercise to keep in shape (wait I thought round was a shape?) or maybe you are someone who can dedicate hour on end training, I will explain how each level get something from it.
Beginner - You are new to exercise or maybe endurance sports, looking to do an event for the first time
- Reduce soreness as you get your muscles active and in the habit of exercise
Novice - You have been working out fairly regularly, but want to get more serious without "being crazy"
- Increased intensity workouts, leaving you feeling sluggish in the other areas of life
- Minimize the impact of exercise on the rest of your life
Intermediate - Time crunched athlete, optimize the time you are not working out for full recovery
- You need to be 100% for your next session because your time is limited and your workouts are intense
Advanced - Significant training load, maybe training for long distance events
- You are asking a lot of your body, trying to keep up with nutrition and balancing life with long distances
- Thursday's track workout may impede your Saturday long ride. Nutrition is on, but your muscles are slow to recover regardless
Professional - Recover muscles between intense sessions to allow for the highest level of quality workouts
As you can see, this ranges from the person starting to go to the gym to the professional who spends 30+ hours a week working out. The main purpose, to get the muscles back to normal as fast as possible.
Since we have covered how it works, why it works, and who it works for, let's branch into some of the products available. The clothing comes in a number of names, shapes, sizes, and options. What differentiates between each? While I will save you the specifics of my experiences so far to remain objective in this primer, do check back for my reviews of the products shortly.
Brands - 2XU, Zoot, Sugio, Skins, CEP, SLS3, Recovery Sock, and the list goes on
Shapes - Tights, socks, shorts, calf sleeves, bibs, etc
Grades\Patterns - Varying levels of compression though each brand, this relates to how much pressure they apply when worn. This is partly subjective to the size of your leg in the clothing, but you understand that part (Fat guy in a little coat anyone?) As far as Patterns go, some compression is straight throughout the garment, others are gradient which changes say from the ankle to the knee.
Picking an application:
Let's start with the obvious, a sock is not going to help your quads recover nearly as well as tights would. Determine what are of the body you are looking for. When I first started it was my quads that I was trying to help, so I picked a pair of tights. Since then I have shifted my running style and now find that my calves tend to be the most noticeably sore area after a run, so a pair of socks may be sufficient. I will not go to the point of telling you which is best, but only offer some of these observations in my experience.
Tights - Great for full leg recovery, if you are a hot sleeper, this may not be a good choice if you want to sleep in them as your legs may get quite toasty depending on the material. Can be worn under pants during the day if desired
Calf Sleeves - Specific focus area, can be sized to fit your calf, can be discretely worn under pants at work or when out and about
Socks - With many brands and styles out there now, you can get them in a variety of colors, black works great for someone looking to wear them during the day at work. Provides more coverage than the sleeve.
Shorts - I only list shorts because I have seen multiple brands come out with new bike and tri shorts that are advertised to have compression. This plays into the active vs recovery benefits of compression. I am only aware of the Under Armor Compression under garments that come in a short or brief style
Air Leggings - If you have had a surgery, these are similar to the leggings they will put on your legs to prevent blood clots. Some companies have branched into the endurance sort market with units you can use at home.
Stay tuned for product reviews and maybe even a giveaway?!?