Ever wondered why elite athletes wear such tight clothes? Monique Freer investigates the compression clothing phenomenon and how you can vamp up your sportswear to experience more benefits than just a slimmer waistline.

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I used to be convinced compression clothing was reserved for elite athletes, footballers and true gym junkies.

I mean, why else would anybody willingly struggle into skin-tight clothing to exercise?

But as I pondered the wonderful, illusive pulling power of these bizarre items of clothing, I began to notice that more people were sporting them. The lady next to me in spin class, the man running down at the beach; it seemed more and more people were wearing these compression garments, leaving me to wonder what I was missing.

So what are they exactly? Initially a branch of women’s fitness fashion, compression clothing is skin tight, featuring built-in panels and strategic surface pressure that aims to improve blood flow during exercise. Put simply, it’s super tight sportswear that’s claimed to help improve your performance and recovery.

There are two main types of compression used in apparel. The first is known as ‘graduated compression’, which is tighter in your extremities to help increase the blood flow back to your core as you exercise. The other type is ‘compartmental compression’, which is tighter in particular areas – not necessarily the extremities – and usually better suited for specific sports.

The basic principle behind compression clothing is simple; by applying pressure to particular areas of the body you provide more force to help propel blood back to your heart, thus increasing blood flow without having to use up more energy. But even better news for you, this simple idea gives a myriad of benefits to the wearer.

Get it pumping

During exercise your heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to all the muscles you’re using. Once the blood reaches the muscles and offloads the oxygen to them, it becomes harder to get the blood back to the heart at a fast pace. This is where compression comes in.

“The garments increase blood flow within the muscle and prevent lactic acid build-up, meaning you can train harder and for longer,” says Performax designer Carrie Bartonek.

By increasing how fast blood returns to your heart, you increase how quickly you can deliver oxygen to the muscles that are working desperately to keep you on the treadmill.

As a crucial ingredient in the production of energy, the more oxygen you have reaching the muscles, the more energy they can produce and the better they can function. Blood also transports nutrients, so by getting more blood to your muscles, you’re essentially ‘feeding’ them faster.

Injury prevention

Every time you move so do your muscles, and unfortunately every time your muscles move tiny tears can appear within the muscle tissue. Think of it like jelly, shaking long after you stop moving the plate. But if the jelly is in a bowl and surrounded on almost every side, the jelly wobbles less. The same thing applies to our muscles.

By compressing them and adding extra support, the muscles are said to move less. This reduces the amount of micro damage to the muscles that can occur when they shake on impact and reduces muscle pain both during and after exercise. And of course, it means all our wobbly bits jiggle less and our bodies look trim, taught and terrific!

Not only that, but by providing extra support to muscles and joints compression wear may also help to prevent injuries in much the same way as strapping does. By stabilising joints, the clothing may help prevent or alleviate injuries associated with sudden, uncontrolled movements, which let’s face it, are the basis of exercise.

Buying your own

As well as brands such as Skins that exclusively produce compression gear, other sports brands such as Adidas, 2XU and New Balance are also introducing their own lines of compression apparel.

These brands and a wide range of compression clothing are available at most sports stores. Prices vary greatly according to the garment and the brand; for example, a pair of full-length tights can range from $65 to $190. They are very durable due to the spandex fibres so will have a longer life than conventional sportswear.

Shop around for the best deal, and always be sure to ask for advice in store to make sure that you are getting the garments
best suited to your needs.

Improved recovery

Anybody that’s done endurance exercise will hate the words ‘lactic acid’. We all know that lactic acid is the foe that makes us struggle to climb stairs the morning after a big workout, but what if there was a magic solution to help reduce it?

Compression clothing, although not a solution, may help reduce the amount of lactic acid that builds up in our muscles during exercise.

As a by-product created during exercise, lactic acid causes pain, fatigue and cramping after exercising. Compression speeds up waste removal, therefore flushing out lactic acid before too much can build up in the body, leaving you pain-free and able to climb all the stairs you like.

Exercise physiologist at Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA) Dr Ian Gillam says research has shown compression clothing is as effective as ice baths at improving recovery.

“There’s no doubt that it improves recovery for athletes and anybody that exercises intensely will get the same benefits, because if they’re working really hard then it’s going to help them improve their recovery,” he says.

Beat the heat

Made from a blend of spandex and nylon, compression clothing fabrics are woven into breathable, easy-dry patterns that wick sweat and moisture away from the body quickly. This helps to draw out sweat from the body, unlike popular cotton-based sportswear that retains moisture and can become heavy during exercise.

We all know the benefits of keeping your muscles cooler. But the fibres in compression garments not only allow your body to withstand high temperatures to a greater extent, but the moisture-wicking technology also prevents fabric mildew and heat exhaustion. Handy, right?

Not only that, according to Bartonek, many compression garments have a higher SPF factor than conventional sportswear.

“As an added bonus, most brands now include an SPF 50+ sun protection rating so you can train without having to worry about sun damage,” she says.

Bartonek also believes compression gear is only going to develop further, incorporating more flattering designs, custom garments for injury and surgery rehabilitation and new-engineered fabrics to increase compression and decrease irritation and chafing.

With such a plethora of benefits it’s little wonder why compression clothing is making its way into the gym bags of everyday women.

“Athletes at all levels can benefit from wearing compression. For more serious athletes it can be used as part of an overall training and recovery program and the everyday athlete can use compression as a way of preventing muscle strain and fatigue,” Bartonek says.

As an everyday athlete myself, the only thing I’m left to ponder is why they aren’t in my own gym bag.

 

An active recovery is an important part of each workout. Know how to lift weights correctly to reduce wear and tear and fuel your body with the rights foods for exercise. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for workout hints and tips every day.