Compression Tights: More Than Just a Fashion Statement?

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Distance runners at every level of competition love them, and they're as sexy as can be, but can compression tights really improve your athletic performance? A new study from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center adds to a growing body of research that the flashy spandex may be more about higher fashion than lower fatigue.

Compression garments started out as part of doctors' prescriptions for patients suffering from poor circulation or deep vein thrombosis. The sports performance premise behind wearing compression tights is two-fold. Athletes have been led to believe that the gear will help propel blood back towards your heart, beneficially increasing your blood flow. Compression garments are also marketed as reducing muscle vibration which – again, in theory – reduces muscle fatigue.

The science, however, doesn't hold up. A 2011 study revealed that, although compression calf sleeves did in fact increase oxygen saturation in the blood for athletes at rest before the exercise and during the recovery process, they provided no measurable improvement in running performance. Neither did they reduce the runner's time to fatigue.

The new study from Ohio State focused upon the reduced muscle vibration claims of the fabric-makers, and again found the garments over-promised and under-delivered.

"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 Ajit Chaudhari, who led the study and is 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. In our study, runners performed the same with and without compression tights."

Does compression gear offer any non-fashion value at all to athletes? Perhaps in the post-event recovery phase, one study has shown. A reduction in heart rate and lactic acid production was demonstrated, and these both have important implications for athletes that perform repeated instances of high-intensity exercise in a single competition. Other studies have have indicated that compression garments can reduce post-exercise declines in jump height, minimize strength loss, decrease muscle swelling, and ease muscle soreness.

But the main benefit of compression garments could very well be psychological. After all, you're more likely able to perform like a super hero if you are already dressed in spandex tights.

"Every little bit of perception counts when running long distances, so they may help runners in ways we aren't able to measure,” Chaudhari noted. He presented his team's research at the American College of Sports Medicine's 2017 annual meeting.