Do compression clothes really impact sport performance?

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Two new studies from researchers at Indiana University suggest that the new fad of athletes wearing compression clothing to enhance performance may be little more than that, a fad. In two separate inquiries analyzing the effect of compression legwear on athletic performance, Abigail Laymon and Nathan Eckert both found no evidence for improved performance or efficiency of oxygen consumption. The two studies are being presented this week at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Baltimore.

In the first study, Laymon analyzed how lower-leg compression sleeves impacted the performance of 16 male long-distance runners. The sleeve, manufactured by the company Zensah, is worn from below the knee to the ankle. Study participants were asked to complete two 12-minute running tests, one while wearing the compression garment and one without. Laymon found that on average, oxygen consumption was unaltered whether or not the runners wore the compression gear, meaning that their overall efficiency was unchanged. (While a few runners consumed less oxygen while wearing the garments, a few consumed more.) What’s more, Laymon also found that the Zensah product did not impact — or more specifically, improve — running mechanics.

In light of the findings, Laymon speculates that the popularity of the garments reflects their trendiness, not their ability to enhance performance. Yet, she also suggested that the garments’ continued use by many endurance athletes may also reflect some level of superstition — after an athlete performs well once wearing the sleeves, they become part of each race’s ritual. As she said in a statement about the findings:

“Overall, with these compressive sleeves and the level of compression that they exert, they don’t seem to really do much… However, there may be a psychological component to compression’s effects. Maybe if you have this positive feeling about it and you like them then it may work for you. It is a very individual response.”

In the second study, Eckert analyzed the impact of shorts made by Speedo that are used for thigh compression. His study included 25 males in their early twenties who weighed between 160 to 190 lbs. They were asked to jump as high as they could while wearing three different compression shorts — one that was the correct size, one that was a size too big, and one that was a size too small. He found that, no matter the level of compression, athletic performance was unchanged.