Pressing the flesh Should you be using compression gear to aid recovery or are the gains so minimal it’s not worth the outlay? MR squeezes the truth out of the debate...
Compression gear has been around in running for a number of years now. Some swear by it as a means of getting the pain out of their legs quicker, others see it as the new snake oil. Even the boffins are divided over its benefits. A study carried out at the Institute of Medical Physics, University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany tested 21 moderately trained athletes on a treadmill test up to a voluntary maximum with and without below-knee compression socks. Running performance at the anaerobic threshold and aerobic thresholds was significantly higher using compression socks which suggested constant compression in the area of the calf muscle significantly improved running performance.
But what about your ability to recover? Is pouring yourself into a pair of socks or tights post run going to do you any favours when it comes to feeling less like the tin man the day after?
A study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology looked at ten runners wearing graduated compression socks for three 40-minute runs. While the statistics showed no muscular benefit, the runner’s perceived levels of recovery were improved by wearing the compression and they felt more comfortable after training. So if there is no physical benefit to performance, but they make you feel better, are they worth the money?
MR asked resident physiotherapist Paul Hoborough the key questions:
Should we all be wearing compression post-run?
“All the studies I’ve read seem to suggest there is as much a placebo effect as a physical effect. Even the studies that say they don’t work say there is a benefit in the lowering of blood lactate levels, so there are definitely some recovery benefit, even in those saying its all placebo.”
But will they make us run faster?
“Nobody has found performance benefits from them, in terms of science that hasn’t been sponsored by the companies themselves. My stance has always been that if you’re into it and really believe it then you’re probably getting a lot from it.”
So if we did believe in it how would it benefit us?
With what we know about the way the human body functions, there would be a fairly significant improvement in recovery if you’re able to compress the lower limb and help push blood back to your heart - known as venous return - therefore getting greater recovery. We already know that for someone who has inflammation compression, rest and elevation work.
Where did the idea of compression for runner come from
All this comes from the fact that they found it was beneficial for reducing deep vein thrombosis in people in hospital beds, then they extrapolated that to people in aeroplanes. So there has to be a benefit to venous return. The veins are like a canal system, you have to get pressure in one chamber that opens up the valve and gets the blood into the next chamber, they rely on a contraction but also on blood pressure to do that. When you’re knackered, the muscles won’t contract as well and there will be a drop in pressure. How else can you facilitate that blood getting back to heart? Compression.
What about wearing compression while you run?
There is research to say it helps you to clear lactic acid, so it could do that for you on a longer run, but I don’t think it will benefit performance over a short distance. Over, say 10K and up, there might be a small performance benefit to wearing them.
Would we beat the bloke next to us if we were wearing compression socks and he wasn’t?
If two identical athletes were crossing line in the same time for years and years at lots of events, and one put compression socks on, I don’t think that would mean he would definitely start winning. It might be psychological. and he might win but I don’t think that makes the difference. There is a fair bit of information that would suggest it would give you a better sprint finish over 10k and up because you should have greater power contraction in the muscles being compressed, even though you’re knackered from doing the run.
If we’re going to take the plunge and get ourselves some gear, what would you recommend we do?
Make sure it’s medical grade compression and make sure you get your measurements right. Too loose or too tight won’t work. It’s about your ankle, calf and quad size. Understand your measurements and watch out for brands who don’t use medical grade compression.