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Compression Gear for Athletes

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Compression gear has become more popular among athletes both for performance and recovery. For decades, medical-grade compression socks have been used to combat deep vein thrombosis, or the formation of blood clots. By increasing the circulation and blood flow, research has found the socks to be effective for bed-ridden and inactive patients and those at risk for clotting. The way the socks work is by increasing pressure, they can help improve circulation in patients with low blood pressure, as well as treat varicose veins and prevent leg and ankle swelling. Compression gear now is used for athletes looking to better their performance and improve recovery time.

The gear is constructed of a blend of spandex and nylon and engineered to be stretchable. The garments apply mechanical pressure to the body, compressing and helping support underlying tissue. Manufacturers claim compression socks and tights increase oxygen delivery, decrease lactic acid, prevent cramps and minimize muscle fatigue. It’s no wonder that these garments have been declared the hottest new item in athletic circles. However, whether or not the socks and tights deliver as promised has been debatable and an open question – where even researchers don’t have a clear answer.

While there have been multiple studies done on the topic, not enough evidence proves compression gear to be as promising or definitive in whether or not they work.
One study found that when 21 male runners did two-step tests – one with compression socks and one without – they were able to go slightly longer wearing the compressions before exhaustion. There have also been some small increases seen in anaerobic threshold, particularly in cycling, and in jumping performance. The theory is that the tights prevent oscillation of the muscles sideways and promote muscle efficiency.

Many professional athletes swear by compression gear for competing and recovery, which can be inspiring and attractive for consumers. Chris Solinksy, the former American 10,000m record-holder, wore compression socks when he became the first American to break 27:00. “I found I was able to come off the workouts much, much quicker,” said Solinksy. He wears the socks during hard workouts and races and finds he recovers faster. He also originally thought he raced faster in them.

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Here is how compression gear works for example on a runner:

While running: Blood is forced from a runner’s legs up to the heart as his or her lower leg muscles contract and relax with each stride.  This natural pump creates a strong circulating force, so the assistance provided by compression socks while running is quite minimal.

While resting: Compression gear is arguably the most beneficial to runners when they are stuck in a chair.  The legs do not have a natural pump to help circulate blood when resting so blood tends to pool in the legs. Compression socks put gentle pressure on the blood vessels in the calf, so blood cannot pool in the lower legs while stationary.  This helps to reduce the stiff feeling that comes from sitting for several hours.

Since discovering them, I have been wearing compression socks for my recent marathons. I don’t know that they make me run faster or prevent injury, yet I do feel a significant amount of support performing in them and in how my muscles feel recovering in them. I wear the socks for all my long runs (18 miles+). After I come home, I put on compression tights for a few hours and feel the benefit in recovering in them. Since I’m someone who is at risk for DVT, I always wear these socks on a flight over three hours long.

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