Athletes who recover better are more likely to train harder and improve performance, and thus in recent years, various forms of compression treatments to aid in recovery have gained popularity, the most commonly used being compression garments. – BY ERNEST HOBBS
Breaking it down to essential basics, training results in damage to and inflammation of muscles, temporarily reducing their ability to generate force and increasing risk of injury. Compression garments contain a firm elastic component, which compresses body tissues through pressure applied to the skin and muscles. This compression is designed to reduce the space available for swelling to occur, or an oedema to form, as a result of the exercise-induced muscle damage. By limiting the fluid within the area, compression garments limit the cells from experiencing further damage. Additionally, improved lymphatic drainage allows metabolites and damage proteins to be removed at a faster rate, and enhanced blood circulation may allow faster cell regeneration and protein synthesis.
Research has shown that compression garments do assist with recovery after intense exercise, though they do not reduce the exercise-induced muscle damage incurred during exercise. Furthermore, short-term use (up to 2 hours) is unlikely to yield any benefit, whereas medium use (8-24 hours) and long-term use (more than 24 hours) has been found to reduce feelings of fatigue and the time taken to for muscles to generate maximum force. These beneficial effects have been noted to last beyond 72 hours of use, though generally the best results were achieved in the first 24-36 hours.
It should be noted that the potential benefits are proportional to the amount of damage suffered, and while running does cause some muscular damage, resistance and plyometric training is associated with far greater damage, and thus benefit more from the use of compression garments. Additionally, even though compression garments do assist with the recovery process, it may not be the most worthwhile use of time as studies have found that other forms of recovery (massage, cold water immersion, active rest, etc.) may provide superior results. Furthermore, Inconsistencies in the measurement of the pressure applied and the variability of human anatomy makes it difficult to identify and standardise an ideal pressure for recovery.
5 take home points
- Recovery needed after training is highly specific to the intensity, duration and mode of exercise.
- Compression garments seem to benefit both well-trained and novice athletes similarly.
- The temporary decrease in ability following exercise is complex, and as such it is unlikely that one recovery mechanism will address all degenerative processes.
- Compression garments might not be the ultimate ‘one-stop’ solution for recovery from exercise, but can be an effective and convenient addition to any recovery plan.
- As with exercise, it is always wise to consult your physician before using compression garments, as there are certain contraindications which may put some athletes at risk.
About the Author
Ernest is a biomechanical, video, and running gait analyst at the High Performance Centre (HPC) of the University of Pretoria.
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