As an elite endurance athlete I have had the opportunity to test and become a major believer in the benefits of compression apparel, in particular compression socks, to improve athletic performance and recovery. As a physical therapist, I also know the importance of scientific research and support for products such as compression socks. This blog is meant to give my own beliefs on the use of compression wear which are based on my own experiences and backed by physiology of the human body. Any statement made in this blog is a recommendation not a proven claim unless otherwise cited by research.
Before giving any personal experiences with compression socks I will give a quick scientific reasoning behind the use of compression. It is well known that the source of life for our muscles is oxygen and nutrients transported in the bloodstream the greater the cardiac output as well as venous return, the more effective the muscles function/recover. It is an uphill battle to return blood from the lower body to the heart. This difficult task is given primarily to the contraction of skeletal muscles such as those in the calf. Without effective muscle contraction the deoxygenated blood pools in the venous system. Waste products of muscle contraction such as lactic acid also accumulate in this blood. The question of what to do lies in compression socks and apparel which has the primary purpose of assisting in venous return. In well designed products with consistent pressure in the ankle combined with gradient pressure up through the calf has been shown to also increase arterial blood flow to the working muscles. In a pilot study using CEP compression sport socks exerting consistent compression pressure onto the entire lower leg Bochman et al discovered an increase in blood circulation at rest by an approximate 30% and an increase in peak flow of approximately 40% (2005). The results of this increased blood flow were found in a different study by Kemmler et al. Kemmler found a 6% decrease in exertion at a given running speed with the use of compression socks (Performance Enhancement, Friedrich-Alexander University, Erlangen, Nuremberg) In addition; compression has been shown to improve mechanical stability of working muscles. Based upon the above explanation it seemed like a no brainer to test out compression socks to improve my athletic performance. When deciding which brand of compression to use I looked for the most medically sound and clinically researched product. For these reasons I chose CEP, produced by a leading medical supplier Medi. I have tried other brands and highly recommend CEP over any other product. *Insert video HereVideo Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2Z2NcAMaDg&feature=player_embedded
Now that I have given a scientific reason for compression, I will give personal accounts and my recommendations for the use of compression socks and apparel.
- Compression Socks: I use the CEP compression socks following long duration or high intensity workouts, on all airline flights, days at work or when I know I will be standing a lot and on days leading up to races. I have found that following plane flights, “I have a bounce to my step. My legs don’t feel heavy and I don’t get any swelling in my feet.” After hard workouts it is a relief to put on compression socks. “It's like a load has been taken off my legs.” My guide Matt West had explored all options for a gastrochnemius (calf) muscle strain and upon wearing compression socks the calf pain subsided and the muscle strain healed. The increased blood flow and support to the muscle seems to help with recovery from injury.
- Compression Sleeves: I use compression sleeves for during competition and on some training runs. Because I compete in triathlons where every second counts, I use the sleeves vs. socks during the race. I have found that the CEP compression sleeves are super effective and I can wear them the entire race. “When I wear the sleeves I feel as though I have bounce to my step and increased power on my push off. Also, pain from any shin splints seems to be alleviated when wearing the sleeves.”
- Compression Shorts and Tights: I have just started using compression shorts and tights and absolutely love them for so many reasons. I wear them on runs and feel greater hip stability and power from my glutes. Also, when I have had hamstring strains and sciatica symptoms the compression shorts/tights have decreased the pain. The tights are also great for wearing after workouts to decrease recovery time and “they just feel so good!” Lastly, I have discovered a new way to stay warm in cold weather. Like many athletes, I don’t have much for insulation. I wear as much compression gear as I can when out in the cold. My explanation is that by pulling muscles and vessels closer to the core, body heat is retained. For those competing in outdoor sports where the play is not continuous, compression gear can help keep muscles warm and loose thus decreasing the risk of strains.
- Compression Tops: I use compression tops primarily to keep my body warm in colder climates. Pretty much all my running and outside activity in the winter is done wearing compression tops. When I wear compression tops I also feel as though I get better recoil of my lungs upon exhalation. The added pressure supplements the body’s natural recoil of the lungs. Lastly, when I wear compression tops I seem to be able to maintain upright posture easier. This is my own personal finding but it has been shown that compression tops do help with postural stabilization.
My personal recommendations about compression apparel:
In summary, whether you are another physical therapist, athlete or both I strongly recommend looking into compression apparel and socks for personal use and as a recommended item for patients in their own recovery. During traveling we all experience decreased circulation and lower extremity edema and compression socks have been shown to decrease this edema. Athletes specifically can benefit from compression during competition by its ability to improve economy, thereby decreasing exertion at a given intensity. Compression socks and tights help reduce recovery time following workouts by preventing blood pooling and edema. For physical therapists, I have found that compression seems to help in preventing and encouraging quicker healing of muscular related conditions. For those going outside in the winter, compression apparel is very effective in cold weather to retain body heat. Lastly, compression apparel and socks just feel good and sometimes you just got to go by the old saying, “If it feels good, do it!”