Compression garments are woven using tough, stretchy textiles such Lycra and Elastane so that when worn during exercise, they squeeze or compress the muscles in that area.

The theory is that this compression helps muscles to retain their optimum form during movement, enhancing the efficiency of contraction and improving blood flow, which then improves performance.

There’s also some evidence that wearing compression garments in the period after exercise is equally important because they can enhance the removal of breakdown products that have accumulated in muscles during exercise (such as lactate) and therefore speed up recovery.

However, what’s less certain is whether this translates into better subsequent exercise performance following a period in which compression clothing is worn.

The science
To test this more thoroughly, New Zealand scientists have been studying cyclists to see the effect of wearing lower body compression garments on 40km cycling time-trial performance. To do this, they recruited fourteen trained multisport male athletes with an average 40km time of around 66 minutes.

All the cyclists performed an initial 40km time-trial in their normal cycling gear then were given a graduated full-leg-length compressive garment (made from 76% Meryl Elastane, 24% Lycra) or a similar-looking non-compressive garment (92% Polyester, 8% Spandex – the placebo) to wear continuously for 24 hours afterwards.

At the end of this 24-hour recovery period, the compression (or placebo) garments were removed, and a second 40km time-trial was performed to gauge the effect of each garment on subsequent cycling performance. One week later, the groups were reversed and testing procedures repeated. Importantly, the researchers ensured that the participants’ hydration status, nutritional intake and training levels were similar before each set of trials.

In a nutshell
When the collected data was analysed, it became clear that performance times in the second time trial were substantially improved when the compression garments had been worn during recovery. On average, the cyclists rode the second time-trial 1.2% faster when they recovered with compression clothing and they also averaged a higher power output – 3.3% higher compared to recovering with the placebo garments.

Interestingly, these improvements occurred after compression garments were worn even though there were negligible differences in oxygen consumption and ratings of perceived exertion.

So what?
Many cyclists are reluctant to wear compression garments during training for a number of reasons (eg comfort, ‘feel’ looks etc). However, if you fall into this category, the good news is that this study seems to show that very significant performance benefits can be had by wearing compression garments after training – ie during the recovery period.

And because compression garments are skin-tight and body-hugging, they can also be worn under your normal clothes or during sleep, making this an easily-implemented and practical strategy!

J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Feb;26(2):480-6

This article was first published in the February 23 issue of Cycling Weekly. You can also read our magazines on Zinio and download from the Apple store.