Compression garments have long been accepted to promote healing for acute inflammation, as well as for certain non-athletic medical conditions. In recent years, compression garments have become more popular as a recovery tool, even before definitive evidence on their efficacy. In this post we’ll explore the evidence on whether compression garments improve recovery, as some fairly prominent figures in the swimming world have endorsed compression for outside the pool. Unfortunately, because there have been no studies (to my knowledge) on high level swimmers or other aquatic athletes, we’re limited to studies from other sports and from the weight room.
Davies (2009) tackled the recovery issue head-on (“The effects of compression garments on recovery”) with a mixed gender sample completing a battery of performance tests including sprints, agility, countermovement jump, and drop jumps. Subjects performed tests twice separated by 48 hours, performing the control condition (no compression gear) one week and the experimental condition (compression gear) the other week. Results showed worse performance in the second trial under both conditions, but muscle soreness and creatine kinase levels decreased only after wearing compression garments. In short, compression helped subjects feel better, but performance degraded similarly compared to not wearing compression.
Duffield (2008) conducted a similar study on male rugby players, but with only 24 hours between tests. As with Davies, one week they performed two trials without compression, two weeks later they performed trials with compression. Authors noted no physiological or performance differences between conditions other than increased body temperature with compression and decreased perceived muscle soreness. Same story as Davies…subjects felt better but did not perform any better or worse and had no significant change in physiology. Duffield (2010) found similar results with no improvements in performance using compression for recovery, but some improvements in perceived soreness compared to the non-compression recovery.
Unlike the above two studies in which subjects were not blind to the compression gear, Hamlin (2012) used a placebo garment compared to an actual compression garment in studying rugby players. All subjects performed physiological testing using both garments but on different dates. During follow up testing, which occurred 24 hours after the primary workbout, compression gear improved 3k run time and sprint times significantly while fatigue was diminished. Delayed onset muscle soreness was substantially lower in the compared to the placebo group.
deGlanville (2012) conducted a similar experiment with placebo garments on cyclists in two 40km time trials separated by 24 hours. Unlike other studies in which subjects observed subjective changes such as reduced muscle soreness with the compression garments, the cyclists noted no subjective changes with compression garments for recovery (maybe because cyclists are accustomed to some form of compression gear already?). However, compression gear was correlated with improved overall time (1.2%) and power output (3.3%).
The previously referenced studies looked at other sports, which may or may not transfer to swimming. What about resistance training, which is certainly relevant to dryland? Kraemer (2010) studied a mixed gender sample of experienced lifters. Comparing 24 hour recovery periods, authors noted significant improvements in vitality, resting fatigue ratings, muscle soreness, ultrasound measured swelling, bench press throw, and creatine kinase levels.
Compression gear for recovery evokes a similar debate as icing: Even if the intervention is successful in speeding recovery, is there a role for letting the body deal with soreness and muscle damage naturally? Many athletes habitually run to the run to the recovery modalities after a hard session, but is this universally the best practice? That’s a bigger issue than to answer in this post, but something to consider for context.
For now, know the evidence indicates compression gear may or may not be helpful but it’s unlikely to be harmful. The mechanisms behind compression are still unclear, but warming, proprioception, and assistance in the mechanical removal of waste products are all common theories. Compression might offer primal comforting more rooted in touch and nurturing that stimulates some neurological response for recovery. If you presently find compression helps, there’s no reason to stop, but if you aren’t a user, know the evidence is still mixed on its benefits.
- Davies V, Thompson KG, Cooper SM. The effects of compression garments on recovery. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep;23(6):1786-94.
- Duffield R, Edge J, Merrells R, Hawke E, Barnes M, Simcock D, Gill N. The effects of compression garments on intermittent exercise performance and recovery on consecutive days. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2008 Dec;3(4):454-68.
- Hamlin MJ, Mitchell CJ, Ward FD, Draper N, Shearman JP, Kimber NE. Effect of compression garments on short term recovery of repeated sprint and 3 km running performance in rugby union players. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Sep 21. [Epub ahead of print]
- de Glanville KM, Hamlin MJ. Positive effect of lower body compression garments on subsequent 40-kM cycling time trial performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Feb;26(2):480-6.
- Duffield R, Cannon J, King M. The effects of compression garments on recovery of muscle performance following high-intensity sprint and plyometric exercise. J Sci Med Sport. 2010 Jan;13(1):136-40. Epub 2009 Jan 7.
- Kraemer WJ, Flanagan SD, Comstock BA, Fragala MS, Earp JE, Dunn-Lewis C, Ho JY, Thomas GA, Solomon-Hill G, Penwell ZR, Powell MD, Wolf MR, Volek JS, Denegar CR, Maresh CM. Effects of a whole body compression garment on markers of recovery after a heavy resistance workout in men and women. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Mar;24(3):804-14.