Compression Leggings 101
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You've probably heard about compression wear before, if you're not already a compression convert. It's a topic we get a lot of questions from customers about, so we wanted to answer your frequently asked questions in detail in this 3-part series. First up: what is compression, how does it work, and is it for you?
What are compression leggings and do they really work?
‘Compression’ gets bandied around a lot in sportswear, yet the term is poorly defined. And whilst compression shorts have been near ubiquitous on sprinters for years and compression socks and tights are increasingly popular amongst distance runners, there remains much debate and confusion around the true benefits.
Not Just Tight
First up, what is the definition of ‘compression’ when applied to sportswear? Alas, it is often no more specific than ‘tight’. Many brands use the term to describe a wide variety of products. Often these products have no specific technical attributes, they are simply a tight fitting garment which may well be flattering and sculpting, giving you lift and support where you need it, but have no technical compression benefits. That’s not to say the product isn’t great, just be aware of what you’re buying.
At The Sports Edit, when we say ‘compression’ we're using the technical definition – so a garment with a graduated level of compression (more compression further from the heart), which is meant to improve the circulation of oxygen in the blood, support muscle movements and reduce vibrations, and therefore minimize muscle fatigue, help recovery, soreness and (potentially) improve performance.
Compression socks and sleeves have been used in medical contexts for years, first developed for treatment of swelling conditions such as lymphedema, and then also for vascular issues, with graduated compression socks now almost ubiquitous in hospitals in post-operative contexts, helping to prevent blood clots in bed-ridden patients after surgery. These socks have a controlled, graduated compression, where the compression is greatest at the ankle, and tapers off higher up the leg. The level of compression in medical applications is measured in the rather arcane sounding ‘millimeters of mercury’ (mmHg – essentially a measure of pressure), typically starting at 20 mmHg.
In recent years compression has migrated from medical applications to sportswear, becoming popular with athletes across a range of activities due to the perceived benefits in terms of reducing muscle soreness, improved recovery, and more controversially, enhanced power and endurance.
Really Tight Leggings vs Compression
The key point to note when buying any compression wear is that if you are buying them for either prevention of DVT on a flight, or for sports recovery and performance benefits, then make sure that you are buying true compression garments – with graduated compression, appropriate levels of pressure (fit and size are important to this as we discuss later), and from a brand able to demonstrate appropriate test results to prove its products deliver the benefits.
At The Sports Edit, our preferred compression brand is 2XU, which we believe offers the best products on the market, has invested heavily in its R&D, and gained external validation from bodies such as The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).
Do Compression Tights Really Work?
Despite widespread acceptance of the benefits of compression by elite and recreational athletes, scientific research in this area is a mixed bag and any ‘proof’ is somewhat elusive. The problem is the enormous heterogeneity of studies (exercise type, duration, intensity; measures of recovery and performance; garment type, level of body coverage, how long it is worn for; appropriateness of sizing worn and pressure applied), and the difficulty of eliminating the placebo effect – the psychological impact whereby the belief it is going to work is itself a performance enhancer.
But whilst you can pick holes in some of the research, our view -- based on a wide range of studies reviewed -- is that; 1) DVT risk reduction is clinically proven, 2) improved recovery and reduced DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is an increasingly accepted benefit, but 3) performance improvements remain more contentious.
Fit and Size
Just how tight should compression leggings be? In a word: tight. They're not like a normal pair of leggings. They are trickier to pull on, and also to get them off around the ankle and foot afterwards, given the lower leg is where the compression is greatest.
Trying Compression For The First Time
Often when people first try compression leggings on, they wrongly assume they need to move up a size. Whilst this may feel more comfortable and familiar, it can often undermine the benefits of the compression. The size you choose should be based on your weight and height, not on typical sportswear measurements. See our subsequent blog posting on 2XU for more sizing information, as well as the 'Fit & Size' tabs on each compression garment product page across our website.
What Should You Use Compression Tights For?
The obvious sports are running and other high intensity activities, and these are where you will see the greatest benefits, but increasingly people are wearing compression for lower impact activities as well. 2XU is also moving in the direction of more sport specific compression with its MCS (Muscle Containment Stamping) range, adjusting support depending on the dynamics of movement of different sports – introducing new MCS tights for different activities from Autumn Winter 16 onwards.
So: To Compress or Not?
Whilst there is work still do to validate all the claims made about the benefits of compression, and in particular there is some inconsistency in the effects on performance across studies, there is now adequate evidence of a protective and recovery effect against muscle soreness and damage. There is real science behind the compression trend, and it isn’t a passing fad. 2XU in particular is making some brilliant compression products that keep getting better. They will help you recover faster, and hence train harder. They might even give you a slight performance benefit, even if it is only through making you feel faster. They aren’t a cure all, and don’t expect miracles, but there really is a place for compression garments in any athletes’ wardrobe.
Want to learn more? We take a closer look at the benefits of compression, and how to choose the right compression gear for your body and activity of choice in Compression Wear that Fits. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3! In the meantime, you can browse our compression offerings for women and men.
Use code COMPRESSION15 to get 15% off all 2XU items!