Beverly has been one of my favorite training partners over the past five or six years. Her husband, Steven, and I used to measure race courses together; I worked with them on several triathlon and distance swim events during that time. Her blend of humor and education, when she shows up to run, guarantees our discussion will stray from politics and movies...and my pace will average about 30 seconds faster per mile. That makes Beverly a welcome guest athlete.
But, rather than recount the obligatory veterinary office joke which she told during the first mile; a tale which had something to do with an angry (sneezing, appetite-less) cat and an owner whose primary language was almost English…this morning, I found an offer in my e-mail for a pair of compression shorts, which reminded me about the second topic of the day’s run.
Bev managed to acquire, by means of a running friend, a pair of compression stockings. She asked me how I felt about them. My 30-second response was something along the lines of: ‘I think they are fantastic for recovery, but there isn’t a lot of research supporting the benefits of them on the run itself.’ I’ve trained one or two athletes who happen to like them, or their cousin, the calf sleeve. I might disagree on whether they work or not, but it’s a non-issue if it makes them a happy runner. I do like happy runners. Happy runners, quite often, are also fast runners. Fast runners make coaches look good.
But back to the e-mail: When you receive an e-mail offer for a pair of compression wear (shorts) which “offer to help me guide my knees into a proper position and assist in creating muscle memory,” well, you kind of take the time to read the rest of the information, if nothing else, then at least out of curiosity. I’ll go for almost anything which will assist my memory; muscle, brain, whatever other part of my body may possess one of them. My wife says she married me for my memory…as far as I can rightly recall. These shorts had not one, but two compression layers, which were supposed to lead to proper joint loading and an end-state of improved performance, speed, workout recovery and injury prevention. And world peace.
Okay, so I’m kidding about the world peace part. Forgive me if I’ve disappointed you with a claim that could never come to pass from a pair of stretchy pants. I’m all for world peace; if a pair of tight pants helps…
There are elite runners who have run world-best/world record times while wearing a pair of compression stockings, and the manufacturers of the compression tights, calf sleeves, and full-body compression wear have been quick to postulate the preventative benefits from the hospital ward and rehabilitation unit to the recreational runner. I asked my sprint-focused coaching colleague whether he encouraged his athletes to use compression wear. He said, ‘up to the 800, absolutely. Sprinters have so much muscle oscillation and pounding during such a short time, but going to the 1,500 and beyond you’re talking a totally different world.’ There’s muscle oscillation to a lesser degree with distance runners, and when you get out to the half-marathon and marathon it’s cumulative low-level damage we inflict upon ourselves.
When it comes to performance, recreational athletes may benefit a couple of percentage points over the course of a 5K, based on an improved stride length, power maintenance (that oscillation thing) and total work. But, contrary to the claims of many manufacturers, researchers learned there were no physiological benefits while wearing compression stockings; the body cleared excess lactate from the blood at the same rate as with ‘normal’ exercise clothing, there were no appreciable differences in VO2 or heart rate during exercise trials.
Compression wear is most beneficial during the period of time immediately following a bout of exercise. While compressive wear might be uncomfortable being worn, the limbs and affected areas of the body are less likely to become inflamed. There’s also the thermal benefit to the muscles; keeping the muscles warm and controlled also allows muscle fibers to rebuild in a straight line – that means the muscle is less likely to develop ‘knots.’ Creatine kinase and myoglobin (chemicals found in the blood after a heart attack, a marker for muscle damage) levels dramatically decreased in the first 24 hours following an exercise bout when compression wear was worn during that time.
The problem with compression wear and compression stockings is that the fit has to be correct. Not every athlete is built in exactly the same way. My wife, for example, would most likely not be able to wear the same type of compression stockings or tights as I. We learned the hard way after I loaned her a pair of my Nike compression stockings; not because of the fact her legs are three inches shorter than mine, she has a very large calf muscle structure. Her gastrocnemius and soleus muscles are large…almost as large as mine (and I have some calf muscles, the by-product of much cycling during my youth), she also did not like the tightness at the ankle. Variations in the way an athlete’s body is built requires - especially with “graduated compression stockings,” where the stockings (or wear) are ‘tighter’ at the distal end of the limb (near the hands and feet) and less tight as you approach the torso – a more-refined sizing structure. You can’t go “numbered sizes,” or “small, medium, large, extra-large” and get the same result across the board.
I looked a little closer at the shorts…in many ways they look like the nylon and lycra compression shorts I see on the ladies at my local gym…with an additional three or four inches of inseam, about the same length as a pair of bicycle shorts. I really had a hard time swallowing the claims of the short manufacturer; it’s difficult to say that a pair of shorts will guide a knee toward a proper position for a couple of reasons: knee position is very much a personal thing, based on specific biomechanical baselines. And the individual runner’s knee position is affected not solely by the large muscles of the legs, but by the strength or weaknesses of the muscles around the hip or the foot.
It takes more than a pair of ‘spankies’ to provide muscle memory. It’s making the mind and the muscle ‘smart’ about what it is doing that leads to muscle memory, and a more efficient running form. That means learning the specific limiters and weaknesses, then strengthening those areas, then focusing on proper form; not a pair of pants.
Most of the research studies over the past five years indicate that compression garments aren’t going to increase a runner’s performance during a long race. They do limit the vibration or oscillation of muscles, and reduce the chance of swelling and the perception of muscle soreness during the recovery period, but the problem is that many of the research findings are often limited to an activity unrelated to running, or has been mixed across several studies and the manufacturer willingly decides to overlook it and go with the placebo effect - if you think it's going to make you faster, you just might be correct.
Ali, Creasy, Edge (2010). Physiological effects of wearing graduated compression stockings during running. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 109, pg. 1017-1025.
Ali, Creasy, Edge (2011). The effect of graduated compression stockings on running performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25, 5, pg. 1385-1392.
Dicharry (2012). Anatomy for runners: unlocking your athletic potential for health, speed and injury prevention. Skyhorse Publishing.
Goh, Laursen, Dascombe, Nosaka (2011). Effect of lower body compression garments on submaximal and maximal running performance in cold (10*C) and hot (32*C) environments. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111, pg. 819-826.
Kraemer, Flanagan, Comstock, Fragala, Earp, Dunn-Lewis, Ho, Thomas, Solomon-Hill, Penwell, Powell, Wolf, Volek, Denegar, Maresh (2010). Effects of a whole body compression on markers of recovery after a heavy resistance workout in men and women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24, 3, pg. 804-814.
MacRae, Cotter, Laing (2011). Compression garments and exercise: garment considerations, physiology and performance. Sports Medicine, 41, 10, pg. 815-843.