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While we don't usually write about fashion trends here, it's hard not to notice that compression garments are becoming a regular feature in the gym and on the track.

Although stepping out in head to toe lycra is a sure fire method to channel your inner superhero, there is a more practical reason grown adults are wearing skin tight clothing – Applying compression to the muscles after, or even during an event is said to limit exercise induced muscle damage, reducing soreness and speeding recovery.

Medical compression garments have been used for years to improve blood flow. In athletes, they have been shown to improve warm up by increasing muscle temperature, reduce blood lactate concentration, and increase power through muscle stabilisation and increased torque. During recovery, compression can hasten the removal of waste metabolites and reduce muscle soreness after strenuous exercise. First adopted by endurance runners, compression wear is popping up in all areas of the sports world.

This increasing popularity may have inspired a group of French scientists to add to the small but growing body of research into the effectiveness of these garments. The team looked into into the effects of compression garments on recovery after exercise induced mild muscle damage, which is more in line with the effects from the type of training most people undertake on a daily basis than a lot of the previous research, which is based on more strenuous activity.

Eleven trained athletes performed 15.6km simulated cross country runs wearing either compression throughout race and recovery, compression through recovery only, or wearing no compression, which acted as a control. Each athlete ran all three conditions over a number of weeks. Athletes had blood tests before each run, and at a number of time points up to 48h afterward, to detect indicators of muscle damage and inflammation. At the same time points, the athletes reported their levels of muscle soreness and were tested for muscle function.

The results of this trial showed quite clearly that wearing compression garments throughout exercise led to a significant decrease in muscle soreness after the run, and that the athletes noticed this difference almost immediately after the exercise was completed. When athletes wore compression, better muscle performance was also shown in power and torque tests conducted in early recovery.

Compression garments seem to be an effective and non-invasive way to speed recovery time and enhance muscle performance. These results are quite encouraging for the continuing use of compression garments in sport.

Bieuzen F, Brisswalter J, Easthope C, Vercruyssen F, Bernard T, Hausswirth C. Effect of wearing compression stockings on recovery after mild exercise-induced muscle damage. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2014 Mar;9(2):256-64.

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