Athletes wear compression clothing to help their bodies deal with blood flow. Whether it impacts their performance is debatable.

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I HAVE NEVER understood the obsession with compression in activewear. In the world of athletes, compressive gear is a regular topic. For the uninitiated, compression means your clothes squeeze you.

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Oscar Galvan, center, serves wine to Scott and Joyce Cutler from Kirkland, the couple on the right, and Dwight and Karen Sawtell from Edmonds, on the outdoor patio at Cafe Juanita. (Johnny Andrews/The Seattle Times)
Oscar Galvan, center, serves wine to Scott and Joyce Cutler from Kirkland, the couple on the right, and Dwight and Karen Sawtell from Edmonds, on the outdoor patio at Cafe Juanita. (Johnny Andrews/The Seattle Times)

Lots of professional athletes wear compressive socks, leggings or sleeves, and it’s trickled down to the rest of us. Even I have preferences. I don’t like compression during yoga, but I do like it when I lift weights.

Some folks say it impacts athletic performance, though I can’t claim it’s made a difference for me.

But I was curious to know more and turned to an expert. Lexi Harlow, clinical supervisor for physical therapy at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, prescribes compression to many patients who have medical issues that cause swelling.

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First, she explained the principle of compression: You use tight socks or pants to help the body deal with blood flow, akin to a muscle pump. When her patients’ bodies aren’t working well to move fluid, compression clothing acts like another layer of skin or tissue. When muscles move underneath the fabric, it creates a muscle pump that moves fluid and waste away from the area.

The thing about compression is that you can’t do it for an hour, or even for six. It has to be a constant thing for it to make an impact, Harlow said. As soon as you take off compression clothing, the fluid rushes back into the tissue, and swelling happens.

What does this mean for athletes, who don’t have medical issues with swelling?

During a workout, unless you have a swelling condition, compression probably isn’t doing much, she said; all you are doing is changing the pressure on a limb, rather than making any difference on muscular output or force.

A 2015 study from Indiana University on long-distance runners showed lower-leg compression did not impact performance or oxygen consumption.

Some research has shown compression can support recovery when worn for 24 full hours after performance, backing up what Harlow told me.

Does that mean I have to sit around in compressive tights after I work out?

Harlow laughed, and said her husband does exactly that after cycling. That sounds terrible to me. I don’t want to be squeezed after a workout.

“Physiologically, it’s probably helping his body recover,” she said. “He’s able to get up the next day and do it again and not feel delayed-onset muscle soreness.”

Theoretically, she acknowledged, if you wear compressive clothing while working out, your blood flow might be better in the compressed area because waste products are getting out faster. You might feel like you’re performing better, but it has nothing to do with how your muscles perform, she said.

The other potential benefit of compression is more awareness to the area of the body being squeezed. Your body’s nervous system can feel more sensation, and get more nerve feedback, which might help you know how that area of your body is doing. Your body is more attuned to your legs because of your leggings.

“You’re training your brain to pay better attention to that particular place,” she said.

If you’re going to use compression, tailor it to your sport, Harlow advised. You don’t need compression over your entire body. Cyclists would focus on legs, while tennis players might focus on their arms to help mitigate tennis elbow.

Using compression if you have a swelling disorder or condition can present some risk, so Harlow advises seeing a medical professional if you suspect you have an issue.

I rather doubt I will start lounging around in my most compressive tights after a round of weightlifting. If I were running a big race, I might consider it for recovery. Or, I might just take an Epsom salt bath.