Helen Twose 's Opinion

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Jog On: Compression gear benefits are all in your head

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Former Warriors player Nathan Fien was a fan of compression gear.
Photo / File
Former Warriors player Nathan Fien was a fan of compression gear. Photo / File

Compression clothing has been popular for a few years among runners keen to get a bit of a performance edge and the trend shows no sign of abating.

Originally designed for medical use - preventing blood clots during long flights, assisting lymph drainage, treating varicose veins and reducing post-surgical swelling - compression has been appropriated by the sports world.
The garments are designed with graded compression - firmer at the ankles than further up the leg - in order to squeeze blood back to the heart.
The manufacturers claim it helps get all important oxygen to the body's muscles and speeds up the removal of metabolic waste.
To garner further appeal in the sportswear market the flesh-tones of the original medical compression-wear have been replaced by hot pinks, fluoro greens and the ever popular black across a range of gear, including tights, socks, calf muscle sleeves and tops.

I've been trying out a pair of the Skins brand tights (former All Black Tana Umaga counts himself a fan) during runs and afterwards.

For anyone who hasn't tried compression, be warned: the fit is tighter than Olivia Newton John's pants in Grease.

It is a workout just getting them on. I nearly cried the time I put them on back-to-front and had to start again.

Once on, the firm but comfortable fit works well for running or post-exercise lounging.
But do the claims stack up and was I getting any benefits?

AUT University School of Sport and Recreation's Associate Professor Andrew Kilding says most studies show there are no real advantages to wearing compression while exercising.

He says the original research showing the benefits of compression tended to have been done on a clinical population, potentially including those with impaired blood flow.

"In healthy people the research is not that clear."

But research has shown some gains from wearing compression during recovery, he says.

"The biggest thing is that people tend to feel better. It's more a psychological thing as much as something happening physiologically, so athletes tend to feel as if they have recovered better after wearing them but more often than not it doesn't translate to a better subsequent performance."

This view is shared by researchers spoken to by Running Times Magazine journalist Mackenzie Lobby in his review of compression research.

Dr Rob Duffield, who studied athletes and compression garments at Australia's Charles Sturt University says "most of the evidence for prolonged endurance exercise shows similar results to our intermittent sprint findings, in that compression garments did not result in major performance improvements".

But Dr Duffield says quite a few of the studies found compression garments promote better perceived (placebo) recovery from soreness.

Dr Ali Ajmol of Massey University told Lobby in the studies he and his colleagues conducted "it appears that the 'feel-good' aspects of wearing the garments is something that cannot be denied".

Essentially it was a case of athletes thinking the garments helped ease aches and pains, an undeniably powerful psychological benefit, but at a physical level there was little or no gain.

Kilding says one of the difficulties in conducting research on compression garments is it is nearly impossible to exclude the placebo effect and test the physiological effects alone.

"You can get someone to wear a compression garment but what else can you give them as a fair comparison? It could actually be that they think they feel better when actually they don't," Prof Kilding says.

In pharmaceutical studies it is possible to give participants a pill - either a real or sugar pill - without letting them know if what they swallowed had the active ingredients, then measuring the results.

"But you can't do 'false' compression because false compression is nothing," he explains.

So what would he say if a running buddy asked him for advice on compression garments?

"Initially I would just say 'save your money' to be honest, but at the same time people have got to try these things. But if I base my recommendations on research evidence the research evidence is pretty poor at the moment."

Events:

* The 10th and final running of the Wild Turkey off-road half marathon, Whatipu, Auckland. Saturday April 21.

Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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