Recovery is one of the most important factors when it comes to human performance. There are many recovery methods available all dealing with certain physiological mechanisms. In this post I will discuss the use of compression garments and how they seek to increase recovery rate.
The use of compression garments has, become quite popular recently and there are several brands providing many different options. The basic theory upon which they work is quite simple. When we contract our muscles, the fibers squeeze against the surrounding blood vessels. When we relax these vessels are released. This natural process can aid circulation as it helps promote blood flow through the vasculature. This is particularly beneficial to the lower limbs, where the blood pumped back towards the heart must compete with gravity. This return flow is known as “venous return”. It takes blood that has been deoxygenated by the muscles back to the lungs for re-oxygenation. It then returns to the heart which pumps it back around to the muscles again.
Compression garments provide external pressure on the limbs, artificially causing a similar compression on the blood vessels. This extra compression helps venous return in the same way contracting muscles do. When we exercise we increase the rate at which the blood becomes deoxygenated and must in return, increase the rate of re-oxygenation. In this case compression garments can potentially be beneficial during exercise by promoting circulation. They have a number of other benefits during exercise but I shall focus on the recovery aspect for now.
When we are exercising our muscles produce a large amount of metabolites. These metabolites will eventually break down and dissipate with some rest. The issue is that when we stop exercising we generally rest in a fairly stationary position. Sitting stationary these metabolites do not clear as well and can accumulate in the extremities. Having compression garments may provide the improvement to venous return without having to do much physically. This is where compression garments could have their greatest influence on recovery rate as they can work will the athlete rests.
Compression garments can also help prevent and reduce swelling. During intense exercise we can cause damage to cells which leak fluid into the surrounding tissue. This produces swelling. In most cases swelling can be considered part of the healing process. It can also cause a sense of tightness and discomfort. In this case, extra compression may prevent excessive swelling and tightness during competition and training days.
In terms of performance, research on compression garments is still largely inconclusive. There’s a fairly simple reason for mixed results. For garments to work they must provide adequate compression. Owing to the fact that we are all sized a bit differently, generic sizings for garments may not work for everybody. Anecdotal evidence suggests different brands work better for different people based on individual fitting etc. Despite this we recommend their use as its another tool in an athletes arsenal. They can be useful during activity, at rest, and during travel.
Such garments will not turn a weekend warrior into an Olympian overnight. They can however, when used in part of a larger scale strategy, allow an athlete to recover at a slightly faster rate. When dealing with recovery it is important to try be as thorough as possible as it is a factor that is largely controllable.
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