Compression Therapy in Sports: Can Compression Up Your Game?

Doctors often recommend compression therapy for patients with Chronic Venous Insufficiency (CVI)—a condition where the valves in the leg veins are not working efficiently enough to pump blood back to the heart. Medical compression therapy includes garments or devices that provide compression to a particular body region. For example, for the treatment of CVI, a doctor might prescribe compression stockings or bandages for the legs.

Compression stockings are special stockings that help promote circulation in the legs. As a person walks, the contraction and relaxation of the calf muscles around the veins aid in moving blood toward the heart. The external compression of specialized hosiery, socks, or bandages act as a layer of muscle by gently squeezing the stretched vein walls together, allowing the valves to close. In this way, the stockings help to squeeze or push blood back up the leg in an effort to counteract pooling of blood in the leg and reduce the swelling that comes with it.

Venous disease sufferers aren’t the only ones using compression garments these days, though. A growing number of athletes has recently jumped on the compression therapy bandwagon. The use of compression therapy to enhance athletic performance during competition and to promote muscle recovery afterward has gained momentum in the sporting world over the past few years.

The theory behind the use of compression both during competition and recovery is that increasing blood flow through the veins aids in the clearance of metabolic by-products such as lactate that build up during muscle exertion. Theoretically, the increased clearance should improve recovery time and enhance athletic performance.

Several small studies have proven inconclusive on whether the use of compression improves athletic performance; however, many athletes have noted that it helps improve recovery time and prevent injuries. Many who wear compression garments during competition perceive less pain, soreness, and fatigue afterward, and others who use compression therapy following a workout note a comparatively shortened recovery time.

Whether or not compression theory really does help athletes improve their game remains to be seen; however, an increasing number of sporting apparel companies have jumped on the trend, as compression shorts, shirts, and other clothing items are now easily available for even the amateur athlete.

Although more scientific research needs to be done to show us whether compression therapy is truly beneficial for athletes, anecdotal evidence suggests that most athletes who wear compression report feeling much better post-workout than they do when not wearing it, which may go a long way toward enhancing individual athletic performance and recovery.