Dress to Compress: The Facts

Over the last five years or so, you could not have failed to notice an increasing number of the world's elite runners sporting figure-hugging race apparel.

Even in the world of running mortals, your eyebrow probably barely twitches when you pitch up at the smallest of local 10K races to find competitors clad in similarly unforgiving second skins.

But with the world of compression gear awash with semi-scientific and often perplexing phrases such as 'delayed onset muscle soreness', 'high-gauge knit structure' or 'kinesiology-taping technology' - what, you may ask yourself, does it all mean? And, more importantly, what does it all do?

In essence, compression wear is close-fitting clothing - from socks to base layers and T-shirts - with a high Lycra (or other elasticated material) content that squeezes and hugs the muscles that are key to efficient running. The kit promises to help you train more efficiently, avoid common injuries and recover faster. But does it deliver? For the lowdown on the big squeeze, read on...

Compression Tops: The Benefits

  • Core support: Compression tops provide core support around your stomach, sides and lower back, which can become fatigued - particularly on long runs. Although compression wear from the waist down (such as tights) will help both during  and after exercise, compression tops only really help during a run.   
  • Better breathing: Tops train the breathing by gently squeezing and supporting the chest with each inhalation. This encourages a more focused breathing style and can even reduce the risk of a painful stitch.
  • Improved posture: Support is delivered through the back for a more upright approach to the run. Better posture equals better breathing, and this in turn equals improved running.

Compression Tights: The Benefits

  • Increased recovery speed: Used as part of the 'RICE' regime (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate), compression leggings - or tights - can rapidly reduce recovery time and minimise delayed onset muscle soreness.
  • Less wasted energy: Tights reduce muscle oscillation, particularly through the quad and calf.
  • Less cramp: Lactic acid is flushed out by the squeezing of muscles and increased venous return - which may help reduce or even eliminate cramping on the run.
  • Decreased injury risk: The force of impact is lessened, helping to support and stabilise injury- weakened areas such as the knee.
  • Greater running efficiency: Supports injured or prone-to-injury areas such as the calf and quad, gently squeezing and cradling problem areas, reducing muscle oscillation and helping to keep muscles warm so that they can work more effectively.
  • More Oxygen: Compression socks increase venous return and help deliver oxygen to muscles with a tight fit around the foot and a graduated squeeze up the calf.

Jargon Buster

  • Blood Lactate: Contrary to popular belief, blood lactate (or lactic acid) is not strictly a waste product. However, some tests appear to show that raised levels can lead to fatigued muscles and a reduction in running performance.
  • Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS): The general stiffness you feel between 24 and 72 hours   after strenuous exercise. Once thought to be caused by lactic acid, DOMS is now known to simply be the result of over-exercised muscles.
  • Exercise Induced Muscle Damage (EIMD): This is simply a term used by sports scientists to describe the muscular wear and tear caused by exercise.
  • Graduated Compression: To improve blood flow, some compression wear varies the amount of squeeze along its length - for example, from the ankle up to the top of the calf.
  • Muscle Oscillation: The natural vibration that occurs as a muscle is flexed or it experiences impact. Think of a ripple moving up your leg as your foot hits the ground in slow motion.
  • Venous Return: Often abbreviated to VR, this refers to the flow of blood back to the heart. Compression wear can aid venous return, 'balancing' the blood flow from the heart and helping to flush out lactic acid.

    Picture credit: Don Bishop/ Getty Images

Sizing Up

Your guide to buying compression kit that fits your body perfectly

Rather than the usual small, medium or large you might expect from standard sports kit sizing, compression wear often comes in a precise range of size options.

Using a tape measure, take the following body measurements: calf length, thigh circumference, leg length, waist and chest. Then check these against the sizing charts on the company's websites before ordering.