Browse through a sporting-goods store or website, or simply look around a gym or health club, and you’re likely to see the thick, stretchy shorts and tights (and sometimes tops) known as compression garments.
A cross between skintight bike shorts and a girdle, they are super snug—typically 15 percent smaller than your regular size—and made of bands that hug muscles, thighs, buttocks, and calves. The shorts come in various lengths, but are usually mid-thigh and worn under regular shorts.
Marketers claim that the garments help athletes and exercisers improve their game or workouts, speed recovery, and prevent delayed-onset muscle soreness. They’re also supposed to reduce the risk of certain injuries by warming, supporting, and increasing blood flow to muscles, all of which also contribute to enhanced athletic performance.
Putting them to the test
In recent years these claims have been tested, but only in small studies involving young athletes. For instance, an Australian study in 2011 found that compression shorts improved blood flow and/or oxygen consumption in runners and triathletes, but did not improve running performance.
Another Australian study that year found that male rugby players who wore compression shorts had lower heart rates and less lactic acid (which forms when muscles tire and causes a burning sensation) when running on a treadmill. In another 2011 study, from Occidental College in Los Angeles, runners were able to jump higher with less perceived exertion when wearing compression tights.
But some other studies have found no benefits. And a German review article, also in 2011, concluded that studies have had inconsistent results, probably because they’ve varied so much in design and in the kinds of compression garments they tested.
As for the feel, some people find that the shorts cause less friction and chafing than conventional gear. Others find that the tight material traps heat and oil next to the skin and promotes folliculitis (inflammation of hair follicles). Styles, materials, and brands vary in their degree of compression, fit, feel, and ability to wick away moisture.
Bottomline: There isn’t enough research to support the claims made for compression garments. It’s not entirely clear why they might help—and for what kinds of exercise. They may actually be detrimental for some activities.