Compression Garments: Do They Improve Athletic Performance?

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With their bright colors and cool designs, compression garments have become increasingly popular among athletes, particularly young athletes who wish to emulate the professionals. But do they improve performance or enhance recovery following a workout?

As a high school athletic trainer, Christopher Cleverly, AT, says elbow, knee, and shin sleeves are most popular among the athletes he serves. “But compression gear comes in many forms: arm sleeves for basketball players, knee sleeves for football and basketball, shin sleeves for cross-country, even socks, underwear, T-shirts, and shorts,” he says.

What Is Their Intended Purpose?

Although there’s no conclusive evidence regarding the effectiveness of compression garments, the theory behind wearing them is threefold, Cleverly explains:

  1. To increase blood flow to the area. “Because they’re tight, some believe they force blood to the area and potentially improve performance,” says Cleverly.
  2. To provide stability to joints; the added support may increase confidence and prevent injury
  3. To reduce muscle fatigue and soreness following a workout

“There is research that indicates compression gear can improve performance and recovery,” says Cleverly. “But there’s also research that shows the benefit is purely a psychological one.”

For some, the garments help athletes feel safer doing certain moves on the playing field. For example, athletes with knee issues may act tentatively when they need to twist the knee during a game. But wearing a compression garment on the knee may cause the athlete to twist without hesitation.

That extra level of confidence the compression garment provides could be a game-changer. “Psychologically, some athletes tell themselves I can push a litter harder, run faster, and jump higher thanks to the added support,” Cleverly explains.

Are Compression Garments Safe?

Cleverly isn’t aware of any reasons why today’s compression gear would be unsafe. “When sleeves first came out about 20 years ago, there were instances where the sleeve was so tight it actually cut off blood flow,” he says. But the fabric used today is more flexible, and that is no longer a risk. “I’ve seen multiple high school athletes wear compression sleeves with absolutely no problem,” he says. “I haven’t heard of an athlete having any problems with them.”

He advises any athletes who are returning to their sport after an injury or who have an anatomic abnormality to consult with their doctor before wearing compression gear. “But for the general, healthy athlete, I don’t think it’s necessary to consult a doctor first,” he says. If you’re unsure about the safety or the proper fit, consult your doctor before making a purchase.

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Christopher Cleverly, AT

Christopher Cleverly, AT

Jeremy Moore, MD

Jeremy Moore, MD