How does compression clothing work, and does this tight-fitting kit actually provide the recovery-boosting benefits it’s supposed to?

The fundamental aim of compression clothing is to aid muscle recovery. So with the help of stretching exercises, you can bounce back stronger and quicker from every workout. They really are among the best workout clothes around.

Originally, compression clothing, specifically compression stockings, were worn to stop blood from pooling in the legs. That’s why you might see people wearing compression socks on long-haul flights, where movement is limited and circulation isn’t optimal.

“Compression clothing was traditionally used for the treatment and management of circulatory diseases which cause swelling,” says David Wiener, the training and nutrition specialist at AI-based fitness and lifestyle coaching app Freeletics. “However, a growing body of research suggests it’s also effective in improving exercise performance and muscle recovery.

“From my research and experience, I believe that compression wear works because it helps the flow of oxygen around the body via blood flow, and it is precisely that oxygen that fuels muscles during exercise, powering you to go further and faster.”

He adds that the jury is still out regarding the science behind compression, but the benefits are thought to be associated with “improved circulation and body awareness, and reduced muscle vibrations and muscle swelling, as well as feelings of fatigue and soreness.”

All of which makes compression clothing a useful addition to your exercise recovery package. If you’ve just done a particularly gruelling workout, or you’ve clocked up some mega miles on a run, compression clothing could help your body recover so you can get back to exercise quicker.

Compression clothing and exercise performance

There’s also research, published in the Sports Medicine Journal, that suggests compression clothing could actually help to improve running performance. Although there was found to be no difference in running times, the research found that ‘runners may improve variables related to endurance performance (such as time to exhaustion) slightly, due to improvements in running economy, biomechanical variables, perception, and muscle temperature.’

Another study, published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, found that when compression clothing was applied for recovery purposes after exercise, some small to moderate differences were noticed in the recovery of strength and power, as well as perceived muscle pain.

Should you wear compression kit?

While there is reputable evidence supporting compression clothing’s effectiveness, critics have pointed out that most studies are small-scale, and we’re yet to have conclusive proof that it can enhance recovery.

That said, its popularity is testament to the fact that it clearly works for a lot of people. Whether that’s psychosomatic or not is not a big deal; if you feel better prepared for your next workout having worn a pair of compression tights, keep wearing them.

If it helps you feel mentally ready for exercise, your body – whether it’s received a genuine physiological boost or not – will respond in kind.

Lower half of runners participating in a race
Runners often wear calf sleeves to encourage cramp-preventing blood flow | Photography: Shutterstock

How to wear compression clothing

Although there is compression clothing available for virtually every body part, the most common types cover the legs (tights and calf sleeves) and torso (baselayers).

“Calf sleeves are great for when it’s too hot for compression tights,” adds Wiener, “to boost blood flow and limit muscle vibrations. Compression tops, on the other hand, aim to adjust your posture and open up the chest area for efficient movement – particularly running.

“Full-length compression tights and tops can also help to regulate your body’s temperature, keeping you comfortable in both hot and cold conditions.

“For maximum benefit, compression clothing should be tight (but not overly restrictive), fitting close to the skin to provide a sustained amount of gentle pressure.”

The conventional approach is to stick on your compression kit immediately after working out to stimulate blood flow – in a strength-training context, research has found that compression tights can help with muscle damage caused by resistance-based exercise when worn within 24 hours post-exercise – but some people prefer to wear it during exercise, particularly in winter.