Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Compression Obsession

Sporting my CW-X Stabilyx Tights
When you write about sports and fitness, namely running and triathlon most days, you come to hear a lot (and I mean a lot) about compression gear. In turn, you also get curious…about their effectiveness, how they work and why everyone, especially those darn Ironmaners, are wearing them.

I’ll admit I cracked down for compression sleeves a few years ago and fell so in love with them that I’d wear them in the most unusual of places—um, like under my jeans while at a bar (in my defense, the bar is next door to my house, I had finished a half Ironman hours before and some visiting friends ushered me off my couch) and paired with flip flops and shorts while shopping at the grocery store. If you want to start up a conversation with a Trader Joe’s employee, let me tell you that’ll do it.

But I feared the full-on compression tights. Runners and triathletes might swear by them—or buy them because it seemed like the right thing to do—yet there was something about looking like a stuffed sausage when the compression panels pulled and tugged my muscles into place that turned me off. I’ll never let that happen again. Instead I fell in love with my CW-X Stabilyx Tights, only fitting since I already cherished one of the sports bras the brand made (can I say it’s literally the only one I wear for marathons?). I’m going to chalk it up to the simple fact that the tights dispelled all of my preconceived notions--and then some.

The Myth: Compression tights are hard to pull on and just as hard to pull off.
The Truth: The package warned that these tights wouldn’t be easy to pull up your legs and I expected a fighting match when I wiggled into mine on Thanksgiving morning thanks to a lack of running but flood of food in the last 30 days. I was mistaken. Not hard. Not gut sucking. Not glued to my legs post-run.

The Myth: They make you look like a stuffed sausage.
The Truth: Buy the wrong size and the above statement could hold more truth than you’d like to admit, yet I felt more, not less, streamlined when I wore them. I could be jumping to conclusions that the paneling arranged strategically down the legs helped, but I’d like to think that it sucked me in at all the right spots.


The Myth: The compression is just a gimmick.
The Truth: Yes, OK, this statement has more truth than myth to it. Recent studies might dispel previous notions that compression clothing could boost performance—if you’re reading the PubMed ones and not research shared by the companies that sell compression gear. Much of that original research was performed on sedentary and aging adults who wore medical compression gear (cue to recollection of my grandma’s compression socks that she abhorred). But I’m running with the argument that it’s all psychological. It’s like eating the same bowl of oatmeal before a big race because the first and second time you did, you ran fast. And my first run out? I ran fast, even too fast at the start judging by my Garmin readout at mile one of the Turkey Trot. But did I care? Nah. My leg muscles loved it.

The Myth: You can exercise longer and recover faster.
The Truth: Science doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer to this one, as Joe Friel puts it. If you read the recent research, the results aren’t obvious and whittle down to personal preferences. A 2011 study found that “there was no significant difference in 10km times, heart rate or blood lactate levels regardless of the type of stocking worn.” A 2010 study that examined the effects of compression stockings during exercise and recovery found that “post-exercise lactate removal was significantly faster with compression stockings.” Another 2010 study found that “there were no differences in performance or other measures except for muscle soreness which was less after using the compression stockings.

The Myth: You can wear compression gear out in public—with nothing over it.
The Truth: I think Stacy and Clinton from “What Not to Wear” would shudder at the workout gear I wear out on a regular basis, but they wouldn’t be the only ones shaking their heads at compression tights. A triathlete spied two fellow Iron-athletes sporting compression tights, serving as leggings, and flip flops the day after the race. (I wish I could remember who posted it, so I could properly credit he or she, but the comments were priceless). If you’re going to go with compression, think in terms of SPANX—would you really wear those tummy suckers without adding a shirt or pants to cover them up? The comments just aren’t worth it, spoken by a true fool, me, who wore my sleeves to the grocery store, paired with shorts and flip flops. A. I spelled triathlete geek. B. I know I got stares at the store because one of the Trader Joe’s employees now knows me as racer girl.

Targeted support? Uniform pressure to make the muscles work together and not against each other? I could be reading the marketing material that's supposed to entice me to buy these tights, yet I'm hooked anyway. If I feel like I have magic legs when I run--and this coming after a season of sitting still from an injury that stemmed from tight calves in the first place--I'll take it. And if the clock shows a faster split as a result, even better. But maybe that's just my mind telling me to run faster. Guess the true test would be to wear compression tights when I'm skiing and really putting my legs through a workout. After chasing my husband down the mountain all day, and losing every time, I could use some relief for my quads and calves--or a "performance enhancer" to beat him. Just once.

What are your thoughts on compression gear? Have you noticed any differences when you wear it versus when you don't?

3 comments:

  1. I’m a guy, 6’2, 200 pounds, early 40s. Married with kids, living in suburbia. Can I pick your brain for a minute?

    If I go to the grocery store (or anywhere public) at midnight, can I wear a fleece hoodie pullover, white low-cut ankle socks, running shoes and long black Nike, Under Armour or 2XU compression pants…and NOTHING ELSE (including underwear)?

    Do you think I should toss on a pair of fleece running shorts over the leggings? What color shorts? Does color matter?

    And instead of white low-cut ankle socks, can I wear thick white slouch socks with the leggings tucked in (socks in size to fit)?

    How about this clothing combination for an overnight errand: a T-shirt, white low-cut ankle socks, running shoes and fleece shorts over three-quarter-length black tights (Nike, UA, Reebok, etc.). No underwear.

    Do men's three-quarter-length sports tights too closely resemble women's capri yoga pants when worn without athletic shorts?

    If any of this gear is unacceptable for the grocery store, what about a neighborhood jog at 5:30 in the morning? Or the gym?

    Have you ever seen a guy wearing compression tights in public? Where? Was he discreet? Did others notice?

    Let’s assume all the clothing described here was made for men by reputable, family-trusted designers and sold in your local mall big box sporting goods store. No crossdressers, no gay porn, no pantyhose, no nylon, lycra or spandex fetish.

    Full disclosure: In the past year, I’ve replaced all my underwear with compression shorts. Someday all men will discover what I’ve learned and do the same. Sure, all your drawers will cost $25-$30 a pop, but the comfort makes ’em worth every penny!

    Also: I’m not trying to show off my bulge (not much to show anyway).

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