Compression kit: Are you squeezing yourself out of strength

I love training and racing in triathlon, running and cycling and love the psychological side of those sports. I know and understand far less on the physiological side. But am always interested in watching the way new trends in these sports fly through the community. I’m fascinated by how equipment which seems really unusual one season is suddenly everywhere the next. With more people travelling to races round the world, and the massive increase of Ironman and 70.3 races making the ‘tri season’ almost continuous and the increased use of social media, it often seems that new trends, equipment, theories for triathlon spread quicker than ever.

Many spring to mind. Speed tools like TT bikes, areo helmets, deep rim wheels, racing trainers, £500 wetsuits, nutrition supplements like drinking cherry or beetroot juice and covering every dish in chai seeds and recovery strategies such as ice baths, odd trouser shaped things with electricity running through them and a various array of compression kit. I’ve always wondered how much research is behind each, and if each athlete looks that up, or simply logs onto wiggle and buys the new hot thing because everyone else does?

Compression kit is one trend you just can’t miss in the triathlon world. Every colour can be bought. Every bit of the body can be covered. So many ironman athletes seem squished into it. So I was really interested to chat to Dr Charlie Pedlar of St Mary’s University a few weeks ago about the pros and cons of compression clothing.

In summary, his research, and the research of other experts in this area has found that compression and other related areas like ice baths work really well for recovery. But perhaps so well that they can cancel out some of the benefits of training. He says:

“There are three thoughts behind the use of compression: They say by compressing the tissue you might be influencing blood flow in some way, by applying pressure you are preventing swelling which may have an impact on muscle function and if you wear it during exercise you reduce the amount muscle oscillation with everything moving around less. However, if you are reducing the process of damage and inflammation, then the stimulus for adaptation is reduced. You will recover faster, but you will not be adapting as effectively as you could. There is a trade off that if you reduce the amount of damage that is being caused then you also reduce the potential for adaptation.”

So Pedlar advises if you are only trying to strengthen your cardiovascular function (and are not worried about strengthening your muscles) then it might be useful to wear compression. It may also be good to wear it when you have lots of races back to back (like multiple day events like Marathon De Sables or Disney’s Goofy challenge, Modern Pentathlon or Heptathlon) as it will help reduce DOMS. And again maybe good to wear after your last race of the season when you are not looking for adaptation but pain-free legs to go on holiday with. But day to day training, throughout the season, after races mid season when you are looking to continue building strength and speed, they may actually do you more harm than good and waste soms of that effort you are putting in.

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