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Are Compression Textiles Just a Marketing Tool?

Sports compression textiles, according to new research by the Hohenstein Institute for Textile Innovation, may have picked up in popularity among performance product, but they could be little more than a placebo when it comes to affecting actual performance.

Compression textiles have been a hit for endurance sports like marathon or triathlon running, and it’s been proven that the performance traits of compression clothing help foster faster recovery after workouts. That’s largely because the compression component helps reduce vein diameter, aids with bloodflow and reduces wobbling masses and muscle vibrations.

What these compression textiles don’t seem to do, according to Hohenstein’s Martin Harnisch, who presented the institute’s research at the Dornbirn Man-Made Fibers Congress in Austria Thursday, is influence endurance and running performance—which some of these products purport to do.

To try and answer that question, Hohenstein researchers tested 29 different garments with different fiber content, testing things like compression, pressure from foot to hip, wet cling, absorption and compression changes with stretch.

They used 10 recreational runners to test three different compression stockings: a calf sleeve, a full stocking and a thigh sleeve. The runners tested the gear in a climatic chamber and on a treadmill to maintain a consistent temperature and running speed. During the test, Hohenstein looked at indicators of running performance like oxygen consumption, heart rate, core temperature and arterial lactate concentration.

“We found no influence of sports compression textiles on endurance measureable. On the lactate concentration, there was no physiological effect,” Harnisch said. Going through each indicator, researchers also found that the compression textiles had no physical effect on oxygen consumption or heart rate, and the garments didn’t add any extra heat stress to the wearers.

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Naturally, researchers had some runners in non-compression sportswear as a reference, and though there was no evidence of any physical impact on the body, the test subjects still seemed to prefer the garments with compression over those without.

“Nearly all subjects said yes, the compressive textiles felt better during running,” Harnisch said.

One subject in particular said he beat his 10-year-old marathon record time while wearing the compression garments and was very pleased with his overall performance.

“When just looking at the measureable physiological parameters, we don’t find a difference in running performance with the compression textiles,” Harnisch said. “But for the recreational runner, the placebo effect is high.”

Athletes, whether professional or recreational, have reported positive effects from wearing compression garments, like a reduced likelihood of getting muscle cramps and faster recovery from workouts, meaning less tired muscles.

Harnisch admitted Hohenstein’s study did not extend long enough to determine such after effects, as the focus was on changes to real-time performance, but he did say despite science finding little impact on the body, the placebo effect may still be worth something to the wearer.

“In the end, when I feel good with this compression, then it’s not just marketing,” he said.