Compression clothing : fashion or function?


Compression clothing has become the latest fashion accessory and has been attributed with a range of performance and recovery benefits. There are now numerous manufacturers of compression clothing ranging from household brand names to small specialist companies. It has a great following – but are the benefits real or perceived? David Lamb, Sportscover Australia CEO, is a serious amateur tri/athlete who, in his spare time, competes in events around the globe. Here he gives his opinion on compression clothing and what to look for when choosing the right clothing for you.

Like many amateur athletes, my first experience of sports compression clothing came with some false expectations. This was largely due to lack of education of the staff selling at a retail level, and my instinct to go with the big brand names stocked in the large sports store. The brand was a major international sports brand, and the engineering was typically high quality. Unfortunately my experiences with the garments did not match the hype of the marketing campaign and rendered them almost useless.

The trouble was that firstly, the fabric used was great in restricting a lot of activity. In fact it was more suited to smoothing out my many bumps under my clothing but so incredibly annoying to do any kind of training in, and moisture management had not been considered greatly, so not only was it uncomfortable but it was also quite wet! Ewwww! Secondly, I didn’t understand the recovery piece of the puzzle. A great compression garment should actually deliver most of its benefit post training. However, again, I found the garments so annoyingly restrictive to wear, that I couldn’t wait to get them off. Predictably, the garments ended up in a recycling bin somewhere.
Compression has become a euphemism for tight fitting athletic clothing, whether for actual use in sport, or for “Active Wear” whilst heading down to the café for a latte or a fashion statement whilst doing the grocery shopping. Awareness of the real benefits behind well-constructed and properly tested compression garments is still at the early stages (outside of professional or elite levels), even now when there is plenty of stock in the market place, despite the fact that a large part of the testing and product development has been completed and the ability to make an informed choice between genuine compression wear and “Active Wear”.

Many are confused between garments that are tight fitting, and may have some performance characteristics, such as moisture management, anti-microbial (non stink), and behave as a thermal base layer, and real sports compression garments with a multitude of benefits.

The difference generally can be broken down by simply considering the three core components that go into any garment:

1. Design. How is the garment designed to fit, and is that fit commensurate with the desired usage. Refer my introduction – my expectation was that I would be able to train in the garments. Compression garments should be designed to actually compress, for good scientific reasons.

2. Fabric construction and characteristics. There are so many fabrics available to manufacturers, that constant review and testing is a major part of any brand development. Does the fabric do what the manufacturer claims it does? Does it wick your sweat away easily and consistently? Does it provide UV protection? Does it retain its elasticity after multiple uses? Does it deteriorate after washing? etc. Or does it just come with a popular brand name and minimal performance benefits?

3. Actual garment construction. How is it stitched? Where are the stitching lines? Is the stitching durable? Is the stitching flat so that it is not irritating? Does the stitching support the overall garment purpose?

The array of options is significant and growing, and various brands make some incredible claims, much of it not supported by real scientific evidence. There is a growing body of evidence scientifically, and anecdotally, that well-constructed performance compression garments can contribute to performance and recovery, in significant ways.

Linebreak Managing Director, Wilf Robinson states that their locally designed and developed brand, settled on their fabric, and manufacturer, based on that information gathered over 15 years of punishing trials.

“We have spent a long time working with a vast array of athletes across the spectrum of sports, and demographics. What we have learnt is that no matter what the sports endeavour, committed athletes want trusted brand partners. They want to know that when they need that product to perform it will. It is unlikely to be something they would wear out for a social engagement, but it will be something they will be very proud of when it comes to training and performance time. In this space, imposters get found out quickly, as in all types of sports. We are very fortunate to have found a combination of design, fabrics and superior manufacturing to allow us to actively pursue those who want and need those performance products.” We might be less well-known but it’s no accident that we supply several NRL, A-League and other elite sports men and woman both in Australia and internationally. They demand the best and won’t put up with inferior performance.”

Of course, there are other better known brands. Indeed global brands who offer great training and recovery products, but what the central question should be, is what is the primary function of the garment? If it is to provide a thermal layer, then you range of options is enormous, from basic polypropylene products that you can pick up from $10, to higher end fabrics and designs over $100. If it is actually to provide some level of soft tissue protection and recovery benefit (with the added benefit of a thermal layer, moisture management, UV protection etc) then you should look a little harder. There are very few quality brands specialising in this category.”

Like any category, marketing dollars spent doesn’t not necessarily equate to product quality or match with your own product needs. If you are considering a personal purchase or outfitting your team, I would highly recommend product trialling of your own. Find some people in your organisation that you trust to give you detailed and objective feedback, and get the suppliers to provide a few samples. Let your product testers trial the product for decent period of time to test in different circumstances, after product washing and multiple uses to see if the garment performs in all those areas. You might find that the most expensive is not necessarily the best match for you.

David Lamb, amateur triathlete and convert from Active Wear to Compression garments.
CEO Sportscover Australia

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