Compression therapy can be traced as far back as the Neolithic period when warriors would bandage their legs after a battle. This kind of therapy would fade and be replaced time and again over the years as treatment for venous diseases like prevention of blood clots and varicose veins.
The revival of compression therapy today was prompted by the invention of modern textile fabrics made of either natural or chemical fibers which lead to the creation of Nylon stockings, Lycra, Spandex, QuickDry, and Kevlar products.
Olympic gold and silver medalist marathon runner from South Africa, Shaun Meiklejohn says that compression stockings has helped him with his recovery process as far as pain is concerned. He said, “I have been amazed at how my legs have been saved immediately after removing the socks especially after the down Comrades event.” However, he admits that he only began to use compression socks after a seven year hiatus from running and after his peak years around the mid 1990s when he won several marathons. Nonetheless, with compression gear, he has gone on to win several more marathons while raising money for charity.
In 2016, a study was done on runners and their chosen sport. The study revealed that up to 65% of people who run get injured at least once a year. Furthermore, half of those injured suffer from recurring conditions even though many of the injuries could have been avoided. According to Runner’s World, we are facing an epidemic in running injuries. Many runners tend to land on their heel (also known as heel strikers) and this habit causes feet and ankle injuries. Other injuries are caused by the force on the ground when running or by runners who are stompers. These type of runners typically get injured in their hamstring, feet and ankles.
Compression therapy is popular because it offers an effective solution from potential injuries and provides quicker recovery time through the use of compression gear. The huge question is: how effective is compression therapy and how do runners benefit from using compression gear?
What is Compression Therapy?
According to the Italian College of Phlebology, compression therapy is defined as “ pressure exerted on a limb by materials of varying elasticity to prevent or treat diseases related to the venolymphatic system.” In a nutshell, if your venolymphatic system is compromised, you suffer from swelling, varicose veins, pain, and poor blood circulation.
Compression therapy is different from Containment therapy although often used erroneously as referring to one and the same kind of therapy. The main difference between these two therapies is “pressure.” With Containment therapy, the area is isolated but in a passive sense. With Compression therapy, the isolated area is compressed using high elastic material even when the person is at rest.
Scientific Benefits of Compression Therapy
- Reduces volume of blood in your lower limbs by 45% if you are lying down and by 65% of you are standing up
- Increases tissue pressure so that fluids are reabsorbed back into the veins thereby preventing edema or swelling
- Prevents varicose and spider veins which can be painful. Itchy, and cause blood flow problems
- Promotes faster healing of leg ulcers and is highly recommended especially for diabetics
- When used with cold therapy, compression therapy can limit tissue damage and the removal of waste and cellular debris from the body
- Used on persons who are in the same position for long hours like the bedridden, pilots, sales clerks, and other similar occupations
Medical Benefits of Compression Therapy for Runners
Most runners are physically fit, follow a strict and nutritious diet, admit to a high tolerance for pain, and are generally motivated for the long stretch. Compression clothing, sleeves and socks are a must-have accessory for runners because it:
- Eases the tension after a hard workout or long distance run
- Restores circulation
- Reduces acid build-up
- Controls the effects of the vibration on the body as the runner’s feet hit the ground again and again (otherwise known as muscle oscillation).
There is also the psychological effect of using compression gear: a frame of mind that athletes wearing compression gear adopt that affirms positive action towards a quicker physical recovery.
For compression gear to help a runner recover, it must have the following features:
- Padded foot bed
- Calf support, limb stabilizations
- Protection for Achilles tendon
- Comfortable bands
- Fit well
- Have at least 17 to 20 millimeters of Mercury (mmHg) compression which refers to the average pressure level. The general rule is to wear 17 to 20 mmHg for achy limbs with mild swelling and only going to a higher level of 20 to 30 mmHG or 30 to 40 mmHg for moderate to severe swelling or discolouration.
- Graduated levels of compression
The Truth about Compression Therapy
While known to help with recovery, based on a 2010 study by the Indiana University, compression gear does not improve a runner’s efficiency and performance. This means it can shorten the recovery time and provide additional temporary muscle support at a time when your muscles are under stress. Another study published by ResearchGate and written by European-based scholars and sports science experts reveal that compression gear improves the time-to-exhaustion ratio, running economy, muscle temperature, and bio-mechanical variables while reducing muscle damage, pain, and swelling. However, compression gear will not have an effect on the cardiac parameters, body temperature, or the performance during and immediately after a run. In addition, it does not pay to use the compression gear for extended periods. In fact, the minimum wearing time is two hours while the maximum time is 72 hours.
According to neurologists, wearing compression gear for extended periods can cause a condition known as “meralgia paresthetica” which is nerve pain from too much pressure. The symptoms include stomach pain, urinary incontinence, irritable bowel, painful tingling and a burning sensation. You can also experience skin irritation, weak core muscles, blood clots, and back pain.
In conclusion, compression gear and compression therapy will not make you a better runner. It will, based on scientific studies, help with recovery. It, is most effective when used with other recovery solutions such as sufficient sleep, proper cool down procedure, a no-nonsense post run diet, and the periodic review of your training and race plans.