Compression tights don't help runners go farther or faster, according to a new study
They may provide a mental boost, which can be just as important for a successful run
There are two types of people who go to the gym: the ones who go to work out, and the ones who go to take pictures of themselves pretending to work out. Today, science has good news only for the latter.
Compression tights are form-fitting leggings that clothing manufacturers claim hold muscles in place and offer other health benefits, as well as lifting a wearer’s butt and streamlining their figure. But they don’t help runners run farther or faster, according to researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who presented their findings Thursday at the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting in Denver.
“We found that compression tights actually reduce the amount your muscles vibrate, but that was not associated with any less fatigue during a 30-minute high-intensity run,” said Ajit Chaudhari, lead author of the study and associate professor of physical therapy at OSU.
Chaudhari and his colleagues decided to pursue the study after reviewing research that found when muscles are vibrating, they “activate” more in an apparent attempt to reduce vibration.
“So, if that’s happening, over the course of a long run, that extra activation ought to lead to greater fatigue, because it basically takes more energy to be more active,” he said. “By that theory, reducing vibration ought to reduce the amount of energy the muscle is using to do the work it’s trying to do, and so therefore you would end up with less fatigue overall.”
Except that turned out not to be the case. The results came as a surprise to the scientists, and possibly to Nike, the athletic giant that funded the study through a research grant. Like many other companies, Nike sells a variety of compression tights. It was interested in comparing levels of compression, to see whether more compression would mean better performance.
For the experiment, 20 “healthy experienced male runners” were asked to run on a treadmill for 30 minutes on two separate days, once while wearing regular running shorts and once while wearing compression tights. Their body movements were monitored down to a fraction of a millimeter.
Two types of tights were tested – low compression and high compression – “as much as you can do without it becoming a medical device,” Chaudhari said. The verdict? “More compression is not necessarily better, at least while you’re running, in terms of reducing vibration.” Regardless, reducing vibration was not found to reduce the runner’s fatigue.
A Nike spokeswoman said the company runs hundreds of performance studies at its own Sport Research Lab, in addition to providing grants to research organizations.
“Our goal is to better understand all aspects of human performance,” she said. “Our role is to take athlete feedback and data from studies like this to develop world class products for athletes at every level.”
“If somebody is thinking about compression tights because of a performance benefit for them, then I don’t think we really have evidence that that’s true,” Chaudhari said. “However, if they’re wearing them because they just feel more comfortable or they’re trying to prevent chafing or it wicks sweat away better, those are all perfectly valid (reasons).”
Dr. Jordan D. Metzl, a sports medicine physician at Hospital for Special Surgery and 35-time marathon runner, said the study results don’t surprise him. Though physical training is most important, he says, there is still a major mental component to running.
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“I generally tell my patients that compression shorts and compression gear falls into the ‘can’t hurt’ category of medicine, meaning some people like the way it feels,” said Metzl, author of “Running Strong.” “The fact that it … psychologically makes people feel like they’re running faster or more supported – it doesn’t really matter. They certainly don’t do any harm. And if people feel like they’re helping them, they’re helping them.”
Even if that “help” is just making you look better in your Instagram selfie.