Damage may occur to muscle cells during exercise and sport leading to an inflammatory response resulting in muscle discomfort. This can depend on the type of muscular contraction that occurs during exercise according to intensity, duration and exercise frequency. The accumulation of inflammatory products in the bloodstream and micro-structural damage to muscle following exercise can cause a decrease in performance and increased fatigue for a number of days after exercise.
So how does compression assist recovery? There are many theories that exist however the exact process remains speculative. A common theory is that compression garments may increase pressure beneath the skin thereby enhancing a muscle pump mechanism to improve circulation. Compression may also have an effect by reducing the space available for swelling and inflammation to occur. This reduces the force and effect of the inflammatory response causing less pain to nerve endings and greater comfort during recovery.
A review study by Jessica Hill and colleagues in the UK investigated the effectiveness of compression as a recovery method following muscle damage. This ‘meta analysis’ performed research on previous research. Hill’s review collected data from 12 previous studies and were only included if they had the following criteria:
- If the subjects were randomised or a control group used.
- If the study had used an objective measurement recorded at a baseline then again at either 24, 48 or 72 hours post exercise.
- Male or female subjects from any training background.
- Compression garments applied after, or during and after exercise.
Studies were left out of Hill’s review if:
- Compression garment were not applied within 2 hours post exercise.
- If multiple treatments or recovery methods were used.
- There was inadequate data from the study.
Results of the analysis indicated that when compression garments were worn after, or during and after intense exercise, participants experienced:
- Reduced muscle soreness.
- Less loss of both muscle strength and power of muscle contractions.
- Reduced levels of Creatine Kinase concentration in the bloodstream. Creatine Kinase is an enzyme previously used to reflect muscle damage measured via blood sampling.
Currently ‘dynamic compression’ or ‘leg boot systems’ are popular within professional sport. Dynamic compression involves sequenced compressive pulsing to improve fluid movement along the limb. This is performed from the periphery of the limb back to the body with the aim of preventing fluid moving back down the limb. The goal is to allow efficient removal of inflammatory products from the muscle using the body’s circulatory (blood vessels) and lymphatic systems. It is performed using full length leg boots with pre-set pneumatic pressures.
The researchers from Hill’s review suggested that further research investigating specific pressures exerted by the garment, garment fit and fitness level may provide further insight into enhancing recovery post muscle damaging exercise.
Hill’s study supports the use of compression garments using substantial evidence to review previous research. It is reasonable to question whether combined use of recovery methods post exercise might provide greater efficiency than recovery methods used in isolation. This could include combined use of massage, compression, aquatic limb movement, hot/cold immersion and sleep to accelerate recovery.
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Hill J, Howatson G, Van Someren K, Leeder J and Pedlar C (2013) Compression garments and recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage: a meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med (0) 1-7.
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Tee JC, Bosch AN, Lambert MI. Metabolic consequences of exercise-induced muscle damage. Sports Med 2007; 37:827-36.
Photo Credit: Recovery Boots
Adrian Spinelli is the physiotherapist for NAVITAS SATALYST RACING TEAM and has assisted the team since 2010. Navitas Satalyst are a UCI Continental team currently competing in overseas UCI Tour events and the National Road Series. Adrian also provides physiotherapy to members of ORICA GreenEDGE, Jayco-AIS World Tour Academy, Avanti and DRAPAC Racing Teams.More articles by Adrian