The challenge of the compression sportswear

There have already been compression garments on the sportswear market for some time, and many people wonder what their function is and whether they have any special benefits compared to ordinary workout clothes. Compression in the context of clothing means mechanical pressure that occurs with the help of taut material and a close fit. Compression garments aren’t constrictive, but rather stretch and conform to the body. The compression should be even and graduated.

Many people are already familiar with flight socks and compression stockings, which are also compression products. Medical compression products are also used after certain procedures, such as operations. Medical compression stockings, or support stockings, support the blood circulation of the legs and as such are suitable for vein and lymph disorders, such as varicose veins, phlebitis, and lymphedema. In addition, medical compression stockings reduce the risk of developing vein disease, such as blood clots.

Why have these kinds of products begun to be used in sports and what benefits do they have? Because the pressure of the compression stockings on the legs improves the circulation, their purpose in sports is to speed up recovery and prevent sports injuries. Because of the more efficient venous circulation, the oxygen intake of the muscles is improved. However, not all the compression products in athletic stores are medical. In long compression stockings and gaiters the compression is usually medium-strong. Light compression, on the other hand, is often more popular in pants, tops, and shirts. The compression pressure is often reported in mmHg, which means millimeters of mercury. Usually the unit of pressure measurement is not reported with light compression products.

The compression in light compression products is, as its name implies, light, and doesn’t improve the circulation with the same efficiency as compression stockings. This is partly a question of user comfort. The more powerful compression of compression stockings and flight stockings could be uncomfortable over the whole body. In addition, there isn’t as much of a benefit to compression in the upper body as there is in the lower limbs. The main point of user comfort in compression garments is mainly that it’s more comfortable to work out in a sport where you jump or shake a lot when the resting muscles aren’t jiggling. Even a light compression nicely diminishes the feeling of jiggling.

The taut but flexible material and fit of light compression products is meant to lightly stimulate the surface circulation and speed up muscle recovery. A garment optimized for comfort in sports use, covering a broader area, doesn’t need to have as powerful a compression as, e.g., compression stockings or gaiters. Stronger pressure is beneficial mainly in the leg and foot area, according to Vierumäki’s study. As mentioned in the article, ”cramps and swelling are almost always problems of the lower limbs.”

The study also addresses the problem of the varying shapes of individual bodies: ”We also all have very different bodies, so the division of compression shirts into S/M/L sizes won’t necessary suit everybody. It’s much easier to make stockings according to measurements,” explains Jarmo Kujanpää. In fact, there can also be problems with stockings when it comes to people’s differing proportions. Some may have a small foot but a wide calf, others may have a large foot but a narrow calf, and the length of the shin also varies widely.

But this problem also applies to almost all industrially manufactured clothes and accessories. There is a huge variety of different body sizes, types, and shapes in the world. Because of this, a serially-produced garment will fit best on the most common average body types. The testing of compression garments is in its infancy, so there is fairly little independent, scientific research available about the subject. Many manufacturers of fiber and fabric also have their own research results regarding compression products, but we’re still waiting for comprehensive, independent research on light compression garments.

The benefit of light compression is that it is more forgiving of the differences between body types than more powerful compression. What is lost in the power of the compression is regained in user comfort. In compression stockings or other stronger compression products, you often bump into fit problems caused by the individual proportions of people’s bodies. The best fit is achieved only by individually tailoring the product to each body, but this is challenging and expensive in mass production. Top athletes use individually tailored compression products.

Nike made a research about compression wear and the surprising result was that it doesn’t actually improve the sports performance. However it does reduce the vibration of the muscles and that is the main point to use compression wear.

We designers are carrying out continuous product development with compression products. For the consumer, the most essential advice for finding the best fitting product is to try it on. Within collections there are different fits for different body types, and there are even larger differences in fit between different brands. In this way, as many different types of people as possible can find a suitable product.

My client David Sportswear was the collection I did the most extensive product development with compression item’s. I also lecture about compression sportswear and other functional apparel at Aalto University.


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