Choosing the ideal compression for sports recovery

In the start of a series of monthly blogs with guest specialists, we speak to leading researcher Dr Charlie Pedlar, of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, to discuss what you should look for when choosing compression for effective recovery from exercise and competition.

“I’m part of a team at St Mary’s University including Dr Jess Hill, who have undertaken research on compression over the last few years. We have worked with numerous elite athletes and we’re always looking for appropriate recovery strategies including compression.

“Surprisingly, a lot of the existing research available on compression hasn’t looked at measuring the level of additional compression that the garments provide and have relied on the stated pressure on the packaging being correct, but this ignores the fact that athletes’ limbs are all different shapes and sizes. We know any tight garment will deliver a level of compression, but it’s important to measure the pressure to be able to understand how effective it is.  Just like knowing what dose of drug a doctor has administered to evaluate how effective it is. 

“We have looked at different biomarkers – blood test data – to show a physiological disturbance. We measure muscle damage and inflammation, strength, soreness and perception of recovery. These are important markers for checking whether compression is making a real physiological difference on recovery – either perceived or actual. I would say that so far, research shows that there is a consistent perceived improvement in muscle strength when athletes wear tight compression and our overall meta-analysis of compression studies show there’s an overall positive recovery effect for various markers.

“Isobar Compression garments have allowed us to consistently be very precise with achieving suitable pressure no matter what shape the limbs are of the athlete. Our rugby player study was the clearest evidence so far that there is an augmented effect with this level of compression. 

“What we’ve found is… compression garments that fit work really well. Athletes’ legs are all different shapes and sizes, so they need something individual.” 

“Recovery strategies are important for athletes. We know that sleep and nutrition are vital and certainly the first things that need to be considered in a recovery strategy. However, if you’re looking for the extra percentages you need to look at additional strategies with ice baths and compression falling into that camp.  

“The most-savvy teams will have really clear compression protocols for travel, especially when they have a busy competition schedule. This is true of basketball where teams will be playing up to three games a week and travelling to different cities. It’s vital to sustain performance. Sports scientists are concerned about accelerating recovery for competition. We also know they need better advice and protocols on how compression can help with this.

“Compression applies to a lot of different teams and different sports. Most have some idea on compression approach, but they’re not always experts in that area. They do use off the shelf because it’s in stock right now rather than individualised compression, but there is not a more superior garment out there than Isobar in terms of performance. The advantage is all about delivering the right level of compression.”

Dr Charlie Pedlar is a Reader of Applied Sports and Exercise Science at St Mary's University, Twickenham, in the School of Sport, Health and Applied Science. He has a keen interest in the application of scientific research to the training of elite athletes, and as such has been involved in the preparation of elite athletes for international competition. Charlie has been involved in several independent research studies into the efficacy of compression for athletes.