While practically every ProTour racing team uses compression gear as part of the bag of recovery tricks, the tickle down use by serious amateur and weekend warriors has yet to really hit. Any marginal gain in the pro ranks is worth the expense but everyone else naturally wonders if compression wear merits the price.
The answer to the question of whether compression works for non-pros depends on which scientific study you believe, which you discount and what anecdotal research you put faith in. Your age, training, aspirations, personal physiology and a host of factors will also decide whether compression is worth investing in.
We’ve been using 2XU Elite compression tights ($139) for recovery for three months and we’re in the yes camp. 2XU offers a range of compression tights from $99 to $150 but before we get into personal opinion and experiences, let’s review what some experts have to say.
No matter what jury you pick, the general consensus at the pro racing level is that compression tights have a positive effect on recovery. It helps clear the lactic acid, promotes and speeds recovery and on the simplest level just reminds you’re in that “take it easy” mode. The smart teams like Garmin and Sky and BMC that look for every fractional gain in performance have used compression wear for years. Last year’s Tour winner Cadel Evans and this year’s winner of the Milan San Remo one day classic, Simon Gerrans of Orica GreenEdge, both use 2XU gear.
Once you drop down from the pro level, the situation turns a little more cloudy. Would 2XU gear improve the performance of a hardcore 28 year old hammerhead who does Cat 2 races every other weekend and the 54 year old passionate guy who rides four days a week but also consumes an impressive amount of beer and wine? (By the way, the second category is mine.)
To begin to answer that question, it’s highly instructive to take a look at Joe Friel’s extensive review of all the studies done on compression gear and its effect on performance and recovery. Friel is a well-respected coach, he’s written over a dozen books on all facets for training, recovery and diet. In this case, he’s done an admirable job of digging into the data.
In surveying all the relevant studies, Friel comes to a yes conclusion when the issue is recovery. He states: “When it comes to recovery, however, I believe there really may be a significant benefit.” He goes on to say he could “sense some positive post-workout sensations when using the garments to recover.”
The conclusions on the studies are fairly positive — things like “Wearing a full-body compression garment for 24 hours after a challenging, heavy-resistance strength workout enhanced psychological, physiological and performance markers of recovery when compared with non-compressive garments.” The use of compression wear seems to lower “post-exercise lactate,” and “improved all markers of recovery except creatine kinase.” 2XU also has done their own research studies, which are worth a close view.
Now, to be fair, not every study came to those conclusions and Friel provides an even-handed review of all the assessments. However, having done the work, his take was yes, compression gear for recovery works.
Okay, on to the personal take on the 2XU compression gear. I’m in the yes category for several reasons. At 55 years of age, I’m not a hardcore racer but when I do my 2 hour ride, I go hard and do climbs at the fastest pace I can maintain. (When you get past 40, recovery becomes an even bigger issue — you can still hammer like the young guys, it’s the recovery that kills you. I’d argue that as you age, the positive effects of compression increase.)
The first time I slipped on the tight, full length 2XU compression tights, I felt an immediate calming effect. When your leg muscles are fried and frayed, it feels good — physically and psychologically — to have that support and there’s an almost cooling sensation.
As I hit the beginning of Summer, I upped my mileage and ride time from 2 to 2.5 and 3 hour rides. Normally, that’s accompanied by a period where I really feel the increased load, the incremental heaviness in the legs. I can’t say I bounce out of bed but since using the 2XU tights, I don’t have that crushing fatigue. Ohh, I’m tired, just not too worn out to jump on the bike and do it again.
For me there are also a host of other factors that come into play when the subject is recovery. My belief is that everyone will have a different experience with recovery wear. I have extra long arms and legs so whenever I do hard efforts my legs tend to fall asleep in the middle of the night. This wakes me up and the fact is, an uninterrupted night’s sleep is the best recovery tool of all. 2XU has reduced that “sleeping, tingling legs” issue so I sleep better and recovery a bit more.
Perhaps the biggest factor for me is the reduction in cramps. Again, being an older rider, hard efforts beat me up. In the evening I’ve had legs cramps suddenly hit me with such force and extreme pain that my wife is ready to call 911 emergency services. Since I’ve been using the 2XU compression tights, the cramps issue has noticeably improved. That right there is worth the price of admission. One of the anecdotal comments by a Friel reader is that the tights are great to slip on for those long car rides back from races — another situation where cramps can hit bad.
So if I can sum up all three levels, the pros believe in compression gear, a top coach cycling coach and author is convinced compression gear makes a difference and, representing the weekend warriors, I feel it has a number of positive benefits.
The question becomes, why 2XU versus another company that makes compression gear. Since we haven’t tested other brands, we don’t have any reference points. However, 2XU has some obvious points in their favor.
First, they’ve developed a research partnership with the Australian Institute of Sport. That’s an impressive “seal of approval” and the AIS works with athletes in a number of endurance sports. 2XU is pretty hardcore about building a scientific case for the benefits of compression and their list of alliances is a positive sign — whether that’s pro cycling, adventure racing, Ironman or Olympic sports.
Second, we’ve found the build quality on 2XU gear to be excellent. Their PWX Weight fabric uses a higher grade elastomeric yarn that improves the 360 degree stretch and flexibility. The fabric also has a graduated fit that promotes increased circulation for faster recovery.
On an anecdotal level, a friend who runs Podium Sports, a ski and bike shop in Frisco, Colorado, gave us a personal demo of the quality of the circular knit structure. He had fabric samples, one from 2XU and one from another brand. Each had a hole punched through it — the 2XU design worked like ripstop to localize and stop the threads from ripping further while the other brand did not. That speaks to the quality of construction.
In terms of sizing, the 2XU compression tights fit us perfectly. For the compression gear to work, fit has to be correct so make sure you take the extra time to get your precise measurements. That will determine how much recovery benefits you experience.
In conclusion, we are pro-compression and believe that the 2XU gear is an excellent choice. This is certainly a “your results may vary” category but our view is that if road biking is your passion and you ride hard, it’s worth the exploration.