It’s all in the gear

2008-01-26 00:00

Paging through some recent research prompted the question whether it is more than a coincidence that world-saving comic super-heroes such as Spiderman, Batman and Superman, and their female equivalents, were best able to ply their amazing super talents when wearing skin-tight, muscle-warping clothing.

The research indicated that there are substantial performance benefits to be had by using compression garb designed to provide pressure and structure to an athlete’s muscles and limbs.

Simply slipping into compression garments can boost performance, speed recovery, regulate temperature and minimise swelling during air travel.

Have you ever seen Superman with swollen ankles after racing across the skies and continents at bullet speed? Not ever, and the answer probably lies in his calf-hugging lycra tights.

As runners we often adopt a particular training schedule, shoe or piece of equipment based, as much, on a gut feel that it’s right, than an in-depth researched decision.

Although Paula Radcliffe was probably the first high profile athlete of recent years to wear calf high compression socks, she certainly is not the last. The whole compression concept is catching on and a growing research base suggests we are going to see even more in this Olympic year.

Few will forget Cathy Freeman in her bullet-like one piece suit that took her to a gold medal in the 400 m in the Sydney Olympics. It is now the norm to see the rugby players trussed up in muscle hugging compression clothing under or as part of their kits, with Bryan Habana’s white long sleeved lycra top something of a trademark as he dives over the opposition line.

Research, in the U.S. and Australia, particularly at the Edith Cowan University in Western Australia, has shown several benefits from the use of Performance Compression Sports wear, and has included clinical testing of the LineBreak Compression clothing, which was an originator of this sportswear.

The studies have confirmed benefits such as better muscle alignment and structure, which reduces muscle damage, improves circulation, and increases awareness of muscle operation, all leading to an effective increase in anaerobic threshold, power and endurance.

Research also indicates that compression clothing material can reduce the sweat-rate by 30%. With so many benefits, particularly the thermo regulatory effects of the Linebreak research, the sports science boffins around the world are burning the midnight oil, (and not because of Eskom) testing the effects of compression in various environmental conditions. And with Beijing only six months away that is only going to step up a gear.

Of course, all the normally associated benefits of compression still apply. For years we have been taught to apply the R.I.C.E. principle to injuries: Rest Ice Compression and Elevation. This is the very same principle that sees rugby players slipping on tights and a top immediately after a match. This has been shown to be the most effective recovery from the rigours and bruising Super 14 or international encounters. Similarly, sleeping in compression clothing speeds recovery.

Compression socks gained their place amongst the masses when it was found that wearing them during flying significantly reduced the risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) and now many of the leading sports teams don full compression suits under their tracksuits to prevent flight induced swelling and permitting them an earlier start to training and matches after intercontinental travel.

It has been said that the more things change the more they stay the same. This growing trend towards long socks in competition reminds me of the double gold Olympic medallist, Alberto Juantorena Danger, who tore the track and opposition apart over the 400 m and 800 m in the 1970s wearing his trademark knee-high socks.

The graceful, yet powerful striding of the 1,88 m tall Cuban inspired your columnist, a short, stocky ex-rugby player, to run races, including Comrades and 100 milers, wearing knee high socks. There was no reason, but looking back now I never remember suffering from cramps in those socks.

Did Juantorena know something then or was it just a hang-over from his days as a basketball player?

Another KwaZulu-Natal runner who may inadvertently have found compression benefits was Percy Dunn, a Stella Club runner of the 1990s, who ran a sensational 5.56 for 22nd place in the 1997 down Comrades dressed in skin tight lycra from head to toe as the Liquorice Man, raising money for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. His times in fancy dress were significantly better than previous races where he wore vest and shorts.

The research and anecdotal evidence seem set to make compression the buzz word of sport for 2008, with vanity being the biggest stumbling block. Some curves just don’t deserve to be tightly covered in revealing lycra.

Personal and cultural acceptability will be the biggest challenge for compressions. It is a Cathy Freeman style suit, under the official school running vest, that is getting a young American schoolgirl, Juashaunna Kelly, into trouble and banned from an indoor track and field meeting.

The ban came not for any performance enhancing potential of the suit, but because she is not considered to be wearing the officially approved vest and shorts athletics kit. Ironically Kelly, who is Muslim, dominated her events last year, but would not be able to compete at all if forced to wear the standard school kit.

The one piece suit provides the cover in line with her cultural beliefs. There seems little doubt that we are at the sharp edge of a legal performance enhancing trend that is open to sports people of all abilities.

You may not have the full range of super-hero powers, but simply pulling on the compression clothing for training, racing, and recovery situations is set to advance your performance to superlative levels.

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