Lycra has been around for almost forty years. It first came onto the scene in the seventies and eighties as the fad of aerobic exercise began to sweep gyms and homes everywhere. It seems that everyone was wearing biker shorts, spandex or some form of stretchy skintight material. The logic behind this clothing was that it allowed you to move around comfortably while keeping your muscles warm and allowing sweat to escape. It quickly became one of the most popular fashion statements of its time. Today you can see more and more individuals wearing Lycra underneath their normal sports attire and the question arises as to whether there is any scientifically based reason to wear these comfortable garments other than their known good looks.
Well hold on to your sports bottles and running shoes, because researchers are now saying that compression clothing (any material that has around a seventy percent Lycra content) can enhance your endurance, power, reduce the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles, help reduce induced muscle damage, increased the flow of oxygen to the muscles, improve your body's ability to control its temperature and aid in the recovery process. Quite an amazing feat for just a simple piece of material! The first studies of compression clothing mainly focused on how it had the ability to reduce thrombosis in hospitalised patients. However further studies showed that it had the ability to increase blood flow to extremities of the body and has led some sports scientists to wonder if this effect could be beneficial to athletic performance.
One study concluded that volleyball players who wore compression clothing had the ability to maintain maximum jumping power for longer when wearing this material. In 2003 another study showed how sprinters/explosive atheletes who wore compression shorts had less muscle oscillation during the landing phase and were also able to increase their jump heights when compared with wearing ordinary shorts. Scientists concluded that these results came about as an increase in enhanced perception of joint movement and spatial location, through neural feedback. Researchers speculate that the effect that compression clothing has on performance can be attributed to reduced muscle oscillation (the impact on muscles when running) and an increase in support of active muscles with the applied pressure from the elastic material helping to support the muscle fibers during muscle contractions.
Another area researchers began to look into was the effect compression clothing has on an our ability to recover from strenuous exercise. It is already known that compression clothing helps venous return (the flow of blood back to the heart) so scientists speculated whether or not this action could also help in the removal of lactic acid and faster recovery. During the study they observed people who ran on a treadmill and then a stationary bike at 110% of VO2max, which helped to produce large amounts of lactate. These tests were done with and without compression clothing. The results show that after running and cycling their blood lactate levels were significantly lower following exercise for those wearing compression clothing. Scientist did note however that this was not because the lactate was removed but was retained in the muscles due to the compression clothing.
Another study also show that compression clothing was highly effective in helping to lower blood creatine levels better than passive recovery such as cool down exercises and water therapy. It was concluded that post-exercise swelling and soreness were reduced and for those subjects who wore compression clothing the recovery was significant enough that they were able to perform optimally in a second set of exercises.
Have you ever been in the gym and seen bodybuilders who use compression wraps on different joint areas of the body such as the knees and elbows? They wear compression clothing in these areas because they believe it will give their joints more stability and enhance their ability to achieve a one repetition maximum lift. Researchers concluded that the use of compression shorts and wraps can actually help the eccentric action of opposing muscles and even more significant it can increase exercise performance by increasing the cooling effect of the body as a transfers sweat from the skin to the surface of the clothing, allowing it to evaporate more efficiently.
All of these studies have led the researchers to conclude that Lycra is much more than a fashion accessory; the evidence from these studies suggest that compression clothing can help all of us enhance performance and recovery from exercise because of its ability to reduce muscle oscillation and modify the transportation of lactate. Many people who exercise today are looking for shortcuts that will help them to achieve higher levels of fitness. One of the great things about compression clothing is that its benefits are easy to achieve, it is relatively inexpensive, and it is also legal, unlike many of the sports enhancing chemicals and drugs on the market today. Scientists are continuing to do research on compression clothing to see what the best levels of compression are and what the requirements may be for different sports and exercises.