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Recover Faster? Compression Goes Crazy

The sight of athletes wondering around in thigh-length shorts and knee high Lycra socks.

Barely a year ago, heads turned at the Hawaii Ironman World Championships in Kona at the sight of athletes wondering around town pre-race in thigh-length shorts and knee high Lycra socks.  The moans and chatter got even louder when racers sported the “new look,” white and black socks in combination with knee length swimsuits at the event.

Many doubted that compression wear could really last in the sport.  Not only was the look rather odd, compared to the traditional triathlete uniform of a barely there Lycra sling for men and a skimpy two-piece for the women, but the benefits were questionable.

Adding fuel to the already rapidly swelling compression industry occurred six weeks prior to the 2009 Hawaii Ironman.  The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), the organizers and rule making body, issued a ban “of any garment, such as a tight or sock, that conceals body marking on the calf.”  Rumors swirled, with some speculating the “look” wasn’t good for triathlon.  But after much protest from athletes who stated the clothing offered sun protection and wasn’t fair to those who had trained in the apparel, the decision was reversed.

For whatever the real reason for the ban, the increasing presence and popularity of compression wear cannot be denied.  Along with a slew of new companies rushing to enter the market, athletes have been seen sporting not only socks, but an assortment of arm and leg garments in an array of colors during training, racing, on airplanes and around town has proven compression is more than a mere craze.

“Compression socks are becoming the new Speedo,” says Andrew Block, president of Beaker Concepts in San Diego, CA.  “Dave Scott and Mark Allen did the Hawaii Ironman in a Speedo, but all of a sudden Speedo is terrible.  It can get awful with people covered head to toe.”

Educating Athletes

Many new triathlon products have hit the market over the years, such as wetsuits and aero bars.  Customers were quick to grasp the use and benefits of neoprene and a more aerodynamic bike position.  But when compression launched, few wanted to accept the unusual look, or quite knew how a tight sock could help performance.

Thanks to large companies such as CEP, Zoot, 2XU, and Skins, four early players in the triathlon market, and professional triathletes including Michelle Jones for 2XU and Matt Reed for CEP endorsing their products, athletes learned fast.  Several years later, most now understand that compression can aid in both a longer race and recovery by decreasing muscle vibration and promoting blood flow from the legs to the vital organs.

In addition, a tremendous marketing effort, which included hiring brand manager’s to attend races and event expos to fit athletes expanded the popularity.  Michael Potter, a US product manager for CEP Sports, routinely shows triahtletes correct fit and how to put the socks on quickly in transition while Zoot’s Chris Bohannon, an exercise physiologist, researches and publishes studies on performance and recovery.

“People are definitely understanding and getting more accepting,” says Bohannon.  “At last year’s New York City marathon, compression was everywhere.   People walked up to our booth and said they needed compression.”

But both Potter and Bohannon say they do get frustrated with the fast growing market, which brings good and bad for the industry.  With more manufacturers producing compression wear both in the US and overseas, it is more important now to continue to provide information on correct fit and uses.

“More companies bring accountability in.  Every month since last year a new company has entered the market.  The early companies are definitely going to lead the charge with authenticity” says Bohannon.

To maximize the benefits of compression, Potter suggests doing research and trying on the product for fit.

A Swelling Industry

While counts of the number of compression items worn by athletes at the 2010 Hawaii indicates use is increasing, other indicators of the growing popularity may be at a local run or triathlon or a quick Google search on “compression wear”.

Socks, calf sleeves, tights, skirts, arm sleeves, sleeveless and long-sleeve tops and bras are some of the clothes athletes are wearing.  Not to mention the differing variations which include seams, seamless, continuous threads and woven pieces for performance and recovery wear.  Some of the latest compression pieces claim to cool the body, and are specific to the sport with pockets for nutrition and a shorter chamois for triathlons.

“Compression has always been popular in Europe, Japan, and Australia.  People in the US are finally realizing the benefits,” says Johnny West, a compression manager for 2XU.  “With triathlons becoming more popular, and a down economy, it doesn’t cost much to go for a run.  A pair of socks or tights can help you to recover.”

Ongoing Changes and More Choices

When introduced, the tight fitting garments could only be bought it two colors-black and white.  But with more runners, cyclists and female’s taking to endurance events, companies recognized the need for a larger selection.  It’s not uncommon now to see pink or green socks and shorts of varying lengths that are sport specific.

Last May, Steve Ozmai, the director of marketing for Skins USA says the company launched the Tri 400 series, a tri suit, top and shorts made with dynamic gradiant compression, which applies varying levels of pressure to muscles during activity.  To avoid any conflict with socks covering numbers, Beaker Concepts brought out a low-cut, ankle high sock.

Moving into 2011, we are likely to see even more choices.

CEP and their Canadian distributor Entrix Sports is launching a redesigned running and triathlon short using targeted compression for the tight and gender specific styles in a sun reflecting coal black material.  The company will also offer custom recovery tight designed to an individual’s body shape.

In addition to Zoot Sports high end compression, the Ultra line, made with polypropylene, the company will add another style, made with nylon and spandex material.  The new design will have graduated pressure like the Ultra, but is not zoned for specific muscle areas.

Though some think the whole compression scene has gone too far, others can’t seem to get enough, believing more is better.  As to the life of compression wear, is yet to be seen.

“Compression got big because of marketing and scientific research that shoes it does work, says Block.  “I want people to have a good race, but you don’t need to wear it day and night.  Don’t let it get out of hand.”