Us triathletes invest in and rely on our bodies. We strive to have ourselves in finely tuned, race ready mode for our A list events. We're perfectionists, constantly tweaking things to nail that perfect race.
The elusive question is when, if ever, are our bodies actually at 100 percent? From rank beginners to seasoned pros, we're always slightly over or under trained. Recovery is a moving goal post and we very often carry injury niggles, detracting from peak performance.
The big question is, what can we do to ensure that we’re as close as possible to firing on all cylinders come race day? We sat down with Physiotherapy PhD Candidate Grethe to establish why most athletes never actually feel like they’re operating at 100%.
Should athletes wear compression garments pre-race & why?
Most athletes, recreational or professional, will be familiar with the pain and stiffness that tend to peak a day or two after a particularly heavy training session, race or after returning to sport following a period of rest. This often happens as part of what is termed “exercise-induced muscle damage”, which describes a series of reactions resulting from unaccustomed exercise. As a side-effect of this process, you may experience pain, swelling, stiffness as well as reduced strength and performance for a few days or even weeks.
During this time higher levels of certain proteins as well as inflammatory and metabolic by-products circulate in the blood. The resultant inability to continue training may have repercussions for fitness goals, over-all health and well-being. So, this is where muscle recovery and performance boosters become important, especially if you have a full training programme to uphold or are preparing for an upcoming race. Compression garments (which were originally used in medical practice, for example, to reduce the risk of blood clots post-operatively) have been adopted by athletes across many sports for recovery and performance reasons. It seems especially popular in endurance sports possibly due to the high volumes of training.
The theory behind compression garments is that the external pressure applied to the body may limit the space for swelling, boost circulation and/or provide physical support to muscles and other soft tissues structures. The dual goal of compression here would be to reduce the impact of exercise-induced muscle damage and to promote subsequent performance. Unfortunately, the research to support this, and to inform when and for how long compression garments should be used is less transparent.
Based on the research I have encountered, it also seems most likely to help when used after strenuous or unaccustomed bouts of exercise. There is some, but less support for use during exercise. Regardless of when it is used, there is also very little support in most studies for the use of compression garments to promote performance. Keep in mind that there are many variables among these studies that may impact findings such as the type of sport (e.g. endurance training versus weight training), the profiles and training status of individuals participating, the type of compression garments used as well as the over-all quality of studies. Future studies could also always change current views.
Is it individual specific – i.e. looking after niggles, training loads, DVT history etc?
Yes, as with all training and/or management plans, it should definitely be individual specific. The reality is that compression garments will be useful for some athletes and not for others. There are so many factors that play a role here such as the type of sport; the volume, intensity and frequency of training; race schedules; existing and previous injuries; medical conditions; age; personal goals and aspirations among others.
For example, if an athlete is building up towards their first Half Ironman with progressively higher volumes and/or more frequent sessions, adding muscle recovery strategies such as compression garments may be worth a try. For example, the athlete could use compression tights after (and/or during) running and cycling and may want to add arm sleeves after swimming, especially during high-volume periods - as long as it is comfortable. Here, the main role of compression garments would be to reduce the impact of exercise-induced muscle damage rather than being an effective method to prevent injuries or even niggles.
Even for muscle recovery, I would caution against considering compression garments as a stand-alone method, but would rather suggest that it could form part of a holistic recovery plan. Other ways to boost recovery may include foam rolling; massage; and low intensity low impact mobility exercise during rest or recovery periods. In general, including targeted, regular strengthening and flexibility work to your routine, and careful training load management are also important considerations that may help to reduce the risk of certain types of injuries.
If specific injuries do occur, such as an ankle sprain, I may suggest compression garments in the initial acute inflammatory phase as part of a treatment plan to help manage swelling, but again, never in isolation. Depending on the type and extent of the ankle sprain, this may be accompanied with pain management strategies, protection (for example with a brace), as well as targeted strengthening, mobility and balance exercises.
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