By ELIZABETH VARNELL HOPE Vogue Magazine
Almost any Olympian’s Instagram feed shows that the holy grail in modern competition is recovery, from the results of Michael Phelps’s cupping sessions to Dana Vollmer’s chaise lounge rest break beside her toddler. Athletes fight a near constant battle to reduce inflammation and rejuvenate tired limbs. But is there a quicker way to reverse muscle fatigue and heavy-feeling legs post-workout?
From a quick look at last week’s track and field events in Rio, the answer may be yes. Sprinter Allyson Felix’s uniform included tight leg sleeves meant to fight such weariness and speed up the body’s recovery process. Turns out sports apparel companies have taken the old compression stocking, a stretchy tube used to prevent blood clots in calves and ankles, and adapted it for elite athletes. But what exactly do compression sleeves do, and how effective are they?
Felix wears them on her lower legs, and her Santa Monica–based physical therapist Robert Forster—who traveled to Rio with Felix for the games—says the garments help to remove the extra blood and lactic acid that pools in feet post-run. He says the sleeves use “graduated pressure which is stronger at the bottom of the sleeve and lessens at the top, creating a funnel-like effect to keep fluids moving back to the heart,” and recommends wearing them during a workout and for 30 to 60 minutes afterward. Dr. Daniel Vigil, health sciences associate clinical professor at UCLA and team physician for UCLA’s Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, agrees that the garments seem to reverse the pooling effect post-workout, though he is quick to note that there aren’t yet many scientific studies to validate them. “This is one of those cases where the idea has taken hold before science can actually prove or disprove it.”
And what about the arm sleeves worn by pro basketball players and sprinters like Morolake Akinosun? Vigil says they actually help with something else. Athletes use arm sleeves—not to be confused with looser arm warmers worn by cyclists—to help with proprioception, which, he says, “is the ability to know where your limbs are in space before looking.” Turns out your awareness of your arm is enhanced by wearing something tight wrapped around it.
Vigil says that arm sleeves aside, there may be little evidence—so far—that wearing compression gear during athletics will improve your performance. But it won’t cause any harm and does seem to help speed recovery. And he recommends sleeves for what he calls “destination athletes,” anyone who hops a plane to races. “When you’re flying, it’s even harder to get the blood back to the heart,” he says. He thinks athletes of all ages should wear them religiously on planes, post-race, to ward off blood clots caused by excess blood pooling in ankles and feet. USC’s director of track and field Caryl Smith Gilbert agrees, saying that all of her athletes wear the sleeves in the air. To her they’re like “a new form of well-being or recovery,” she says. Reason enough to consider making them part of your own post-power workout uniform.