These days we are bombarded with information about the benefits of physical activities. Along with knowing what the best way to exercise is and how much time should be devoted to physical activity, there is also a need to know some fundamentals so that we can stay fit for a long time without getting injured. Whether it be running, training in the gym with or without the machines, stretches, yoga, pilates, playing sports at any level, from very amateur to professional, physical activity can lead to exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD).

The extent of damage is dependent on factors like type of exercise, duration, intensity and habituation to the exercise. EIMD is characterized by symptoms like temporary reduction in muscle strength, decreased rate of force development, reduced range of motion, swelling, increased feeling of soreness (delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS) and appearance of intracellular protein in the blood. These symptoms can last for a number of days, not only affecting capacity and performance in subsequent exercise sessions, but also lead to long-term injuries.

For this reason, different modalities have been used for a long time to negate or at least reduce these issues associated with exercising and enhance recovery from previous exercise sessions. The first and most important of these methods of course is doing exercises that are suited to your fitness levels, and increasing the intensity or amount of exercise gradually, so that the body gets enough time to adapt to the stress of the workouts and grow stronger. Most methods of reducing the pain and muscle damage that exercise causes focus on post-workout activities. Massages are popular to release and stretch the muscles and improve blood flow. Cold water immersion after an exercise session has been known to significantly reduce pain and tissue damage. But the newest aid focuses on the workout itself—compression garments that you wear when you exercise or play. You must have seen our cricketers wearing it as sleeves—sleek body-hugging clothes under their T-shirts.

Are they simply for fashion, or is there some science behind their usage?

The logic behind using compression garments is the claim that they can improve recovery from strenuous exercise by enhancing blood flow. This in turn aids the removal of waste products and creates an external pressure gradient that reduces the space available for swelling.

When the whole muscle is not activated or used during the exercise or activity, load is only on a limited part of the muscle. That leads to excessive load on the muscle part that is working. It’s like top two to three players in a cricket team performing all the time. This will soon enough lead to injuries and work overload. The players that are not performing need to start performing, so there is more of an even spread of work. This will give the team consistency.

Similarly, the work needs to be spread out evenly throughout the muscle. Compression garments help all parts of the muscle to get activated. This improves performance and reduces injuries.

So far, the evidence for the efficacy of compression garments in EIMD was equivocal. Compression Garments and Recovery From Exercise-induced Muscle Damage: A Meta-analysis, a study published online first in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in June, by Jessica Hill, School of Sport, St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, UK, is the first systemic review to explore whether the use of compression garments, as a recovery modality, are effective.

The results indicate that when compression garments are worn during and/or after intense exercise, participants experienced a reduction in severity of DOMS, and a reduced concentration of CK (creatine kinase) protein in the serum, which is used as a marker for amount of muscle injury.

But like all things in life, one size doesn’t fit all. The efficacy of compression garments is dependent on the brand and also the size. If the garment is too tight, it can be counterproductive, and if it is loose, it does not serve its purpose. To know if you have the right garment, check if the pressure is such that your muscles feel firm compression. If you feel that your blood circulation is being stopped, then the garment is too tight; if it’s too loose, you’ll not feel any pressure and the garment will be useless. These garments, starting from 1,000, are available at sports stores are recommended to be worn during and/or after a high-intensity exercise session.

Rajat Chauhan is an ultra marathon runner and a doctor specializing in sports and exercise medicine and musculoskeletal medicine, and founder of Back 2 Fitness. He is also associate editor, British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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