Devlin Brown at the water cooler: Does wearing tights improve your performance?
Q: It seems that almost everyone is wearing tights when they train at the gym or run out on the road. Is there something I am missing that I need to know? What’s the deal?
A: Gym tights are scientifically proven to improve the efficiency and work rate of your daily school run. In addition to that, they moderate the flow of cappuccino and ciabatta at your weekly catch-up at the local Tasha’s. For men, they have turned 1980s’ conventional wisdom on its head and signify a post-tech-age hard-core edge.
An Allied Market Research report, cryptically called “Compression Wear and Shapewear Market — Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecasts, 2014-2022” says that the compression wear and shapewear market is expected to reach $5.5bn by 2022.
The same report says: “Compression wear and shapewear are skintight apparels, which stimulate blood circulation and stabilise muscles by exerting pressure at specific parts of the body.” It squeezes in a few more claims. It says they help to improve stamina, balance and body temperature. It surprisingly says: “Shapewear squeezes and squishes [sic] the excessive fat, making the body appear slimmer.”
Very tellingly, it goes on to speak about an increase in consumer disposable income. And therein, my fellow exercise nut, lies the crux of the issue.
We will delve into the science, or not-so-much science, shortly, but a summary may well be that much of the perceived benefit and improved performance from commercial tights comes down to the placebo effect: because of the hole it has burnt in your wallet, you may well be willing it to push you faster, improve your efficiency and help you recover.
Let’s get to the squeeze. Under Armour, Boost, First Ascent, Adidas, Nike, Puma, Maxed (this is an unsponsored column so forgive me if I’ve omitted your product) make well-designed tights. Some of them are compression clothing, complete with mercury millimetres, and some are not.
Certainly, as little as five years ago tights appeared to be the preserve of women who were dressed for the occasion, but a positive development in body positivity has meant that young and old, male and female, strut their stuff at Park Runs and commercial gyms. This is a good thing because, ultimately, what you train in is your business and if you like the feel of tights and you enjoy training in them, then frankly its no-one else’s business.
But the point is there are many claims out there. They fall into two categories: tights improve performance by reducing muscle vibration and therefore lower fatigue, and they help with recovery. Many scientists, including personal friends, have always been sceptical.
Eye of the Tiger miraculously plays through the universe’s speakers as my feet strike the ground. It is due to the highly scientific fact that wearing tights makes you feel like a professional athlete.Devlin Brown
Nike, to its credit, funded a study at the Ohio State University, conducted by the physical therapy department. The study used sensors, cameras and heart and breathing monitors. It put experienced runners on a treadmill and measured microscopic changes or differences and put the runners through a battery of strength and performance tests pre- and post-run.
The result: while tights did reduce muscle vibration, there was no measurable difference in performance.
Now, we all know that the size of the study, the length of the run and the fitness and proficiency level of the athletes can all be questioned. Nike thanked Ohio State for the study and said it adds to the body of knowledge.
There are other positive signs — perhaps tights play a role in recovery. According to some exercise physiologists and researchers, their compression nature is suspected to work like a pump. Dr Florian Engel from Heidelberg University — not our tights-free Heidelberg on the East Rand — was quoted in The Guardian as saying they may help circulation and the removal of muscle metabolites. In other words, not enough to improve performance, but enough to help during recovery.
Unlike medical recovery compression garments, commercial tights may have mercury millimetre measurements, but let’s face it, two medium-sized people may have vastly different sized calves or quads and so the actual compression per body part is less scientific and more general.
Be that as it may, in my non-scientific experience, running up Northcliff Hill or blasting up the Westcliff Steps is certainly easier in tights. I’m faster and stronger. In fact, Eye of the Tiger miraculously plays through the universe’s speakers as my feet strike the ground. It is due to the scientific fact that wearing tights makes you feel like a professional athlete. And for that psychological boost alone, they’re worth their cost.
Over and above that, they may keep you warm in winter, and be more comfortable with less chafing or sweating in summer. There’s a suggestion they help with inflammation and recovery. Mostly though, it appears that non-personalised, commercial tights offer more for your mind than your personal best.
You are not what you wear. But if what you wear inspires you to move, then go for it.