The functional effects obtained from using graduated compression clothing have been known and used for some time in vascular medicine. The term 'graduated' indicates that the clothing has been made to compress peripheral areas of the body (compression is measured in mmHg) with increasing intensity, the action of which gradually reduces as it gets nearer to the heart. Elastic stockings are an example, the compression of which is greatest at the foot, less at the calf and even less at the thigh. These properties have also been exploited in a sports setting for some time now.
This article outlines a study on the use of these garments to help post-competition recovery in swimmers.
The first time a compression garment was known to have been used in sport was at the 1998 football world cup, when the players in the French team wore elastic stockings during the tournament, with the aim of improving performance through increased oxygen delivery and quicker removal of toxins from calf muscles. This was followed by considerable interest in the subject and widespread circulation in various sporting disciplines. A lot of confusion was also created though, in relation to the effects and correct use of this type of clothing. The significant amount of research on the subject - by 2013 more than 500 works of scientific interest had been published - didn't lead to easy interpretation due to the sum of the effects of numerous aspects, such as:
type of garment worn (31 different studies with jerseys, tights, skinsuits, sleeves, shorts, socks and leggings),
level of compression (with approximate values between 10-40 mmHg),
type of sport and duration of activity studied (strength sports, endurance sports, contact sports etc.),
its use when worn (before/during/after competition or during training)
the most suitable choice of marker to check fatigue levels and therefore the possible effects produced by the garment.
According to various authors, wearing a compression garment during competition does not provide improvement benefits (Doan 2003, Duffield 2008, Ali 2010). Competing athletes perceive greater proprioceptive control of movements and less muscular vibration, but show few effects on quality and performance in action. Furthermore, the ethical aspects of the benefits to be obtained by wearing this clothing during competition are the subject of much debate, especially in cycling and athletics, as they are deemed to add 'unnatural' mechanical action to an individual's physical effort. Depending on the intensity and duration of the activity, it seems it may be useful to wear these garments during especially stressful and prolonged training sessions that put significant stress on the muscular system (Chatard 2008). They are apparently less useful in the pre-competition phase, when their effect is mainly aimed at maintaining body heat. The most interesting indications come from studies that have investigated the action produced by compression clothing as an aid to the post-competition recovery phase (Jakeman 2010, Born, 2013).
Training methodology has identified three types of recovery following sporting activity, which we can classify according to duration:
the first is immediate recovery, identifiable in the unavoidable pauses to restore individual motor actions which the athlete repeats to train. Swimming, with its cyclic motor nature, alternates between muscular contractions and relaxation, and immediate recovery is identified in the latter.
the second is short-term recovery, which has a very important role in rest phases during blocks of interval work, and involves all the parameters that respond first and foremost against stress due to physical exercise.
the third is training recovery, which considers the accumulation of stress factors not restored and the chronic effects of training.
Swimmers have the problem of recovering best as possible from activity carried out in close timescales and different phases of competition. Therefore the problem relates to short-term recovery, which roughly depends on an an individual's level of training and keeps the body's condition in an altered state for approximately 1.5-2 hours post-competition, in addition to the accumulated effects that different short-term sessions cause in the days following the first race.
Of these recovery practices the most frequently used in swimming is the active recovery method (Toubekis, 2005/2006/2008), involving exercises/stretching and cool-down swimming sessions, and passive recovery with various types of massage. Other techniques are being tested, such as electrical stimulation (Neric 2009), hot/cold baths, and the use of compression clothing. With the latter the choice of material to be worn is mainly determined by what the market provides for cycling. Technological development couldn't avoid researching a specific material for swimmers though, with particular focus on the peculiarities of swimming performance, including the not insignificant influence of gravity, with the position of the athlete's body changing from an upright to a horizontal posture. Arena Italia spent two years researching its own compression costume, and the final product has been tested in the Motor Science laboratories at the University of Bologna.
The test protocol consisted of monitoring the progress of various fatigue indicators after having 12 proficient swimmers carry out a maximal swimming test over 400m using a crawl stroke. The swimming test was repeated on two different days, once with the compression costume worn (Powerskin Recovery Compression, Arena, Macerata, Italy) and once without. The aim was to verify whether or not wearing the compression costume during the recovery phase led to variations (statistically significant: p > 0.05) in the parameters monitored, with respect to control conditions i.e. without wearing the compression costume. A baseline was defined before each test i.e. with the body in a complete state of rest, monitored continually for 15 minutes in a room at a comfortable temperature, low lighting and no noise disturbance.
The neuro-physiological parameters considered were haemodynamic parameters (pressures, volumes, flows, resistance) and autonomous nervous system parameters (sympathetic/parasympathetic action).
After logging the baseline values the test subjects carried out a standard warm-up session, followed by a maximal swimming test of 400m, where stroke frequencies and times (total and partial) were measured. Once the test was completed the test subjects returned to complete rest conditions and were monitored during the recovery phase. As outlined above, the same subjects were tested using the same procedure on two different days, with and without the compression costume. Some of the most significant parameters from the trend for those measured have been outlined here.
The blood pressure dynamics can be seen in graphs 1 and 2. On all graphs the first step on the left on the y-axis is the baseline. The time analysis shows the 4 recovery periods studied following exercise - from 20-30 min, 40-50 min, 60-70 min, and 80-90 min. The blue bars show the average values of the parameters recorded during the control day (with compression costume), and the red bars refer to the day on which the athletes wore the graduated compression costume.
Graph 1 shows the systolic pressure data (x-axis in mmHg). It can be noted that the test subjects start from an equal baseline condition, but after performing the swimming test the athletes not wearing the costume in the first control (20-30 mins) have an average systolic pressure that has dropped to approximately 90 mmHg.
After intense physical exercise the pressure values decrease (see graphs), then go back up to the baseline condition in approximately 80-90 minutes. The graph shows how the difference between the baseline pressure values and the recovery control phases are statistically different in the first 3 steps, whereas this difference is insignificant when the costume is worn.
Graph 2 shows the trend for the diastolic pressure.
Once the exercise session is completed the diastolic pressure in the control group drops to 50 mmHg, then similar kinetics to those seen previously with the systolic pressure are demonstrated, but with significant differences with respect to the baseline condition in the first 2 steps.
The trends illustrated in graphs 1 and 2 show how the mechanical action of the costume has made it possible to keep the pressure level 'unchanged' from the baseline, intervening to 'support' the homeostatic action used in post-exercise recovery.
Graph 3 shows NN50 kinetics. This parameter indicates the intervention of the Parasympathetic Nervous System measured in the time domain of the Heart Rate Variability parameter. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is the natural variation in time between heartbeats. It is also known as RR variability, where R is the peak of the QRS complex of an ECG wave and RR is the distance between two R peaks. The NN50 parameter indicates the number of consecutive intervals (RR) with a difference greater than 50 msec. The analysis of this parameter is a method for assessing the condition of regulation mechanisms for physiological functions in the human body. The balancing of these systems (sympathetic and parasympathetic) determines capacity and type of adaptation to an external stimulus, otherwise known as reaction to stress. Adaptation, be it positive or negative, is a function of the level of disturbance of these mechanisms.
The trend is visible on the graph - in the first 2 steps of recovery the difference to the baseline is significant under both conditions (with/without costume), but in the third step (60-70 min after exercise) it only remains significant under conditions with no compression costume. This means that when the test subjects wear the costume they return to the pre-exercise condition in less time than under conditions without the costume. The mechanical action of the costume seems to affect parasympathetic heart activity, bringing the heart back to rest conditions, as it acts to reduce heart rate (vagal action).
The parameters observed have investigated short-term recovery trends. Haemodynamic factors in particular showed changes in the test subjects, and the activation of the autonomous nervous system to help the body return to normal is evident. In this situation the graduated compression costume seems to have a significant supporting role. The results of the study carried out at the Motor Science laboratories at the University of Bologna show that wearing the compression costume brings about an improvement of approximately 20 minutes on post-competition recovery times after intense swimming performance.
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Taken from: La Tecnica del Nuoto 2015
Editrice Aquarius Verona