Superman’s uniform may be the performance secret

Paging through some recent research prompted me to question if it is more than coincidence that world-saving comic super-heroes such as Spiderman, Batman and superman, not to mention their female equivalents, were best able to ply their amazing super talents when wearing skin-tight, muscle warping clothing.

The research indicated that there are substantial performance benefits to be had by using compression garb designed to provide pressure and structure to an athlete’s muscles and limbs. 

Simply slipping into compression garments can boost performance, speed recovery, regulate temperature and minimise swelling during air travel.
Have you ever seen Superman with swollen ankles after racing across the skies and continents at bullet speed?  Not ever and the answer probably lies in his calf-hugging lycra tights.

As runners we often adopt a particular training schedule, shoe or piece equipment based as much through a gut feel that it’s right, than an in-depth researched decision.

Although Paula Radcliffe was probably the first high profile athlete of recent years to wear calf high compression sock, she certainly isn’t the last as the ‘school sock’ look catches attention at the spearhead of a growing number of races. The whole compression concept is catching on and a growing research base suggests we are going to see even more in this Olympic year.

Few will forget Cathy Freeman in her bullet-like one piece suit that took her to Gold medal in the 400m in the Sydney Olympics. It is now the norm to see the rugby players trussed up in muscle hugging compression clothing under or as part of their kits, with Bryan Habana’s white long sleeved lycra top something of a trademark as he dives over the opposition line.

Research, in the USA and Australia, particularly at the Edith Cowan University in Western Australia, has shown several benefits from the use of Performance Compression Sports wear, and has included clinical testing of the LineBreak Compression clothing, which was an originator of this sportswear.

The studies have confirmed benefits such as better muscles alignment and structure which reduces muscle damage, improves circulation, and increases awareness of muscle operation, all leading to an effective increase in anaerobic threshold, power and endurance. That alone would make it worthwhile for lesser mortals to self consciously wrap those hip hugging love-handles under the transparency of compression clothing, but – as they say- that’s not all!
Research indicates that compression clothing material can reduce the sweat-rate by 30%.

With so many benefits, particularly the thermo regularatory effects of the Linebreak research, the sports science boffins around the world are burning the midnight oil (not that they have been affected by Eskom) testing the effects of compression in various environmental conditions. And with Beijing only six month away that is only going to step up another gear.

Of course all the normally associated benefits of compression still apply.
For years we have been taught to apply the R.I.C.E. principle to injuries: Rest Ice Compression and Elevation. This is the very same principle that sees rugby players slipping on tights and a top immediately after a match. This has been shown to be the most effective recovery from the rigors and bruising Super 14 or international encounters.

Similarly sleeping in the compression clothing speeds recovery from a hard track or weights session, allowing the athlete a quicker return to training: Speeding up recovery is the prime objective of those sportspeople who abuse drugs, but here is a legal and safe means to enhance recovery.

Compression socks gained their place amongst the masses when it was found that wearing them during flying significantly reduced the risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) and now many of the leading sports teams don full compression suits under their tracksuits to prevent flight induced swelling and permitting them an earlier start to training and matches after intercontinental travel.

It has been said that the more things change the more they stay the same. This growing trend towards long socks in competition reminds me of the Double Gold Olympic medalist, Alberto Juantorena Danger who tore the track and opposition apart over 400 and 800m in the 1970’s wearing his trademark knee-high socks.
The graceful, yet powerful striding of the1.88m tall Cuban inspired this short stocky ex-rugby player with a diminutive awkward style into running and yes, to the disbelief of my Savages club mates, I ran my races, including Comrades and 100 milers, wearing knee high socks. There was no rhyme or reason behind it, they simply felt right, and looking back I never remember suffering from cramps in these socks.
Did Juantorena know something then or was it just a hang-over from his days as a basketball player? Irrespective while others wore ankle socks or went sock free the Cuban dominated the 400 and 800 events for virtually a decade.

Another KZN runner who may inadvertently have found compression benefits was Percy Dunn, a Stella Club runner of 1990’s, who ran a sensational 5:56 for 22nd place in the 1997 down Comrades dressed in skin tight lycra from head to toe as the Liquorices man raising money for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. His times as the liquorices man were significantly better than the others in collection of a dozen silvers where he wore vest and shorts. This prompted me to question the possible assistance of the tights I wore in my own 1989 Comrades performance of 6:07. I considered tights standard wear for most ventures over my more favoured distances of 100 mile, 24 hour and multi-day events

The research and anecdotal evidence seem set to make compression the buzz word of sport for 2008, with the biggest stumbling block being the less than flattering effect, and perceived unacceptability, of cling-wrapping some less sporting shapes – Some curves just don’t deserve to be tightly covered!

Personal and cultural acceptability will be compressions biggest challenge. It is a Cathy Freeman style suit, under the official school running vest, that is getting a young American school girl, Juashaunna Kelly, into trouble and banned from an indoor track and field meeting. The ban came not for any performance enhancing potential of the suit, but because she is not considered to be wearing the officially approved vest and shorts athletics kit.
Ironically Kelly, who in Muslim, dominated her events last year but would not be able to compete at all if forced to wear the standard school kit, whereas the one piece suit provides the cover in line with her cultural beliefs and standards.

If times and performances around the world continue to substantiate the Linebreak research, these officious American officials will themselves be looking for cover!

There seems little doubt that we are at the sharp edge of a legal performance enhancing trend that is open to sports people of all abilities with benefits across all sports and it is only a matter of time and perception before big and small display their muscles or lack there of.

You may not have the full range of super-hero powers, but simply pulling on the compression clothing for training, racing, and recovery situations is set to advance your performance to Superlative levels!

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