The Complete Guide to Compression Therapy for Athletes
Here’s how pneumatic compression can boost your muscle recovery.
No matter your sport or skill level, if you’re an athlete that gives 100% and is always pushing toward your goals then you know sore muscles and stiff joints well.
And while there’s no escaping this painful reality of human physiology, there are ways to speed up muscle recovery that will get you back in action faster and performing at a higher level.
New advancements in science and technology have led to worthwhile muscle recovery tools that are accessible for athletes of every stripe.
And of these new muscle recovery tools, compression therapy is by far one of the best available.
Compression therapy uses targeted air pressure to improve circulation, which is key to reducing inflammation in your muscles and boosting recovery.
Here, we’ve put together the complete guide on compression therapy for athletes with everything you need to know about incorporating it into your training routine and daily life.
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What Is Compression Therapy for Athletes?
So, let’s get started with the basics.
What exactly are we talking about when we use the term compression therapy?
In general, this could refer to a variety of compression garments, sleeves, wraps, devices, etc. that apply compressive pressure to your muscles for the purpose of boosting performance and recovery.
In this guide, however, we’re referring specifically to pneumatic compression, which consists of inflatable sleeves typically worn on your legs or arms that apply targeted air pressure for an intermittent period.
The targeted air pressure applied during pneumatic compression can also be thought of as a form of pressure massage, in which the inflatable sleeves cyclically inflate and deflate.
The applied air pressure boosts blood flow and improves circulation, which in turns helps to flush metabolic waste and pump nutrient-rich blood into your limbs.
In other words, pneumatic compression increases your lymphatic function, which is the body’s natural process of removing toxins and waste products away from tissue and back toward the heart.
This improved circulation reduces muscle swelling and soreness, and thus shortens your muscle recovery span.
How Does Compression Therapy Work for Athletes?
If you follow any of your favorite professional athletes on social media, there’s a good chance you’ve seen them with these inflatable devices around their legs or arms at some point, mentioning the importance of rest and recovery.
But these pneumatic compression therapy devices aren’t just for professional athletes.
Athletes and active individuals of any stripe and sport can benefit from incorporating compression therapy into their muscle recovery routines.
Here’s how the pneumatic compression therapy process typically works for athletes.
After physical activity, whether training or competition, place the sleeve or attachment of your compression therapy device on its designated spot, typically the legs, hips, or arms.
Once secure and the device is turned on, you’ll begin to feel pressure in the applied area as the sleeve or attachment is inflated with air.
The dynamic air pressure will feel similar to having your blood pressure taken by an automatic machine. However, compression therapy devices also incorporate massaging qualities, as well, for muscle relaxation.
Most compression therapy devices feature customizable settings that adjust to your body and allow you to choose from various pressure levels, targets, and durations.
For example, you can increase or decrease the intensity of the treatment, as well as the hold time of the treatment (how long the sleeves or attachments stay inflated), and the release time of the treatment (how long between treatment cycles).
While the device is running, you’ll feel the air pressure compressing and decompressing in a cycle to push out waste and other fluid build-up from the compressed area and allow nutrient rich blood to flow in.
You may also notice a gradient in pressure levels throughout the sleeve, with a higher pressure at the point farthest away from your heart then decreasing in pressure as you work your way up the sleeve toward your heart.
This gradient design, high to low pressure, promotes circulation and pushes blood back to the heart.
Once finished, you should feel at least slightly refreshed in the applied area almost immediately. But the real benefits will be more noticeable in the days after because of what you don’t feel.
In other words, that dreaded muscle pain and stiffness that sets in a day or two after pushing your body won’t be as bad and won’t stick around for as long.
Not only does compression therapy help alleviate the muscle soreness from your workout but it better prepares you for your next one faster and will allow you to perform at a higher level.
Where Can Compression Therapy Be Applied on Your Body?
While the most widely recognizable form of compression therapy are compression boots, there are actually several devices on the market today that can target different areas of your body.
Starting with the legs and those familiar full-leg boots, compression boots cover the entirety of your feet and legs, from toe to top of thigh.
Also available for your lower body, compression calve sleeves specifically target your calves, covering your calf from top to bottom and can be worn while standing or relaxing.
Working up the body, there’s also a compression attachment for your hips that covers the quads, hamstrings, IT bands, glutes, and lower back.
And for your upper body, there are compression arm sleeves that cover the entirety of your arm including your shoulder, upper arm, elbow, forearm, and hand.
In other words, you can receive quality compression therapy to all the muscles you work the hardest during physical activity.
What Are the Benefits of Compression Therapy for Athletes?
Simple to use and easy to customize, compression therapy is a great muscle recovery tool that any athlete can incorporate into their routine.
One aspect that’s so great about compression therapy is that users can begin to feel certain benefits almost immediately while enjoying longer-term benefits, as well.
The key benefit from which all other compression therapy benefits derive is the boost provided to circulation and blood flow.
This increase in circulation speeds up cellular repair by flushing out lactic acid and metabolic waste (responsible for making your muscles sore), through your body’s natural lymphatic system.
Meanwhile, more oxygen and nutrient-rich blood is ushered into your limbs to reduce muscle pain, soreness, swelling, and inflammation.
As a result of this boost, athletes enjoy faster muscle recovery times from one workout or competition to the next, allowing for greater consistency and development.
Additionally, with a reduction in muscle soreness and swelling, athletes will notice an improvement to their overall endurance and performance, as compression therapy will keep your muscles and limbs feeling fresh and flexible.
And, of course, limber muscles that offer you a full range of motion, are less likely to strain or experience injury.
So, while the benefits of compression therapy for athletes are very clear, remember that pneumatic compression isn’t strictly reserved for athletes.
Any individual can benefit from incorporating compression therapy into their daily routine.
While it’s probably true that you most often see these devices being used by athletes, any individual that’s experience poor circulation or swelling in their limbs can benefit from pneumatic compression therapy.
However, it’s important to note that if you’re looking to use these devices to address a medical condition or treat swelling and soreness not related to physical activity, always consult your doctor first.
Is There Science to Back Up Compression Therapy?
For starters, it’s important to note that there isn’t a silver bullet currently available today that solves the problem of muscle pain, soreness, and stiffness.
When you physically exert your body, whether training hard, practicing hard, or competing hard, it’s going to take a toll.
So, of course, utilizing compression therapy won’t magically melt away your muscle soreness.
But the compression therapy devices available today from high-quality brands are designed, tested, and scientifically backed to provide restorative healing and improved mobility to your muscles and joints.
These pneumatic compression devices provide pressure massage by inflating and deflating the applied sleeve or attachment in a cyclical pattern.
This pressure is used to create a negative gradient from your feet to your heart, allowing for optimal circulation.
Inflammation, swelling, and soreness (etc.) occurs when fluid and metabolic waste builds up in your muscles and tissue.
While your body naturally maintains a complex system of recovery that includes rest, rehydration, nutrition, repair, and resynthesis, compression therapy gives a boost to the important aspect of reducing inflammation.
In other words, compression therapy is used to flush out that fluid and metabolic waste, preventing it from accumulating and causing pain and other problems.
Because this recovery process in the body is well-established and because high-quality compression therapy devices are widely accepted to improve the conditions under which it occurs, compression therapy is considered a science-backed method for muscle recovery.
Do Athletes Actually Notice a Difference From Compression Therapy?
So, the devices look impressive and the science behind pneumatic compression is sound, but you may still be wondering on a more basic level: Do athletes actually notice a difference from using compression therapy?
While it’s true that results can always vary from one individual to the next, athletes overwhelming report noticing a substantial difference in muscle recovery from using compression therapy.
It’s important to note that compression therapy is not introducing some farfetched, unproven recovery method to your body, but merely giving a boost to your natural recovery process.
The majority of athletes that incorporate compression therapy into their muscle recovery routines feel fresher from one workout or competition to the next, while also noticing a bump in overall endurance and performance.
If you’re an athlete looking to incorporate compression therapy into your routine, remember that compression therapy should not be used as a replacement for any muscle recovery basics: rest, sleep, hydration, nutrition, etc.
Think of compression therapy as an effective tool you can add to your muscle recovery toolkit.
How Often Should Athletes Use Compression Therapy?
Once you’ve tried compression therapy for the first time and felt the positive effects, the natural next question most athletes have is how often can they use compression therapy.
There isn’t necessarily a strict right or wrong amount when it comes to using compression therapy.
In general, how often you should use compression therapy will boil down to your level of physical activity, training goals, personal preferences, and so on.
For example, if you’re a committed athlete that trains and competes on a near daily basis, then you might consider using your compression therapy device as a daily recovery tool.
Whereas if you only train from time-to-time or you compete in a sports league that meets once or twice a week, you might decide to only use the device after a game or training session.
Either way, incorporating compression therapy into a regular schedule will help you maximize its effectiveness.
Additionally, it’s helpful to remember that most high-quality compression therapy devices on the market today have customizable therapy options and features to meet your needs.
So, whether you’re looking for heavy compression to combat a rigorous workout or simply looking to decompress and recover after a long and stressful day, compression therapy is a great tool for all sorts of athletes and active individuals.
Keep in mind, however, that if you’re currently experiencing an injury, you should check with your physician before using compression therapy devices.
The same is true if you’re an individual with deep vein thrombosis, clotting issues, or other circulatory concerns.
And note that if you’re experiencing an open sore or fracture of any kind, you should avoid compression therapy altogether.
For a look at other great muscle recovery tools you can add to your recovery toolkit, check out our top picks for 2023.