Triathletes are always looking for that little edge to shave a few minutes off their finishing times. Since so much of race day performance is related to training, anything that can help you recover faster and get back out swimming, cycling or running will attract the attention of these athletes. Compression tights, socks and calf sleeves are the latest performance enhancing products filling triathlete's gear bags.
"Over the past 10 years there have been significant changes to the compression apparel market," reports Ze'ev Feig, CEO of Zensah. "First, compression apparel was used for helping with wicking moisture. Recently the benefits of recovery and performance are starting to gain traction in the mass market. Gradually compression is being adopted by the weekend warriors."
Susan Eastman Walton, founder of RecoFit Compression Components, says, "Athletes are so much more aware of biomechanics and what you need to do to be active. The elite athletes are all about enhancing performance and recovery. They have really taken to compression."
Most athletes are familiar with Under Armour compression apparel, but more brands are offering triathlon specific pieces.
"To most athletes, compression was essentially nothing more than a tight fitting T-shirt that did an excellent job of wicking moisture and offering a bit of muscle support, but had no tangible benefits in performance, efficiency or recovery," says Steve Ozmai, channel development manager for Skins Compression Garments. "Today it's difficult to find a compression manufacturer that's not talking about oxygen, performance enhancement and recovery."
Age group triathletes are constantly watching elite competitors to see what products they are using in their efforts. Imitation is definitely a form of flattery.
"Consumers are starting to understand the benefits of compression. They see other athletes using compression and want to know more. It's not just for the elite athletes anymore," says Molly Kline, director of marketing for Zoot Sports.
Richard Verney, owner of Sports Multiplied, LLC, and exclusive distributor of 2XU, adds, "There is much more of an understanding that compression is more than form fitting clothing. It actually serves a purpose in training, racing and the recovery phase."
Compression apparel includes tops, socks, calf sleeves, shorts and tights of various lengths. This season sleeves that reach from thigh to ankle have been introduced. "These versatile sleeves can be worn while exercising and recovering as they support not only the calves but the quads and hamstrings, too," Walton of Recofit explains.
As always, product knowledge is key. Consumer education about compression apparel's benefits is still underway. "There is still a huge education issue out there," comments Julie Baxter, vice president of Moving Comfort. "People understand that compression makes your muscles feel better, but when you talk about the science I don't think the average consumer gets it."
Runners who have worn tights as an insulating piece in cooler weather may question why they can't just wear the same year round?
"There's always a natural skepticism people have about something that is new and not totally understood. There is a lack of information and consumers not fully understanding what compression can do to help with running but more on the recovery side of things. If someone is running every day there is a certain amount of wear and tear on your body," notes Dave Nacke, soft goods manager for Salomon. "You can run longer, farther and more often by using compression. There's no magic to this. It's about making the human body work at a higher efficiency rate."
Since compression apparel has some medical applications to treat circulation problems, some athletes may believe these products are only used to treat injuries. "There's an assumption you have to be injured to need to year wear compression. As opposed to recognizing that compression can prevent injuries," notes Walton.
The geeky look factor
The way compression apparel looks on the wearer causes some triathletes to hesitate before making the purchase. "Some runners may have trouble with the geek look of wearing compression socks," Walton says. "There are people who are interested in trying compression that have a real hard time with the way it looks. That's one of the hurdles. Once they give compression a shot they are game."
Moving Comfort's Baxter agrees. "Some people think compression socks look dorky. There may still be a stigma about walking around in Lycra, and some women are concerned about that tight look."
Concerns about how compression socks or sleeves look and any skepticism how compression actually works hasn't stopped triathletes from adding these products to their training and racing regimes.
"We have been a sponsor of the Boston, Chicago and New York City marathons for several years now and have had literally thousands of conversations with runners at the various pre- and post-race events and expos," Ozmai of Skins Compression Garments says. "Once a serious runner tries a true performance compression product, we're finding them converted for life."
If you're training now to improve your times at a mid-summer triathlon, adding compression apparel to your wardrobe may help you train longer and recover faster. If there's a downside, you may have to convince your friends you haven't lost your fashion sense. Just promise them they won't see tube socks on you any time soon.
Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer who has covered the outdoor recreation beat for more than a decade.