SEE UPDATE @ bottom of this post…
Will 2010 be the year that compression clothing breaks big in cycling?
If you’ve been to any type of endurance sporting event in the last year or so you’ve probably noticed a pretty good smattering of compression garments hanging off the racers. And if you watched the pre- and post-stage interviews at the Tour de France you saw Lance Armstrong and several other riders sporting compression socks.
The basic premise behind compression clothing for athletes is that the tight fabric increases circulation and enhances oxygenation, and hence recovery, of the working muscles.
Lately it seems there are 3 main companies producing compression gear for athletes: Skins, Zoot and 2XU. Of the 3 Skins and 2XU seem to be making the biggest play for cyclists. Skins sponsors Columbia-HTC, and are rolling out a robust cycling line later this year. 2XU has a decent range of cycling clothing, sponsors Garmin and AIS, and even offers sublimation. Zoot is mainly tri-focused.
My Experience with Compression-wear
Zoot Compress RX Tights
I got interested in Compression for cycling after reading this cyclingnews review of the Zoot Recovery Tights. I liked the idea of using them for recovery and travel. Long car rides are brutal for the legs and I’ve had more than one bad race the after driving home from a family vacation. I opted for the $110 knickers because I thought they’d be more versatile than the long tights. I never rode in them, but wore them around the house in the evening after tough workouts and even slept in them a few times. I also wore them a few times if I had to drive more than an hour or so the day before a race.
How’d they feel? In a word, tight. I mean crazy-tight. They’re actually hard to get on. You sort of have to shimmy them up your legs in sections. Although the fabric is pretty thick I did stretch the seams in a few spots. For $110 I thought they should be a little tougher, but the initial seam tears haven’t spread now that I’m a bit more careful.
Once on you can feel the compression in the the knickers right away. It’s almost a mild throbbing sensation, but it’s not at all unpleasant. After a few hours of wear my legs always feel fresher, but I wouldn’t say the feeling is overwhelming. The fresh-legs feeling is more noticeable after I’ve worn the knickers during long car rides. I usually emerge from such hour-plus rides w/ a heavy, blocked-up stiffness in my quads. However, with the knickers on I hopped out of the car feeling fresh and rested. This summer I had a very good race the morning after serving 2 hours behind the wheel the previous night. I haven’t worn the knickers since the season ended in September, but plan to give them a try under my cycling shorts in some cool-weather races this spring.
2XU Compression Shorts
These shorts are very different from the Zoot knickers. First off the material is much thinner and they are not nearly as tight. When I first got them out of the package I was a little worried that these weren’t really compression tights, but the first ride has left me optimistic about them. Today the training plan called for a 1 hour zone 3 ride. My legs felt a little beat up from a moderately-strenuous leg workout yesterday, so I thought today’s ride would be a good test for the shorts. The 2XU model I have doesn’t have a chamois and the website says they are designed to be worn under your cycling shorts, so that’s how I wore them. As I said the fabric is rather thin, so the extra bulk didn’t feel bad and I think the 2 layers enhanced the compression feel.
I set up the trainer popped in a movie and got at it. After a short warm up I settled into the mid- to high-end of my zone 3. Fifteen minutes later my initial apprehension about the shorts was fading. A day after lifting my legs should have felt a little hollow, but instead felt full and powerful. There was a noticeable feeling of tightness around my quads, but it made me feel strong. I spent time both spinning around 100 rpm and grinding down around 80 rpm and both felt great. In short the ride felt like one of those too few great legs days that you experience now and then. Tomorrow is another lifting day, so I’ll try the shorts there too and then continue to wear them on most rides. Hopefully the good feelings will continue. I’ll follow-up after some more time on the bike and in the gym.
DeFeet DeCompressor Socks
DeFeet makes great cycling socks, so when I saw that they were getting in on the compression act I was interested to try them. The first thing you notice about the DeCompressor socks is that they are extremely comfortable. The DeCompressor features a thin Levitator Lite foot section that is lightweight breathable and quick drying. I’ve had these for a few weeks and have been wearing them around the house in the evening. I’m rocking the black ones so they look extra goofy if I’m wearing shorts. Like the knickers I’m using these just for recovery and I’d put them in a similar category — good, but not amazing. The socks are much easier to put on that the knickers, and much less warm under clothing, so I see myself getting more use out of them for the aforementioned long car rides.
The Future Looks Tight
I’m looking forward to more experimentation with compression clothing this year. I plan to get my hands on some of Skins’ updated line of C400 cycling specific clothing when they come out later this year, so be sure to look for updates on my self guinea piggery.
So it’s been about 6 weeks since I began earnestly testing my compression wear. The results are a big thumbs-up for both the socks and the shorts.
I wear my DeFeet DeCompressor socks in the evening after almost every workout (both gym and bike work), and the results are noticeably less-sore, fresher-feeling legs. I usually throw the socks on around 7 or 8 and wear them until I go to be at 11 or so. I would bump up my initial assessment of them — good, but not amazing — to pretty damn good. I think as I’ve begun to do harder rides and workouts the benefits of the socks has become more noticeable. In addition to wearing them at home I’ve worn them a few times when I knew I was going to be on my feel a lot or taking a long car ride — both with good results. Just last week I drove about 5 hours straight while wearing the socks. When I arrived at my destination I didn’t have that awful, dead-legs feeling that driving often gives me. I didn’t have a chance to ride or even exercise the next day, but my legs felt pretty snappy just walking around.
As for washing I usually run them through the machine about once a week if I’m just wearing them around the house. Maybe that sounds nasty, but they don’t get too skanky padding around my living room, and the fact that machine drying in not suggested makes daily washing a hassle. I haven’t noticed any deterioration in the material or tightness.
The ease of use and the $30 price tag makes these a no-brainer for any athlete looking to dip a toe into compression.
The 2XU shorts also did not disappoint. I tried them both at the gym and on the trainer. I can’t say I felt any benefits at the gym. At this time of the training year (Jan/Feb) I’m doing some mid- to heavy-weight squatting. I was hoping that the shorts would add some pop to that, but I don’t think they did. They’re thin and comfy, but I life the same weight and feel the same when I don’t wear them. On the bike is another story. I’ve worn them pretty much every time I’ve ridden for the last 6 weeks or so and on the few occasions I didn’t wear them my legs felt noticeably worse.
Yesterday I was doing some threshold intervals. 1, 2, 3, 2, 1 in zone 4/5 on the trainer. My legs were a little beat up from some squats at the gym the day before, but the shorts continued to deliver. The feeling is sort of hard to describe. I could feel the fatigue in my legs, but it seemed manageable and it seemed to take me longer to get to the point where I was in discomfort. Although the shorts don’t feel nearly as tight as the other compression wear I’ve sampled the do seem to be making a difference. I have no data to back any of this up, but even if it’s just psychological who cares. Feeling better is better. At $80 the shorts are a bit more of an investment, but still a good deal in the grand scheme of cycling accessories.
I’d still like to sample the new Skins C400 shorts, but it seems that they’re not available yet. Also, from the looks of their site they are only offering bib shorts w/ a chamois. Fine for training, but I need something I can wear under my team kit.
For me tight is right and I’m looking forward to seeing how I feel when the racing starts.