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Baselayers| Compression| Clothing
May 2014

Baselayers and compression:

Underwear that help athletes perform

There are now many different kinds of baselayers and compression garments on the market, each with their own benefits. RHIANAH FREDERICKS found out what makes baselayer and compression garments tick.

Baselayers and compression garments are similar in that they are designed to be the first layer of clothing next to the skin, and are often visible under the short sleeves or shorts of sportswear. But, unlike normal underwear, these technical garments enhance performance in many different ways. Baselayers assist wearers in cooling down (in warm conditions) or warming up (in cold conditions) — ensuring performance is maximised, because being too hot or cold can affect one’s performance. Compression garments, on the other hand, work the wearer’s muscles to improve blood flow before, during, or after an activity and also reduces recovery time.

What compression garments do

Compression garments were first used in the medical field in the 1990’s to improve blood flow to limbs and prevent blood clots from forming when a person’s movements were restricted, or they had to stand, for a lengthy period. The best known compression garments are socks worn during long flights, and nowadays, by hospital patients.

Compression garments fit tightly and have a high elastic content. They are designed to squeeze the muscles in certain areas to improve blood circulation and the circulation of oxygen to tired or working muscles.

It didn’t take long to make the connection that compression can also help improve an athlete’s performance.

By the late 1990’s, early 2000’s, team doctors and coaches started using compression garments during training, or for recovery — and they were most impressed with the results. (see Meet Skins, the naughty schoolboy, in Sports Trader March 2014).

“By accelerating and improving the movement of more oxygenated blood to the muscles, you increase, or improve, performance — and doing it legally!” says Paul Copson from Brand ID, local distributor of Skins.

Faster recovery

These garments can be used post-exercise to ease muscle stiffness and quicken recovery time, says Joanne Esterhuizen from Hi-Tec SA.

A faster recovery time allows the wearer to do intense training more frequently, adds Tammy Rutherford from Second Skins. “When you put on your compression wear, exhausted muscles feel supported and the wearer experiences muscle relief and is ready to resume training sooner than would be possible without using compression.”

“Tired, sore, burning and swollen muscles can be the result of lactic acid build up in the muscles and blood, faster than the body’s ability to clear it during and after strenuous activity,” says Mariette de Villiers of Designer Sports Marketing, local distributor of 2XU.

The pressure created by compression garments stimulates blood flow to muscles, lowering lactate levels that can lead to muscle cell damage, ultimately reducing Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS). “Research is inconclusive, but anecdotal evidence (and my own experience) is that they work better than the theory suggests they will,” says Rutherford.

Other compression benefits

Compression garments also create a healing environment around muscles and the circulatory system, says Sarah Mitchell from Treger Brands, local distributors of Under Armour.

“Compression helps to align and hold muscles in place to reduce muscle oscillation and prevent the risk of muscle strains and tears, allowing greater endurance, power output and performance,” explains de Villiers.

“Canterbury Mercury Compression can reduce muscular oscillation in the thigh by up to 50% to improve energy efficiency and reduces soreness by up to 30%, which improves recovery and a quicker return to training,” says Fiona Johnson, international development manager for Canterbury, locally distributed by BrandID.

Compression garments improve sports performance, offer physiological sports benefits and reduce feelings of soreness and perceptual response to exercise, she adds.

For sport activities with complicated movements, compression garments can improve agility and coordination through increased proprioception, which can increase muscle efficiency. “The appropriate pressure to the skin’s receptors heighten proprioception for improved reflex movement, body positioning and muscle coordination for greater performance,” says De Villiers.

Before exercising, compression garments allow for a faster warm up, adds De Villiers. The pressure created in certain areas increase blood circulation back to the heart and lymph nodes, increasing overall circulation that lets muscles warm up faster to allow optimal flexibility and efficiency.

Puma ACTV can be used during workouts as they are designed to work with the body to help maximise muscle power, says Collin Allin from Puma. These garments fuse the benefits of compression technology with athletic taping to create an easy to use performance offering. “With Puma ACTV, elasticized silicone tape is strategically placed on the inside of the garments to provide micro-massage in specific areas to the skin, which may help enable a faster and more effective energy supply to the muscles,” he says.

Importance of fit

The construction of compression garments allow them to fit tightly and therefore they are able to ensure muscles are held in place, which focuses muscle power and reduces vibration, but poorly manufactured garments can be ill fitting — too much pressure can be harmful and cause pain and discomfort, too little pressure may not provide any compression benefits at all, warns de Villiers.

The warp knit construction of compression garments offers no natural stretch, but the added use of spandex allows elasticity and controlled compression. It also offers better controlled compression than a circular knit, which offers natural stretch, explains Skins on their website.

Circular weaves are not as strong as warp knit, which is strengthened by multiple yarns, and are more likely to run if torn, says Copson. The warp knit is more costly and time consuming process, but it ensures that the compression element works throughout the life of the garment.

Baselayers uses

The main functions of baselayers are “offering protection from the elements, supporting muscle stability and primarily, adding comfort,” says Copson.

Originally developed by outdoor brands to provide insulation in extreme cold conditions, the temperature regulating benefits of technical baselayers were soon recognised by manufacturers of sportswear.

Baselayers regulate the wearer’s temperature in various conditions, which enables him to perform various activities without feeling discomfort. Thermal baselayers keep you warm and dry in cold weather or cooler and dry in hot weather. Because you are more comfortable, you are able to train more effectively, says Rutherford.

Baselayer’s are primarily designed to trap a thin layer of warm air against the body and it also works to wick sweat away from the skin, says Esterhuizen. This allows them to keep the wearer warm by locking in heat that would otherwise escape.

“These pockets of hot air are used to keep a constant core temperature,” adds Johnson. The performance of muscles that are kept warm or cool in the appropriate conditions is improved and muscle support and stability can reduce the risk of injury during activity.

Moisture wicking

Some baselayers are designed to keep you warm (once you begin to perspire they keep your temperature even) while others are designed to wick perspiration effectively. Perspiration evaporating from the garment has a cooling effect. The more you sweat the more they cool you, the result once again is a more even temperature, explains Rutherford.

Some baselayers have been developed for high-sweat, aerobic activities, says Johnson. A baselayer’s wicking qualities allow them to act like blotting paper and spread the moisture over a larger surface area, which increases evaporation time. Sweat is a natural by-product of exercise, generated to maintain a constant body temperature and baselayer fabric is constructed to have a high wicking ability to help move the moisture to the outer surface and disperse it over a larger surface area to speed up the process of evaporation. This results in the natural cooling of the body, explains Johnson.

“This conserves vital energy that would otherwise be utilised to maintain a consistent body temperature. This leaves the sportsperson ready to compete at an optimum level,” says Johnson.

In cold environments there is a twofold need to keep the athlete warm and to quickly remove sweat. Their baselayer wicks sweat from the skin and boosts the rate of evaporation. The napped inner surface of the fabric insulates the body.

During any active sporting pursuit where perspiration will be experienced, there will be significant comfort benefits by wearing a performance baselayer to create a dry and comfortable climate next to the skin, says Morne Strydom of Adventure Inc, local distributor of Icebreaker.

The Puma ACTV garments also provide moisture wicking says Allin. “By incorporating Puma's advanced dryCELL technology, Puma ACTV apparel effectively manages an athlete's moisture, by using highly functional materials that draw sweat away from the skin, and help keep the wearer dry and comfortable,” he says.

Differences in fabrics

Natural fabrics such as merino wool — used in Icebreaker baselayers — innately offer breathability, temperature regulation and antimicrobial properties.

“Through learning from nature IceBreaker, have transformed merino wool into the ultimate baselayer for humans,” says Strydom. “These garments are breathable in summer, insulating in winter and luxuriously soft and lightweight, but most importantly, naturally resist odour which means that garments can be worn for extended periods without feeling dirty or smelling.”

Although baselayers are traditionally manufactured from synthetic fabrics, there are some difficulties brands are trying to work out. “One of the biggest challenges with synthetic fibres are that they harbour body odour and can feel uncomfortable next to the skin,” says Strydom.

Modern man-made technical fabrics are incredibly efficient at what they are designed for, says Rutherford. Demands from active athletes have pushed fabric technicians to develop fibres and fabrics that cope with the often extreme conditions experienced during training and competing.


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