Science in tights

If you go down to your local running track, chances are you’ll see people wearing tights. And, more often than not, shorts over the tights. But is there any science behind it, and if so, can science explain why Superman wore his undies on the outside?

Male runners wearing shorts over tights
A typical scene at any modern running event – men stretching to prepare, wearing shorts over tights. Clearly, it’s not due to fashion.

Certainly it seems that Superman and his peers set the precedent. As a kid I was somewhat bothered by the contradiction that although superheroes supposedly wore tights due to their highly physical jobs, real athletes of the time wore comfortable loose-fitting clothing. So it’s a good thing that trends and technology are finally coming around to the comic book ideal.

But on the other hand, it does seem possible that they could be for show. This occurred to me a few years ago when I suddenly needed to buy tracksuit pants (a friend and I had entered an Amazing Race-style scavenger hunt competition, which was to be held on a cool day but required some running. Hence the tracksuit pants – although maybe I’m trying too hard to justify my purchase…)

However, they were harder to find in shops than I expected. Yes, there were tracksuit pants, but mostly in the bigger sizes: XXL, XXXL, etc. If you wanted something in, say, large or medium, the main option was compression tights.

From this I got the impression that when it came to leisure wear, marketers were dividing things into two types of leisure: the running around type, which is slim people in tights, and sitting around on the couch, which is large people in tracky dacks.

(Top) A rack of tracksuit pants, in sizes XXL and 3XL. (Bottom) A rack of running tights, in sizes S, M and L, with a few in XXL and 3XL (click to embiggen)
A very scientific comparison of the range of tracksuit pants and running tights as seen in Target. Things have improved slightly, but it still trends towards dacks big, tights small.

Those marketers are clearly onto something, because people are spending a lot of money on these things: a pair of tights can cost over $100. One reference I found said that And the entire sporting goods industry is worth as much as 100 billion dollars worldwide (Weijie Fu, Yu Liu & Ying Fang 2013, “Research advancements in humanoid compression garments in sports”, International Journal of Advanced Robotic Systems, vol. 10, 66:2013, DOI: 10.5772/54560 [PDF 637 KB]). It’s probably worth asking whether they actually work.

Well, this turns out to be one of those “opinion is divided”, or “more research is needed” topics. Some studies have found a benefit, some haven’t. And it turns out to be really hard to do a double-blinded experiment, because – surprise! – people know if they’re wearing pants.

But also it might depend on the type of exercise you’re doing.

One non-sporting use for which we do know compression garments work, is the prevention of deep vein thrombosis. That’s where you get blood clots in your legs due to not moving for long periods of time, for instance in a hospital bed or on a long-distance airline flight.

It can be very painful, and potentially life-threatening if a clot detaches and makes its way to the lungs. Compression stockings basically push blood out of the lower legs, keeping it moving and preventing clots.

So one theory for how compression sportswear may help is in squeezing lactate from the muscles, in the same way as they push blood around. Lactate is the ionic form of lactic acid, which is produced in anaerobic exercise – that’s when muscles are being worked too hard for the amount of oxygen available. It’s responsible for that burning sensation in your muscles when you’ve been straining really hard.

But hang on: anaerobic exercise is activities that require a lot of power, like sprinting. So it shouldn’t make a difference when used for aerobic activities like long-distance running or walking around the park, which where you see people wearing the tights.

However, there could be another benefit. A study on cricketers wearing full-body compression garments found no improvement in running or throwing, but did find that they helped post-match recovery (Duffield R & Portus M 2007, “Comparison of three types of full-body compression garments on throwing and repeat-sprint performance in cricket players”, British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 41, pp. 409-414, doi:10.1136/bjsm.2006.033753).

This makes sense, because compression sleeves are known to help soft-tissue injuries and reduce soreness (Kraemer WJ, Bush JA, Wickham RB, Denegar CR, Gómez AL, Gotshalk LA, Duncan ND, Volek JS, Putukian M & Sebastianelli WJ 2001, “Influence of compression therapy on symptoms following soft tissue injury from maximal eccentric exercise”, Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, vol. 31, no. 6, pp. 282-90, PMID: 11411623).

But it does mean that tights should be more effective if you wear them after exercise, not during.

What I’m trying to say is that for most people who wear these tights to go running or walking, they’re probably not going to help much. They may feel comfortable – and presumably this is why the superheroes were wearing them all along – but unless you’re really pushing yourself, don’t expect them to improve your performance.

On the other hand, if you’re resting after a heavy workout, or just sitting still for long periods of time, they will reduce soreness and prevent deadly blood clots.

So in fact it’s the opposite of what I found in the shops: running around no, sitting around on the couch, yes.

What about the old undies-on-the-outside question? Well, if you’ve seen his latest movie, Superman’s given up on that style, just when others seem to be embracing it.

Now, it’s not exactly scientific, but I’ve noticed from observation that it appears to be men who wear the shorts over tights. And – how shall we put this? – they perhaps have more to hide. And when you consider Superman debuted in the 1930s, he was probably protecting his modesty too.

Once again, superheroes show us the way. And science is only just catching up…

(This story first aired on 13 June 2013 – you can listen to the podcast.)

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One thought on “Science in tights

  1. I have been wearing tights since the early 80’s but never with shorts. I wear a long T shirt that covers most of my junk and have never had any smart ass comments. It’s great to see more guys wearing tights for other uses and not for just at the gym.

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