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Shorts a good fit for athletes

  Some say compression garments can enhance performance by improving the body's awareness of motion.


By Janet Cromley, Times Staff Writer


THEIR satin-soft feel. The comforting protection they offer from breezes whistling chilly surprises up your baggies. Those are two good reasons why so many people seem to be wearing compression shorts these days, from basketball, hockey and tennis icons to the guy next door mowing his lawn.

Many athletes believe the shorts have other, tangible benefits — enhancing performance, speeding recovery from injury and possibly even preventing it.

But, in fact, whether these shorts confer any meaningful advantages on the court or field is still an open question.

One veteran researcher — sports kinesiologist William J. Kraemer of the University of Connecticut — believes that these form-hugging "compression garments" enhance some types of performance.

Another, Greg Anderson of University College of the Fraser Valley, in Canada, concludes that the pants at the least don't impede performance.

Both believe that the shorts probably improve what is known as "proprioceptive feedback." In plain English: The compression of the shorts on receptors in the skin and muscles gives the brain added information on the body's motion. This, in turn, enables improved mechanics of motion.

The concept of compression shorts was born in the late 1970s when a few maverick athletes, noticing the healing effect of compression garments on injuries, began using women's girdles and pantyhose for support. The notion of Lycra underpants for males wasn't hurt when the manliest of men, Super Bowl III Most Valuable Player and all-around sports hero Joe Namath, posed in a television commercial for Hanes Beautymist pantyhose in 1974.

By the 1980s, the shorts were gracing the loins of celebrity athletes such as NBA star Michael Jordan and tennis great Andre Agassi. With that, the shorts were off and running.

Kraemer notes that wearing the shorts had a bonus: Comfort-wise, they provided more support than a jockstrap.

The slippery shorts have created some friction over the years in some of the more staid sports. Wimbledon officials got their knickers in a twist when Zina Garrison wanted to wear hers on the court in 1992, forcing the athlete to get a doctor's note before the garments were permitted.

The shorts have even sparked debate among physicists, who five years ago engaged in earnest discussion on the ethics of Lycra (might it confer an unfair athletic advantage?) at the Institute of Physics Congress in Brighton, England.

For some folks, the shorts aren't a cerebral matter. Hunky college football player USC fullback Brandon Hancock started using them following a muscle pull, and then kept wearing them.

"I feel a little more secure in them," he says. "After working out all week in practice shorts, switching to fresh pants on Saturday gives you a lift."

Hancock notes that some players switch to the shorts by the fourth or fifth week of the season, when injuries tend to stack up. "Players who try them tend to stick with them," he says, "particularly those who've had hamstring problems."

Physicists aren't the only ones applying science to pants. Kraemer, for instance, has been studying the biology of compression garments, including shorts, for 17 years. (His early research was performed in partnership with DuPont, the company that introduced Lycra to American consumers in the late 1950s.)

In one study of 10 male and 10 female varsity track athletes, Kraemer and his colleagues found that participants jumped measurably higher when wearing compression shorts. They also registered higher skin temperatures, a potential benefit for preventing injury. In another study of 12 women, the scientists found that compression leg wear reduced fatigue.

Based on the sum of his research, Kraemer believes compression shorts not only help with proprioception but improve performance of short, explosive types of athletic activity, such as jumping.

Kraemer has yet to determine if the shorts reduce injury, but fellow pantologist Anderson plans to find out.

Working with Coretection Products, a sports garment manufacturer, Anderson's research team has lined up 24 National Hockey League teams and four Major League Baseball teams to test some specially designed compression shorts in the upcoming NHL and MLB seasons.

At the end of the seasons, Anderson will compare the incidence of groin-related injuries and days on injury reserve in teams using three versions of the shorts with different levels of compression, versus teams that are not.

Even if the shorts aren't found to reduce injury, Anderson believes they are still beneficial — if only for the faith they foster.

"If the athletes believe in them and think they're going to perform better or not get hurt, the shorts have already done their job," he says.

Tempted to take a pair for a spin? Keep these things in mind when purchasing compression shorts. Most are made with a Lycra blend fabric: the more Lycra, the more support. (Shorts with 20% Lycra will provide good support for most people.)

Standard compression shorts, which sell for about $25, come in a variety of styles for different ages and sports. Ideally, the shorts should have flat seams to avoid irritation. Joe Dorsey, president of American Wave International, says that the amateur, not the professional athlete, is now their best customer.

That's probably a good thing, he says: "The shorts are more beneficial to the weekend warrior than the pro athletes, because weekend warriors are in worse shape and tend to overdo it."

Even as sports retailers count their bucks, the shorts that revolutionized athletic wear and street fashion have veered in an unexpected direction.

In what may be an evolutionary dead end, ankle-length versions of the shorts have been appearing on several NBA players, such as Milwaukee Bucks forward Joe Smith. In short, some NBA players are now wearing tights.

Thank you, Joe Namath.