It was only his second race after a year off from life-threatening injuries and infections. Tall, dark, muscular and handsome, Hay List strode with confidence off the track. His chiseled legs and torso were enveloped by a skintight bodysuit, turning heads with every step.
Hay List is a racehorse. And a few weeks ago, he returned to racing in a high-tech bodysuit designed by Australian company Hidez to help muscles recover after strenuous exercise. Horses from all over the world competing in the London 2012 Olympic Games will also be sporting the recovery suits during air travel to reduce stressful vibration and keep the skin cool. Horses will also wear them in the morning before workouts or competitions, and immediately after. The suits made a special runway debut in Melbourne, modeled by Hay List, conjuring images of ripped gym rats clad in Under Armour.
"No one has ever made an actual compression garment for animals before the Hidez recovery suit," says Matthew Spice, the suit's inventor. "We are stepping into other animals as we speak, and can only imagine where we can go with this technology."
Spice, a retired rugby player in New South Wales, was in the chimney cleaning business before launching the suits. At night, while he cleaned restaurant chimneys, longing for a visit from Mike Rowe, he would think, "How did I get stuck here, and where can I go from here?" Spice would return home late at night and fall asleep, dreaming of ideas for something new. He knew athletes who benefited from the technology, so why not animals?
"In all my years of developing this suit, I've noticed the horses love having it on," Spice says. "Horses that are half broken-in, young horses or old ones, they love it. I've never had a horse even try to bite it off, so that says a lot."
Compression technology is nothing new. Just browse through any sporting goods store, and you'll find compression socks, leggings, shirts and shorts. Compression clothing emerged in the medical field more than 60 years ago to improve circulation in patients with venous disorders like deep-vein thrombosis. In the 1980s, scientists began researching the same technology for athletes. The clothing is meant to increase blood flow and reduce swelling and lactate levels, which causes soreness.
The research on compression clothing helping muscle recovery is mixed. Some studies show it reduces soreness the day after 10k runs, and others showed less soreness using compression tights after sprint and jumping tests. But other research showed ice baths and rest were more effective than compression.
Researchers have also looked at whether compression clothing can improve performance, but a 2010 study from the University of Indiana's Department of Kinesiology, says the clothing had little impact on distance running or vertical jumping performance.
"Consumers need to keep in mind that this is a business, and that they are trying to sell you their product," Nathan Eckert, one of the researchers, told ScienceDaily.
Like minimalist running shoes, it's a debate between the loyal converts and the skeptics. Jill Brenner, a runner and therapist in Austin, Texas, who specializes in therapy for distance athletes, wears compression tights and socks after long races, 12 miles or more. Her husband, a radiologist and IronMan competitor, uses them, too.
"I'm not sure how much it helps performance, but it feels good," Brenner says. "Still, it's up to your running coach or doctor to tell you whether they are a good idea."
The placebo effect, and mental security the compression clothing might give athletes, are both factors. Like a superstitious pitcher who can't throw without his lucky hat, If you feel more confident wearing compression socks, then you'll probably run faster or jump higher. Jay Turkbas is senior vice president of marketing and product development for Shock Doctor, a company specializing in protective gear for pro athletes, says he recognizes the scientific research is often conflicting, but still finds the products beneficial.
"I always wear the socks when I fly, especially international travel," Turkbas says. "I always feel better, and it keeps swelling down and blood flowing. Some people may say it's all in your head, but if it works for you, then it works."
The placebo effect certainly can't be happening with racehorses. His trainer, John McNair, has said there are obvious improvements to the horse's recovery time after runs and travel with the suit. A year after those debilitating injuries, he's known as the best male sprinter in the world. He'll race in front of the Queen of England at the Royal Ascot in July, where his Hadiz bodysuit might even steal the spotlight from the event's traditional dress code of rather gaudy headgear.
Either way, he'll be comfortable. As soon as the suits are all zipped up, Rice says the horses "totally relax, start chewing or urinating."
Good for the horses. Hopefully, human athletes aren't experiencing quite the same relaxation response when they suit up in compression gear.
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