Let’s Talk About Compression

You’ve probably seen the calves of ultra and elite marathoners as well as recreational runners adorned with colorful, skin-tight, often footless sleeves. Maybe, like me, you’re already a fan and wear them yourself.

If, however, you’re a skeptic, you probably have some questions about compression gear. What is it good for? Is there any science to lend credibility to its proponents’ claims? Is it worth the often spendy price?

The Case for Compression

In short, graduated compression, as featured in most compression gear, actively encourages and increases venous return to the heart and lymph nodes to increase overall circulation. This works to help muscles warm-up more quickly and supports optimal flexibility and muscle efficiency. 

A word to the wise! Not all compression is created equal. Not to name names, but some pieces are simply tights in disguise. For optimal benefits, compression needs to be gradual and tight. Look for tights, socks, sleeves, etc. that advertise their strength between 20 and 30 mmhg (millimeters of mercury).

During Exercise

While running, your muscles, tendons and ligaments are exposed to a huge amount of vibration. This constant vibration is a major cause of muscle fatigue, soreness and damage. Compression works to align and hold muscles in place to reduce the amount of muscle oscillations. The result: enhanced prevention of strains and tears while also allowing for greater power output.

Some brands, for example 2XU, have worked to improve coordination and agility through proprioception. What is proprioception? Our bodies ability to sense the movement of our joints and the placement of our joints in relation to space. By increased pressure being targeted over the skin’s receptors this can help to increase proprioception and in turn reflexive movement, body position and muscle coordination — all good things!

In 2009, scientists conducting a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research tested a group of 21 athletes. Some were randomly assigned to wear below the knee compression and some wore none. Those wearing compression demonstrated improved running performance at the anaerobic threshold than the athletes who did not wear compression. Another study cited significantly higher levels of muscle oxygenation in subjects with calf compression during exercise.  

In regards to calf compression, you have options: socks or sleeves. For longer workouts and races, I prefer the sleeves. My feet are prone to blisters so I wear a good merino blend sock. Some athletes prefer the socks; it’s really just personal preference.

Recovery

By and large, we serious runners are all pretty good at getting in our prescribed workouts, long runs and the like, but can we say the same thing when it comes to recovery? I for one will admit that I could be better. I have lost count of the number of times I have slipped in the shower while trying to stretch and simultaneously shampoo my hair.

I’d guess that 99.9% of us do not have the luxury of being able to spend adequate time on recovery before rushing out the door to school, work, taxiing kids between sports practices or whatever else we need to do. Compression might be a way to recover on the go without risking a bathroom fall!

After hard training sessions your muscles feel heavy, stiff, and sore. This is due to microdamage to muscle fibers and the resulting inflammation. Compression helps increase the blood flow to the lower limbs, and some athletes report it helps speed up recovery, or if worn immediately after a hard effort, reduces these feelings all together. 

In a group of New Zealand rugby players, researchers found that wearing compression garments versus a placebo lycra garment for 24 hours after a workout improved endurance performance. Additionally, athletes in compression reported diminished fatigue and reduced delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) post-testing.

Compression: Spendy but Worth It

Anything that can help with the pain of 26.2 miles is a winner in my books!

A few weeks back we roundtabled the idea of running being a sport for rich people. Yes, in theory we only need a pair of sneakers to run, but who can honestly say that shoes makes up the bulk of their running budget? I for one cannot. Between comfortable workout outfits, multiple pairs of sneakers, GPS watches, race entries, and massages, it’s not surprising that many of us balk at the price of compression gear, wondering if it’s worth it. I get it, believe me!

Maybe it’s because of Lupus, the highly inflammatory autoimmune disease I suffer from, that I respond particularly well to the benefits of compression. However, I do not think this is the case. I am of the opinion that compression garments are worth their weight in gold, or more specifically, worth their weight in oxygenated blood flow. When money was much tighter in college I had two pairs, and they were reserved for during and after workouts and races.

But if wearing them during exercise can decrease your chances of a muscle injury, and wearing them after can increase your body’s ability to recover faster, you might be saving money in the long run by avoiding more expensive treatments like massage or physical therapy. So yes, they are worth the cost and everyone can benefit.

Plus, who doesn’t love squeezing themselves into super tight fitting garments?! Ok, maybe that’s where I’m on my own.

***

While some studies have cited a lack of significant differences between compression and non-compression on performance, there is certainly no harm (unless you’re cutting off circulation) in donning a pair. Precise mechanisms might remain slightly at large, but for me I am more than welcome to foot the bill for compression gear for reduced inflammation, increased recovery and perhaps even running a little faster!

Does compression provide benefits for your performance and recovery? Or is this all a crock of shit? 

I am currently working on my Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience while sipping on wine & coffee in Northern Virginia. Together with my husband and Rhodesian Ridgeback, Gracie we battle to keep the Tupperware cupboard organized for more than two days at time. I recently ran my first marathon (2:51) and am excited for what is to come. I like to ramble about running post injury, finding a work-life balance and running quickly.

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21 comments

  1. Thanks for this info! Compression sleeves always make my calves feel fatigued super fast whenever I run with them and I’m not sure why. I like them for after a workout or run though, and especially on the plane ride home after a race.

    1. Wow! That’s interesting about workouts. Wonder if that’s a common thing? I wear them after long runs mostly if I do, but they definitely reach a point where they annoy me and I have to take them off.

  2. I’ve been wearing calf sleeves regularly since recovering from injury. The sports med Dr suggested them. I don’t know if it’s just metal, but I do feel better wearing them. I’ll wear compression socks after a long run.

  3. I love compression post-run, but any time I’ve worn them during a run, I can’t stand it. Maybe it’s the calcium deposits on my tibiae from stress fractures 7 years ago? I don’t know. But after, yes please. I’ve got full length tights that also work as leggings under work dresses or casual tunics, and a pair of sleeves that go to the arch of my foot, too. I don’t like full socks because my monkey toes get squished.

  4. I love compression sleeves for tight calves after a workout. I do tend to race in them but there’s no good reason for that other than they feel good.

  5. I’m definitely a believer that compression can be a big help in training. Like you said though, not all brands are good and I’ve definitely seen some duds over the years. I have used Zensah for years now and really love their products- and have found what works well for me. I like racing in short or tall compression socks, but I like the sleeves or leggings for recovery. I don’t see the need to wear them every run as I think the body needs to be able to adapt on it’s own sometimes as well.

    I also say to people who don’t think they actually do anything- if it feels good to wear them and doesn’t hinder you…then why not? No one is forcing you to buy them but if other runners find they like them….who cares?

  6. Like other responders, I wear them for racing. I am not sure if they help but I did PR in every race I wore them in last year.

    I don’t wear them regularly for training except in the shoulder seasons where I want to wear shorts but like having the extra coverage from knee socks. I wore arm sleeves in NYC marathon last fall for the same purpose – to keep me warm without the bulk (and potential chafing) of a long sleeve top.

    I feel better wearing them after long runs. I am not sure that they scientifically improve recovery but I like the comforting feeling they provide to tired legs. As I bought my socks on sale (50% off), it wasn’t a huge cost and they are pretty tight (a surgeon friend said they weren’t as tight as his “medical grade” ones he wears while he operates, but he was surprised how strong they were).

    Where I wear compression the most is on airline flights, especially on red eyes. I find I was getting too many episodes of pins and needles in flight and compression helps to minimize (actually, eliminate) that.

  7. I started running in compression socks a few marathons in, and swore by it. But then, all the pro’s started not wearing compression and I got worried that it was hindering my performance?! I think it’s definitely an opinion thing. Some people like it while others don’t. I wear compression at work every day though! Otherwise, my feet are on fire 8 hours in.

  8. So there are a lot of brands of compression out there — which ones do runners here think work best?? I like compression after a workout or long run, but they are spendy so I want to make sure what I’m getting is worth it. Thanks!

    1. Hi Rosemary! Unless there is a brand that has slipped under my radar I have tried (and paid the $$!) them all. My personal preference is 2XU. They offer the best graduated compression levels – helps to facilitate max. blood flow, are much softer to touch than their counterparts, offer UPF50 sun protection, + some anti microbial goodies in there to sweeten the deal. But most of all I find the lifetime of 2XU products to be better than all other brands I’ve worn. I’ve had some others lose compression and tightness fairly quickly! I just checked online at looks like they have some decent discounts at the moment! http://www.2xu.com/us/search?q=calf

  9. I got my first pair of calf sleeves for pacing a friend for 33 miles of her 100-miler this past summer, I figured they’d be good since I’d be on my feet for so long. Well, I was on my feet way, way longer than expected (like 15 hours) and the inch or so of skin between my sock and the bottom of the calf sleeve swelled and turned red and got really itchy– I had to cut the sleeves off with a pocket knife at the finish line. The exposed skin actually died and sloughed off kind of like a bad sunburn. I looked it up and this has happened to other runners as well, and the article I read about it suggested wearing the full socks to avoid it. That scared me into wariness to try them during a race, but afterward I bet they feel great!

    1. 15hrs sounds just dreadful 🙁 … the problem with sleeves on for extended periods of time it that a small edema is created between the bottom of the sleeve and your ankle – *cue* swelling, itchy, blisters and all that nasty good stuff. Once I am done running with sleeves on they come straight off and I’m into tights or long socks.