Compression socks, leggings and shorts are pretty common for runners and athletes in general these days, and for good reason. This gear has been shown to aid in recovery as well as promote blood flow during your workout. That’s why you see top-level athletes and pros rocking compression sleeves on their arms and shorts on their legs for boarding planes after races wearing full compression tights.
The anecdotal evidence in favor of compression stacks up. The overarching opinion is that, despite small sample sizes in studies, wearing compression gear during or after a run or ride will help avoid some of the dreaded after-effects of going hard or long.
HOW COMPRESSION WORKS
“Most injuries develop because of suboptimal movement patterns.” says Greg Bay, sports physiotherapist and founder of Core Short. “Athletes need stability, mobility and proper movement patterns for optimal movement, and that’s where compression can help.” Bay points out that “you can’t perform if you’re injured. Performance and recovery go hand in hand — proper rest and restoration, sleep and nutrition all play a role in recovery with performance as the end product.”
Compression improves the proprioceptive neuro response which is fancy lingo for how you control your movement. According to Bay, there’s no such thing as muscle memory — it’s all a pattern in the brain. Compression improves the neural inputs that produce better movement patterns.
Compression’s effect can be subtle, and it requires movement to create specific resistance in a specific direction, says Bay. Think of an example of a reflex where if someone pushes you, you’ll resist by pushing back. That’s how compression works.
COMPRESSION FOR PERFORMANCE
A 2010 study looked at 10 people running on a treadmill wearing different grades (levels of tightness) of compression stockings. Physiological effects of wearing graduated compression stockings during running, and physiological and perceptual data was measured after running, including in the 48 hours following the workout. While no physiological changes were detected, a higher comfort and perceived recovery rate was present during the low-grade compression run.
Another study found that the perceived muscle soreness for runners wearing low-grade compression gear was actually lower than when they ran with normal tights, so if post-run soreness is a problem for you, compression might help. A group of young women also tested the efficacy of compression while doing explosive plyometric moves, like squats and box jumps, and found that recovery afterward was faster.
The only tangible performance benefit was found during a 2006 study that found that wearing compression tights while running “may enhance overall circulation and decrease muscle oscillation to promote a lower energy expenditure at a given prolonged submaximal speed.” Simply put: Thanks to better blood flow, you can go harder, longer.
Another minor performance benefit observed in a study came during a test that looked at running in cold temperatures (below 50°F). In that study, the compression gear appeared to keep skin temperature slightly higher than running without. So if you’re in a chilly climate and looking for a way to feel better on your run, compression might be the answer.
COMPRESSION FOR RECOVERY
While the performance-enhancing effects of compression are still being studied, the recovery benefits are well-documented. One study of 11 trained runners showed that creatine kinase — an enzyme sometimes related to post-run cramping — and perceived muscle soreness both decreased when runners wore compression garments during training. A similar effect was observed for decreasing the effect of delayed-onset muscle soreness — the bane of a runner’s existence.
“Compression improves the proprioceptive neuro response which is fancy lingo for how you control your movement.”
HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT FIT
When buying compression gear, look for something that feels tight but doesn’t constrict your breathing or your range of motion. Sizing can be tricky, since the goal is for the tights to feel too small. Don’t be afraid to go up or down a size for the fit that feels right for you. It should feel like you’re being hugged but not so tight that it hurts. If your toes are going numb while wearing them, they’re way too tight.
One note: In the studies, runners weren’t as comfortable in the tightest of the recovery stockings, so if you’re planning to run in compression tights, opt for a lower-grade pair designed specifically for running, not recovery. Save the ultra-tight pair for after your run.
If you’re trying recovery tights for the first time on a long flight, make sure you have an exit strategy. Sometimes, full tights can be so uncomfortable that they simply need to come off, immediately. Plan for this by wearing slip-on shoes with sweats or yoga pants that you can easily wiggle out of in the airplane’s tiny bathroom.
Ultimately, the jury is still out whether compression gear will significantly enhance your workout in any major way. But nearly every professional endurance athlete has experimented with the gear, and most of them find tights, socks or sleeves to be beneficial. Even if it’s a psychological benefit more than a physical one, every little bit helps when it comes to improving your run performance.
As Bay puts it, “it improves people’s lives, bottom line.”
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT WORKOUT