You don’t have to be breaking the tape at a big marathon, or even your weekly local 5k, to want to run faster. Runners of any level are usually interested in improving their performance and making running feel that much better.
Some runners consider supplements like caffeine or a pre-workout drink, others try the latest in footwear like carbon-fiber running shoes, and still others experiment with training tools like parachutes and anti-gravity treadmills.
Another potential performance-improving strategy is wearing compression socks or compression sleeves while running or after your workout. But do compression sleeves work?
Compression garments have become increasingly popular in the training and recovery protocols for athletes of all sports, distance runners included.
You can now see knee-high compression socks adorning the legs of several of the top finishers in most major marathons, and many of these same athletes don full-length compression tights and tops after the race.
So, do compression sleeves work? Are there benefits of compression sleeves for runners? In this guide, we will look at the science of compression sleeves and discuss how compression sleeves work.
We will cover:
- What Are Compression Sleeves & What Do Compression Sleeves Do?
- Do Compression Sleeves Work?
- Research Benefits of Compression Sleeves for Runners
- Benefits of Compression Sleeves for Runners
- How Do Compression Sleeves Work?
- Best Compression Sleeves for Runners
Let’s get started!
What Are Compression Sleeves & What Do Compression Sleeves Do?
Compression sleeves are a type of compression gear worn by runners and other athletes for various potential performance and recovery benefits.
Compression sleeves typically extend from just below the knee to the ankle, providing graduated compression or pressure along the lower leg, ranging from approximately 10-30 mmHg at the ankle and gradually increasing towards the top.
The compression is thought to help increase circulation, prevent swelling, and reduce pain.
There are also compression socks, which employ the same concept and look similar to compression sleeves for the calves, but they have a foot portion like a normal running sock as well.
Compression tights extend the length of the entire leg, and there are compression arm sleeves and compression tops (long-sleeve shirts) as well.
But, do compression sleeves work?
Do Compression Sleeves Work?
There have been quite a few studies over the years on the efficacy of compression sleeves.
One large review that looked at over 150 studies investigating the potential benefits and mechanisms of action for wearing compression sleeves to improve athletic performance reported that results from the individual studies were mixed.
In general, findings suggested that compression sleeves and compression garments seem to reduce muscle oscillatory properties and positively affect the sensorimotor systems.
Moreover, while compression sleeves likely increase arterial blood flow, localized skin temperature, and the perception of muscle soreness and pain after exercise, significant changes in metabolic responses, blood pressure, heart rate, and cardiorespiratory measures seem unlikely.
Research Benefits of Compression Sleeves for Runners
Although not every study has unequivocally demonstrated significant performance improvements from wearing compression sleeves, there are plenty of studies showing positive benefits of compression sleeves for runners and other athletes.
One small study involving male runners found that wearing compression socks during a 5k time trial resulted in less performance decline (and overall better performance) in a subsequent 5k time trial one hour later compared to runners who did not wear compression socks in the first 5k.
The researchers surmised this performance improvement to be due to improved oxygen delivery, reduced muscle oscillation, and/or superior running mechanics from wearing the compression socks, as well as a potential perceived mental benefit.
Another review concluded that wearing compression sleeves increased time to exhaustion, running economy (including biomechanical variables), clearance of blood lactate, perceived exertion, maximal voluntary isometric contraction and peak leg muscle power immediately after running, and decreased markers of muscle damage and inflammation.
While running economy didn’t seem to improve when wearing compression sleeves, one study involving treadmill running showed that lower limb compression garments do reduce muscle displacement, soft tissue vibrations, and the muscle activation associated with impact forces while running.
Why does this matter?
We don’t tend to think about soft tissue vibrations as amounting to anything meaningful while running.
However, repeated and/or long-term exposure to these vibrations can have deleterious effects on soft tissue, such as pain, loss of function, decreased firing rates of motor units (contractile speeds), reduced muscle contraction force, slower nerve conduction velocity, and blunted sensory perception, which can all negatively impact running performance.
Additionally, excessive soft tissue movement and vibrations have been implicated in the development of lower extremity injuries, so minimizing these micro movements can also potentially help safeguard against running-related injuries.
Benefits of Compression Sleeves for Runners
Based on the research findings and subjective reports from other runners, the potential benefits of wearing compression sleeves while running include the following:
- Increased blood circulation
- Enhanced venous return
- Faster recovery
- Greater lactate tolerance
- Warmer tissue temperature
- Reduced delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
- Increased sensorimotor feedback
- Improved running economy
- Reduced swelling and pain after exercise
How Do Compression Sleeves Work?
So how do compression sleeves work? It’s still somewhat inconclusive, and various studies have hypothesized different potential mechanisms of action, ranging from increasing tissue temperature and enhancing venous return from compression to the placebo effect.
The warmer the tissue is, the more blood flow increases to the muscles, bringing oxygen and nutrients and helping remove lactate. This can potentially increase time to exhaustion, reduce feelings of fatigue, and promote recovery.
The compression helps keep the tissue in place upon impact landing at ground contact, reducing muscle vibration and microtears, which may lessen the need for recovery. Swelling and inflammation after a workout may also be minimized by the enhanced venous return.
Lastly, proprioception is increased by the pressure on sensory receptors, potentially improving biomechanics.
Best Compression Sleeves for Runners
There is some evidence to suggest that compression tights may be most effective at increasing lower-limb blood flow and oxygenation. However, calf sleeves and compression socks are most common amongst runners.
Want to try some compression socks or compression sleeves? Here are a few products to try:
These knee-high compression socks provide just the right squeeze along the calf to stabilize muscles, aid circulation, and reduce fatigue. There is great arch support, and the socks are surprisingly thin, which helps your legs and feet from overheating.
They are breathable, blister-proof, and designed to wick moisture to keep your feet cool and dry no matter how far you run.
The Feetures Graduated Compression socks provide 15–20 mmHg of compression at the ankle, gradually lessening toward the top of the sock for an ideally snug, supportive squeeze while still facilitating full mobility during a run.
This graduated compression is zone-specific based on the anatomy of the foot, ankle, and calf, which not only improves the support and circulation benefits of the socks but also improves comfort and fit.
Feetures socks have a seamless toe to prevent blisters and are made from moisture-wicking, soft fibers to keep your feet cool and dry despite the knee-high height.
They come in numerous colors, and Feetures backs their socks with a lifetime guarantee, meaning you can replace them at any point should they not meet your needs.
If you’re looking for just a compression sleeve rather than a compression sock, you can’t go wrong with the CEP The Run Compression Calf Sleeves 4.0.
These compression sleeves provide supportive, medical-grade compression, ranging from 22-24 mmHg at the ankle to 16-18 mmHg on the calf.
Smart Dry Extreme Air Technology adapts to weather conditions, keeping you cool in the heat and warm when it’s chilly out. Silver fibers keep bacteria at bay for an odor-free running sleeve.
If you really want to take your workout performance and recovery to the next level, we commend the full-length CEP Recovery Pro Compression Tights.
The compression tights hug your legs with a pleasant pressure of 20-30 mmHg. Made from high-tech synthetic fibers to reduce moisture and odor, CEP has designed these tights for comfort, durability, and maximal recovery benefits.
We love pulling them on after a long run or track workout to help ease fatigue and facilitate rapid recovery.
What have you seen from your experience regarding compression socks and sleeves? Do compressions sleeves work for you? If you haven’t given them a try yet, go ahead and do so. They may be a nice addition to your running gear and help improve your performance along the way.
If you are looking for what to wear for the rest of your gear, you can refer to our running gear section to find what’s just right for you.