In’s and Out’s of Compression Clothing

Posted on November 18, 2013 by Erin Nielsen | 1 Comment

As athletes we are constantly searching for training tools that can improve our performance and recovery. One tool that has been recently adapted by many is using compression garments (think Meb’s socks and Shanaye Flanagan’s arm sleeves).

Compression has been around for at least 50 years, and traditionally was most common in hospitals and medical uses. Medical stockings are usually worn around the ankle or foot to create consistent pressure on the leg, more towards the ankle and less as you move up the leg. Consistent compression has been used to help blood flow returning to the heart and decreasing risk of thrombosis. With many of the same physiological affects happening after tough workouts, compression has begun to be popular in sports and sports training.

So with all this popularity, do they actually work? This post focuses on common questions I receive and the science behind compression.

What are the suggested benefits of compression?

Benefits for compression have been listed as the following: enhanced blood circulation, reducing blood lactate concentrations, reduced muscle oscillations, improves performance, improves recovery by removing blood lactate build-up, and reduces delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in the days following delayed muscle soreness. As added benefit that we stress at Born to Run is using compression when transitioning to minimal footwear. When running more mid-foot or forefoot, your calves, Achilles, and feet will get sore while in the process of strengthening these muscles. Compression socks and calves sleeves can help reduce this soreness.

What does research say about compression?

Research on compression for performance has been mixed. Most of the research on performance benefits such as time to exhausted, aerobic threshold or perceived exertion show no difference with compression and if differences are found they tend to be minimal. While there are no clear-cut answers for performance, I think the main issue is defining what “performance benefits” actually means.

Where the research is indisputable is benefits for recovery. Research has found consistent results in the decreasing delayed onset muscle soreness. DOMS typically occurs for runners on downhill runners or running a distance or speed longer/faster than normal. The theory behind the decrease in muscle soreness is the constant pressure of the garment reduces the space for swelling and gradient pressure of garments increase blood circulation.

There seems to be no clear-cut answers regarding the benefits of compression. With more scientific research, hopefully this will change. It comes down to how each individual person experiences.

What are the differences in brands?

Three of the major brands are 2XU, Skins, and CEP, you can find all of these brans at Born to Run. They all stress the same benefits, but there are some differences between them. Skin’s is the only one that has gradient compression throughout, meaning different compression levels throughout to increase blood circulation. 2XU and CEP both have one consistent level of compression throughout. Because of the added compression, the only brand that recommends sleeping in compression is Skins. In regards to fit, Skins tends to be slightly longer, especially in the calf sleeves and socks than 2XU and CEP. So for those people who are tall or who want more supports, Skins is the way to go. I personally have used all brands and prefer Skins tights and shirts, I think the quality is higher and it just plain feels better on my body. For socks, I prefer 2XU for a snugger fit, especially around the arch of the foot.

Proper Fit

One of the most important parts of wearing compression gear is to ensure that it fits properly. Take the following steps below to ensure proper fit:

  1. Measure up: All the brands typically are sized based on circumference of certain body regions. If you are looking to get calf sleeves or socks, measure the circumference of the calves at the widest part. For pants- measure your waist, calves, and take your weight. For shirts, measure the widest part of the ribcage.
  2. Fitting the gear: Always try on compression before buying it. You don’t want compression to bunch in any place or be overly constricting. The compression should fit snug, but never pinch or cut off circulation.
  3. Getting in the gear: Always lay the gear flat and work your body into it. Don’t bunch (especially the socks) when putting the clothing on. It won’t lay well on your body.

Erin’s Take

When compression was brought to my attention a few years ago, I knew the benefits of use in medical field, but needed to try it for myself. For performance purposes, I didn’t notice any differences in my times; I think there are more important tools to improve performance than relying on compression to magically drop time. But for recovery, compression is my favorite. After long or hard workouts, I used to take an ice bath to reduce soreness and help recover faster. Now, I wear my full tights for a few hours after a tough workout or race and the next day my legs feel brand new. No more freezing water required! If you do destination runs and end up on a plane soon after, pack your compression to help reduce the pooling in your lower legs. My own overall subjective observations support the research showing that compression aids recovery, but not as much performance.

It seems there needs to be more research on the topic with clearly defined parameters for both performance and recovery. I highly believe in doing what feels best and if you notice differences using compression while running or after running, then by all means use them! 


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1 Response

Kyle Kranz
Kyle Kranz

November 19, 2013

While there does seem to be a consensus that compression does decrease recovery time (something I have not noticed), I’m not convinced that’s a good idea. Decreased DOMS or recovery time is useless if you’re also decreasing the adaptation to the workouts that are leaving you with DOMS. I would also suggest that if you need artificial recovery methods after workouts, you’re training too hard. The soreness is there for a reason.

People are also very quick to look towards compression to ease an injury, when ignoring the fact that they caused that injury and there’s a reason it happened, and the reason was not because they were not wearing compression ;)

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