by Donald Buraglio
Manufacturers make all sorts of claims about the benefits of compression apparel, including improved strength and agility, increased oxygen delivery, decreased lactic acid buildup, more efficient cardiovascular performance, enhanced muscle endurance, improved joint stability, reduced muscle cramping and faster recovery time between workouts or races … just to name a few. The research behind some of these claims is tricky, and has historically delivered mixed results on the question of whether compression gear functions fully as advertised.
What’s more certain is that many ultrarunners experience improvements in both performance and recovery as a result of using compression gear, and many top trail runners swear by their benefits. What follows is a rundown of some science behind compression apparel, as well as a practical overview of factors to consider if you’re in the market for compression gear of your own.
Socks And Calf Sleeves
The earliest compression apparel to attain widespread use on the trails were lower extremity garments – which is appropriate, because the science behind them is the oldest and best established.
Compression socks have been utilized in the medical arena for decades, particularly for patients with vascular disease (impaired blood flow) or after lower extremity surgery. By applying pressure to the surface of the skin with elastic fabrics, compression garments assist the calf muscles in circulating blood effectively, thereby reducing swelling and the risk of blood clots in the lower extremities. The application for athletic performance and recovery is essentially the same.
Increased blood flow from compression garments can occur during exercise as well as at rest. During exercise, improved circulation to the calves optimizes their oxygenation delivery and more efficiently removes the byproducts of prolonged muscle activity from the tissues. This produces two primary functional benefits: your muscles can function at a higher level for a longer period of time – in other words, they fatigue less quickly – and they recover more effectively after activity because the normal pooling of fluid in the tissues is diminished. Many runners experience less muscle soreness after wearing compression gear during strenuous activity.
To optimize blood return from the calves to the heart, most compression garments provide pressure that is graduated, or stronger in the lower portions than the higher portion. The “sweet spot” of pressure appears to be in the range of 20 to 30mmHg. If that unit of measurement is unfamiliar, think of it this way: when you put your arm in a blood pressure machine, the cuff gets pumped up to almost 200mmHg before being slowly released to obtain the measurement.
For calf compression, you have two style options: calf sleeves or full length compression socks. Most companies marketing to ultrarunners offer both styles, such as the following models we tested:
- 2XU Compression Calf Sleeves ($45)
- 2XU Compression Performance Run Socks ($50)
- CW-X Ventilator Compression Support Calf Sleeve ($50)
- CW-X Ventilator Compression Support Socks ($55)
- Zensah Ultra Compression Leg Sleeves ($45)
- Zensah Tech+ Compression Socks* ($50)
- 110% Double-Life Shin/Calf Sleeves ($75)
- 110% Flat Out Sox ($60)
- CEP Progressive+ Calf Sleeves ($40)
- CEP Progressive+ Run Socks ($60)
*Zensah earns extra style points for offering argyle compression socks in two different colors and a wide variety of unique patterns.
Choosing between full socks or calf sleeves is a matter of preference, with some distinct advantages to each. Full socks allow you to extend the graded compression all the way up from the foot, and also provide a bit of joint stability (see next section) at the ankle. They’re also easier from a convenience standpoint, as you have only two garments in your bag to keep track of instead of four. However, if you plan to change socks at an aid station, or have a preference for sticking with your favorite brand of trail sock, calf sleeves are the way to go.
Shorts And Pants
Circulatory system benefits aren’t the only way that compression apparel aids muscle efficiency. Another method occurs by decreasing the smallscale muscle oscillation that takes place upon every footstrike. When your muscles vibrate on impact, they expend a fraction of their potential to first stabilize themselves before applying focused contraction in the necessary direction. If compression fabrics spare your muscles a tiny amount of energy with each step, over a long distance they could provide substantial overall savings. It is also thought that limiting excess muscle vibration decreases the severity of muscle soreness experienced after a hard effort.
For the large muscle groups of the upper legs, compression apparel combines decreased muscle oscillation with targeted support and stretch components to optimize the muscles’ overall range of motion and contractile strength. Instead of simply grading the compression from bottom to top, pants and shorts are constructed to be tighter or looser in patterns that mimic and complement the anatomic lines of the musculature. Areas that will benefit from stronger muscle contractions or increased range of motion are accentuated by the fabric; for example, stronger fabrics in the hip flexor area can facilitate leg turnover.
Compression pants can also provide additional stability around the hip and knee joints by strategically surrounding them with supportive, more restrictive material. If you’ve seen athletes wearing kinesiotherapy tape, you’ve seen the concept in practice; the difference here is that instead of tape, compression pants position highly supportive fabrics to provide a similar level of support. This is particularly effective around the knee, with medial and lateral stability features, but is also done at the hip joint – and in the case of full compression socks, at the ankle as well.
Similar to the socks-vs-calf sleeve decision, most companies provide ultrarunners with a variety of pant lengths to choose from, from shorts (stopping above the knee) to capris or knickers that stop just below the knee and full-length tights. Models we tested included the following:
- 2XU Compression Run Short ($80)
- 2XU ¾ Compression Tights ($90)
- 2XU Elite Compression Tights ($140)
- Zensah High Compression Shorts ($64)
- Zensah ¾ High Compression Capris ($86)
- Zensah High Compression Tight ($100)
- 110% Juggler Knickers ($150)
- 110% Clutch Tights ($250)
- CW-X Endurance Generator Shorts ($120)
- CW-X Endurance Generator Tights ($170)
Of course, some runners – especially men – shy away from the tight short look, but still want the benefits of compression through the quads and hamstrings. Fortunately for them, a few companies have created compression shorts that include an external layer constructed like traditional running shorts. Three models tested here are all slightly different. Pearl Izumi’s Ultra Short ($80) provides lightweight compression underneath, while 2XU’s Compression X Run Short ($80) is slightly tighter. On both of those models, the external shorts fabric has a tendency to bunch up between the legs – which is a problem that Salomon’s S-Lab Exo TwinSkin Short ($150) solves ingeniously by removing the external fabric just in the crotch area. The Twin- Skin also has more compression than the Pearl Izumi or 2XU models, and was developed as part of Salomon’s S-Lab project in partnership with Kilian Jornet – more on him a bit later.
Practically speaking, compression apparel for the upper body is less prominent on the trails than lower extremity gear – perhaps for good reason, as this is an area where the performance benefits for runners are a bit more of a stretch. The targeted support approach can still be applied to the upper body. For example, increased support in the scapular and collarbone areas can contribute to improved posture and increased efficiency of arm swing. However, the musculature of the torso and upper extremities is more complex than that of the lower body, moves in a far greater range of motion and has much greater variability from one individual to another – which means that in order for compression clothing to be effective in these areas, they would need to be uncomfortably restrictive. So unless shirts begin to match the thickness and tension of surf wetsuits, it’s unlikely that upper extremity compression apparel will have a significant effect on your overall performance.
Despite all this, one fabric that is new to the market this summer caught our attention and proved to be quite remarkable during testing. 110% is introducing its Katalyst Short Sleeve ($75) and Long Sleeve ($85) shirts made of a fabric called Warp-Knit, which combines very light compression with moisture management and thermoregulation, even in extreme conditions. The fabric is surprisingly soft, allows full range of motion and has seamless construction that prevents chafing. Most fascinating of all, it’s completely alterable – if you want the neck wider or the torso shorter, you just cut it with scissors without compromising the integrity or strength of the fabric. It’s not the only innovation from this company, as we’ll see in the next section.
Recovery And Icing
Aside from their biomechanical properties that improve recovery, some compression garments can facilitate icing your legs after activity as well. Pockets sewn into the compression fabric are designed to hold small ice packs that can be directly applied to key muscle groups to further decrease post-exercise pain and soreness. Reusable cold packs are typically provided with these garments, and can be stashed in the freezer while you run so they’re ready to help you as soon as you get home.
This is an area where some sports medicine companies have crossed over into the realm of performance apparel – for example, a company called Runner’s Remedy makes a Calf Sleeve ($24) with a pocket on the backside to ice the entire calf, including the Achilles tendon. Among the performance apparel companies, 110% is on the forefront of combining compression and icing: among their product lineup are compression/ ice combo garments for the ankles, knees and thighs. The Juggler Knickers mentioned earlier cover all the bases, with built-in compartments (and enough cold packs provided with purchase) to ice your quads, hamstrings, glutes, hips, IT band and lumbar spine – all at the same time. Or if you’d prefer to use the pockets another way, you’ve got enough capacity to carry about 50 gel packets on your next long run.
How To Shop
When you’re ready to give compression apparel a try, where do you start? Keep the following guidelines in mind as you start shopping:
Fit is key. There’s no overstating this. Try on apparel in person whenever possible, because the cut of various brands may differ. Some are tighter than others, some are thicker, some are proportioned differently. If you can’t fi nd the brands you want to try in your local running store, buy a few different kinds online and try them all. Yes, it’s a hassle, but it’s worth it.
Check your gender. Obviously this is an easy one, but it relates to Guideline Number 1. Some of the products covered here are made in unisex versions, and some are gender-specifi c. Depending on your individual anatomy, that may make a huge difference in fi nding the right fi t.
Know your measurements. Compression apparel is typically sized in traditional smallmedium- large-XL categories, but your pants size doesn’t necessarily equate to compression gear size. Do you know your calf circumference? Quad circumference? What about your weight (and be honest)! These will help make sure you get the right fi t – and fi t is key, remember?
Move around. When trying on gear, run around the store if possible, jump up and down, and do some knee bends as well as lateral movement. Make sure the apparel isn’t overly restrictive, and that there isn’t any bunching of material. Fit is key. Fit is key. Have we mentioned fit is key?
Take your temperature. Well, not literally … but identify how warm you want your apparel to be. More restrictive compression garments tend to be thicker, and therefore warmer than gear providing less compression. And even the most breathable compression garments run hotter than traditional performance fabrics, so if your comfort is impacted by warmer clothing, consider going with less coverage: knickers instead of full pants, or calf sleeves instead of full socks.
One last note: as great as compression apparel can be, it’s not magic. Kilian Jornet helped spur the compression boom in ultrarunning, especially during his debut at Western States in 2010 wearing an extensive Salomon S-Lab compression kit. He experienced problems that year (who hasn’t during their fi rst States?), but he came back and dominated in 2011 – however, he ran that year without wearing any compression. The lesson: wearing compression gear doesn’t prevent you from having complications on race day, and there’s no clothing in the world that takes the place of training and preparation. So gear yourself up, and hit the trails!