Compression Wear for Runners and Triathletes

If you have done a running race or triathlon lately, you have likely noticed an uptick in the number of fellow racers wearing compression wear. Someone who you chat with pre-race, you passes you, or who you pass during the race is sporting the latest in compression technology. Why are they wearing it, and what does it do for them?

Compression Socks, Sleeves, Shirts and Shorts

It is most likely that the compression clothing you have seen on the market or at races falls into one of four garment groups. Compression socks are tight socks that usually go up to just above the calf, and below the knee.  They are usually made with graduated compression, meaning that the pressure is tighter at key spots such as in the shin and ankle, but not as tight around the foot.  Similarly, compression sleeves look a little like socks on the calf, but do not actually cover the foot. They just go from the angle to below the knee.  The sleeves are popular with runners and athletes who might be looking for calf support, or who need to alleviate shin splits, but still want to run with their

Compression shirts can come in both short-or-long-sleeved versions.

preferred short socks or even sock-less.

Compression shirts are gaining in popularity and fit tightly throughout the torso, shoulders, and arms (if they are long-sleeved).  They fit much like a tighter version of a short-sleeved or long-sleeved t-shirt, but the good ones have construction that allows for more range-of-motion in the shoulder area.

Compression shorts are tight-fitting shorts that might resemble cycling shorts or triathlon shorts, but are quite different in construction and purpose.  They tend to provide firmness and support in the upper leg and glutes, and are gaining quickly in popularity not only with runners, but also with the Crossfit and yoga enthusiasts.   Finally, compression tights or pants are exactly what you would expect — full length or three-quarter length garments that cover most of the leg.  While often associated with cooler-weather workouts, many athletes prefer the full legging over a pair of shorts because it covers and protect the all-important knee joint.

Does Compression Technology Work?

2xu elite spandex
Compression shorts can be high-end outer garments (like these) or lighter undergarments.

Compression gear has been used for decades in the medical field to help people with circulatory disorders. You might remember aged family members wearing white “compression stockings” prescribed by their doctors. The intent of the stockings was to help prevent leg swelling and blood clots by helping aid circulation in the legs. About 10 to 15 years ago, the sports community caught on and began using compression socks for faster athletic recovery. The same concepts that allowed those patients to prevent leg swelling also allowed athletes to reduce the negative effects of their workouts more quickly. Studies by the NIH helped confirm that recovery is aided by the use of compression technology.  We are not talking technology as in the kind that you find in your running watch, but rather the kind that goes into the precise blend of fabrics and garment construction.

Why, then, if compression wear is really about recovery do people wear compression gear during a workout or a race? Many believe that it helps them reduce injury, swelling and cramping during an event. We have first-hand experience with compression wear allowing racers to finish a race after suffering an injury that would have caused clotting and swelling.  The makers of compression gear also note that the garments support better muscle and bone alignment.  Think about running with a knee brace — the knee feels more supported, but just as importantly your brain is reminded to keep your joints an alignment as your run.  The same logic applies to good compression gear.

Health benefits aside, compression gear is often used because it is simply comfortable.  A quality set of compression clothing can support various muscles while on a run, and the combination of nylon/poly/spandex in the gear generally does a great job of wicking away moisture.  This is why you see runners and other workout enthusiasts often wearing compression shorts or shirts during warm workouts, workouts in which staying dry is a priority.

What Compression Wear Do Runners Use?

Compression socks are still the most popular type of compression wear for runners.

Runners in races of all distances – ranging from 5Ks to ultramarathons – have been using compression gear more often both during the workouts / races and after. The gear they tend to use covers the gamut – ranging from socks and sleeves for leg and shin splint issues to shorts or shirts for various reasons. It is definitely most common to see runners use compression socks or sleeves. The sleeves are particularly common because they still allow the runner to use the running socks of their choosing – something that often is carefully sought-out in the running circles. The most common injuries that runners are trying to avoid / nurse while using compression socks or sleeves tend to be shin splints, calf cramps, and to some extent Achilles tendonitis.

As for compression shorts, we most commonly see runners use them for two basic types of injuries. The first are groin strains or pulls. A good pair of compression shorts can help with alignment and also provide just enough pressure to help comfort the groin injury. The second injury that is often address by compression shorts is a tight hip. Much in the same way that compression socks or sleeves can help manage inflamed and sore shin splints, compression shorts can provide needed pressure for a sore hip.

We shouldn’t leave out compression tights and pants, which runners actually helped make popular.  A good pair of compression tights can be a perfect piece of colder weather running gear, serving as a great solo layer until temps are down to about 45 degrees, and as a great base layer when temps go below that.  The 3/4 tights are popular for people doing fitness classes, yoga, as well as those using the tights for basketball or skiing.

From a comfort standpoint, compression clothing is often used for two very different reasons.  The first is to use as a base layer under other clothing during a colder-weather run.  The firmness of compression gear does a great job of helping keep heat in and evenly distributed around the skin.  It also keeps a cold wind off of your skin.  The other common use is in the opposite situation – during hot runs.  The moisture-wicking properties of compression gear makes it a top choice in cases where you want to ensure your clothing doesn’t get damp with sweat.

What Compression Wear to Triathletes Use?

Triathletes tend to focus a bit more on the lower-body compression gear, namely socks and sleeves. In races, it is probably the most common to see compression sleeves as many racers are focusing on reducing transition time, and compression socks can take a few seconds to put on. Still, for someone with Achilles issues, the peace-of-mind provided by compression socks might just be worth the additional time it takes to slip them on. Compression shorts are typically not seen in triathlons because most triathletes wear compression shorts, garments specifically designed to be worn continually through the swim, bike and run legs. Many triathletes, however, wear compression shorts as part of their recovery or for their run-only workout days.

Compression shirts are often used by triathletes, but only during recovery. For someone with a shoulder or back injury, compression shirts can provide the firm pressure needed to aid in recovery or help with sleep. This can be particular useful to triathletes, who often strain their shoulders and upper back during hard swim workouts or intense open water race swims.

Should I Use Compression Wear?

Using compression gear is a personal decision, just like any other workout-related purchase. Just like some runners prefer flat shoes while others like the support provided by high, reinforced arches, there is no one right answer. However, given the number of serious runners and triathletes who swear by compression gear, it might not hurt to add compression gear to your locker, along with your other training gear.

Given that the recovery benefits of compression gear have been well-documented, that might be the place to begin.  Use it first for recovery, and perhaps try it out for some of your workouts as well. Particularly for ailments like shin splints, calf strained, and tendonitis, the stories of compression gear aiding in performance and recovery seem to get more compelling each day.

The bottom line, as with all workout gear, is that if it feels good and helps you workout, then use it.

Leave a Comment