Compression gear is designed to increase circulation and give you a performance boost.

Compression Gear for Runners: Do I Need It?

Compression stockings have been used for many years in medicine to control swelling, improve circulation, and prevent blood clots. But today there is a new use for compression socks and sleeves – they have become very popular in running. Many athletes claim that compression gear improves performance while reducing soreness from activity. But is there science behind these claims? Let’s look at the evidence.

What is compression gear? 

Compression socks are made of elastic fabric constructed to exert gentle pressure on the legs to promote circulation. True compression gear for runners applies pressure that gradually decreases from the foot and ankle to the calf, theoretically improving blood circulation back to the heart. There are also compression tights and pants that compress from foot to hip.

Why do runners use compression gear?

For runners, compression stockings are designed to improve circulation, claiming improved performance and recovery.

Are there different types of compression gear for athletes?

Compression wear varies by fit, levels of compression, and design, from simple sleeves that cover the calf to socks that cover the foot and extend to the knee or higher. There are many brands of compression gear, varying in quality and consistency of compression. The best gear will have pressure ranges that approximate medical-grade products.

What does the research say about the benefits of compression gear? 

Studies have shown that compression gear can improve oxygen delivery to muscles, and theoretically may improve circulation. This could lead to more efficient removal of soreness-inducing waste products like lactic acid. When stockings are used during and after exercise, they have been shown to improve recovery. Compression gear helps raise the temperature where they are worn, which can assist in the warm-up process and protect your legs in cold weather. Research also suggests that compression gear gives some runners a psychological edge. However, compression gear will not improve your running form, and has not been shown to significantly improve run economy, efficiency, or overall performance.

Are there any risks of using compression gear? 

Since compression gear is designed to increase pressure in the legs, people with leg pains like shin splints may find that symptoms worsen. Also, the quality of compression gear varies, and some brands may improperly compress legs in a way that causes swelling in the feet and ankles.

Should I try compression gear?

If you are looking for an edge to help your performance and/or recovery, you can consider trying compression stockings and see if you notice improvement. Make sure to try your new gear on short runs first for a few weeks and see how your body responds. It’s best to ask your doctor whether you have medical issues that should prevent you from using compression gear.

How should I choose compression gear?

Sleeves vary by size, length, material, fit, comfort, and level of compression. Start with low-compression stockings. Gather information from reviews and testimonials from fellow runners, and discuss with a sports medicine specialist or your physical therapist.

Eshwar Kapur MD, is a sports medicine physician who practices at Kaiser Permanente South San Francisco, where he specializes in running medicine. Dr. Kapur ran varsity cross-country and track and field for the University of Virginia and has been running for more than 25 years without injury. He has participated in medical coverage for races around the country including the New York City Marathon, the Cherry Blossom Run in Washington, D.C., and the Nike Women’s Marathon, where he was featured as a guest speaker at their Expotique pre-race expo.