Many runners of all levels and distances—like record-breaking marathoner and three-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan—swear by their compression socks, sleeves, shorts, and tights on race day. But does donning the spandex-like clothing have real performance and recovery benefits when it comes to running? A new meta-analysis might just have you convinced to run out (no pun intended!) and buy some for yourself.
The paper, published in the journal Sports Medicine, looked at 30 existing studies on compression gear and running performance and recovery across a variety of distances, including a half marathon, a 15K trail run, 5K and 10K runs, and a 400-meter sprint. The authors concluded that while compression garments had no significant impact on speed, there was an impact on endurance, and some serious post-run benefits too.
Specifically, they found small positive effects on the 'time to exhaustion', running economy, clearance of blood lactate, and markers of muscle damage and inflammation. They also reported large positive effects on post-exercise leg soreness and the delayed onset of muscle fatigue.
How exactly does compression gear do this? Well, it helps to improve the amount of blood that's flowing back to the heart from the legs while you're running, which can improve cardio output, explains Alice Perlowski, M.D., cardiologist and vascular medicine specialist, triathlete, and medical advisor to CEP compression. (More on that here: What Does Compression Clothing Really Do to Your Body?)
Compression gear also helps to keep all of your muscles and tissues snug and stabilized so they aren't bouncing around as much—which, over the course of, say, 26 miles, can add up and cause serious damage to the tissues, which in turn causes delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), Perlowski explains. (Find out Why Post-Workout Muscle Soreness Hits People at Different Times.)
Stabilizing the muscles can also help with form, says Harry Pino, Ph.D., senior exercise physiologist at NYU Langone's Sports Performance Center. "Runners tend to get sloppy at the end of a race—your posture starts drooping, you start losing form, and you use more of your hips and less of your glutes," Pino explains. And when that happens we start to lose running economy. Translation: Your body requires more fuel to travel the same number of miles. Wearing compression gear can help counteract this end-of-race exhaustion by mimicking the muscles and giving you that extra lift. And while studies have yet to show this translate directly into faster running times, all of this could help you pick up speed as you move through your stride, Pino says.
It's important to note that the meta-analysis also mentions 'perception.' Yep, studies have shown that the placebo effect can also be a powerful force when it comes to compression gear. (It makes sense—any runner knows that mental training can be just as crucial as the physical work.)
Even if you aren't a fan of actually running with it on, both Perlowski and Pino recommend wearing a knee-high compression sock post-run to help speed up recovery, since compression gear can help to diminish swelling, soreness and inflammation.
While more definitive research may be needed to determine just how much compression gear can truly help with your running performance, the heavy anecdotal evidence from athletes of all levels is pretty convincing, Pino argues. Not to mention, study after study proves it can only help, not hurt you, so it's certainly worth giving it a whirl. And hey, if you think it helps, isn't that all that matters anyway?