In a previous blog on recommended equipment, I mentioned I have used compression socks and light compression shorts in the Ridge Run. The popularity and claims for compression clothing deserves some attention and definition.
Lycra is the rubbery thread that adds stretch-ability to fabric. Lycra content can vary from %5 to %40 in stretchy fabric. The rest of the content is typically nylon or polyester. The higher the Lycra content the stronger the stretch and compression. To qualify as true compression clothing, it needs at least %25 Lycra content. Garments made with %25 or greater Lycra content really put a noticeable squeeze on you.
The Lycra thread itself is much heavier then natural (cotton) thread or synthetic (polyester) fabric thread. Lycra is also a poor thermal insulator compared to other materials used in fabrics. Bottom line: the higher the Lycra content, the heavier and colder feeling the clothing.
Proponents of compression clothing make claims of improved endurance performance. I’ve experimented using compression tights, shorts, tops and socks. I have not noticed any improved running performance. So, I’m not convinced regarding the claims about improved performance. Nevertheless, just from a comfort and utility factor, compression clothing does have some merit.
Although my 28 year old daughter does not approve of men, especially old men like me, wearing tight fitting bike style shorts; I like the lower content Lycra (<20%) compression shorts for running for a couple reasons. They work well when wearing a waist belt or fanny pack because they do not ride up. They are also very comfortable. I find high Lycra content (>20%) shorts too restrictive for running. It feels like I have to work harder just to take a step. This becomes noticeable when power walking uphill or taking long strides.
My favorite shorts are the Nike Pro line. They are very light, comfortable and fit well. They have 16% Lycra, which is enough for a tight fit, but not enough to qualify as true compression clothing and cause that restrictive squeezed feeling.
If you want to save some money, you can buy nearly equivalent non-brand clothing at Wal-Mart for less than half the price of the Nike clothing. I’ve found shorts that have exactly the same 16% Lycra, 84% Polyester fabric and are probably made in the same 3rd world factory.
There is an activity where I do like the high (>25%) Lycra content true compression shorts. And that is as under-ware for alpine skiing. Freedom of movement is not as important as support for downhill skiing.
I personally do not like running in Lycra tights. I find the tightness around the knees restrictive and irritating. If it is cold enough to require long pants for running, I prefer loose fitting Munich style tights or pants.
I fail to see how compression tops would have much benefit for endurance running. Perhaps they give some benefit and support for upper body strength activities like skiing or weight training. Maybe a compression top can act as a pseudo sports bra for women.
Compression Socks are probably the most popular or common article of compression clothing. The claim is that they prevent fatigue by keeping blood from pooling in your feet and lower legs during long endurance events. Although there are many studies on the effect on performance by compression socks, so far there is little data that definitely supports the increased performance claims. I’ve personally not seen any improved performance.
Compression Socks do provide a different feel and awareness of your feet. Supposedly they increase proprioception that helps with your footing on technical terrain and preventing ankle sprains. My experience is this is true. I like the enhanced awareness of my foot position when running on rough terrain. Compression Socks are normally knee high. So on cold days; they can add warmth without going to full length tights.
The downside of compression socks is they are heavy. They are also expensive. $40.00 for a pair of socks is a bit much. In addition, if I wear compression socks for more than a few hours at a time, they cause my Achilles tendon to become sore and tender. It is probably just me, but it happens consistently.
A new item I’ve seen is compression sleeves or tubes. I’ve never used them, so I have no first-hand experience with them. If the theory of how compression socks work is prevention of pooling of blood in the feet and lower legs, then I question the efficacy of compression sleeves. A sleeve would seem to act like a tourniquet causing blood to be trapped in the foot. That is just my uninformed opinion. Sleeves would seem to lack some of the neural feedback effect in the foot (proprioception) that socks have.