Compression clothing has been around for decades, known to many as the “grandma socks” hosiery that people wear post-surgery to prevent pooling of blood in the legs (which can lead to venous thrombosis). The concept is that by applying pressure to the surface of the skin with elastic fibers, this compression (along with the muscular pump effect of the muscles in action) aids in the circulation of blood. Athletes and manufacturers looking for an edge found ways to apply this to improve both performance and recovery, and soon companies like Nike, Under Armour, and others turned it into a fashion play as well. In the last 5-6 years, it’s really exploded.
It’s hard not to be skeptical of a performance claim when products jump immediately to being “fashionable”. After all, the girdle-like form fitting is probably more than enough “performance” for most. ;-) But when I saw Torbjorn Sindballe use compression socks for his 3rd place overall finish at the 2007 Ironman World Championship (where he CRUSHED it), I knew he wouldn’t play around with this stuff just for fashion purposes. Then they started popping up everywhere at the pro levels, and some big ultrarunners like Todd Braje were telling me they do make a difference for longer runs (like on his record-setting 5hr 30min 50m finish at the 2009 Jed Smith). When I got three recommendations to wear them on the same day in April (to tackle my 50k and two marathons in one week), I figured it was time to test out some products. I bought a bunch of different kinds – socks, calf guards, tights, shirts, shorts, etc. – and give them all a test run.
For most products, the difference was subtle at best. I felt like the biggest difference was in recovery, particularly when I had a short window to recover for the next race. But a couple of products surprised me with their applicability in unadvertised areas.
2XU Compression Calf Guards – These are like sleeves for your calf, but extra tight. I was familiar with Australia-based 2XU because they provide the Inov-8 racing shirts (which are wonderful, like everything Mark Lundblad has picked out for us). Peter Virney from Sports Multiplied, the 2XU distributor for the US, outfitted me in a pair at the Boston Marathon Expo and I trained, raced, and recovered in them over the next two months. They definitely helped in recovering quickly, particularly when sitting on a plane (just like grandma told me!). Since they are not too bulky, they were easy to slip on under my jeans at work too. I like that they weren’t a full sock, because I like to wear Injinjis, but that does eliminate the foot compression available on other 2XU models.
I couldn’t tell if the compression was adding much to race day, but I certainly wasn’t having any issues with cramping. They were handy for other reasons at the rainy Miwok 100k – by providing added warmth and acting like a “shin guard” from my muddy treads, they definitely earned their keep by keeping my skin fresh. Conclusion - good lightweight protection, added warmth, and a nice recovery tool. These are definitely keepers.
Opedix R1 Running Tights – I call these “bionic tights”, because they took compression support to a whole new level. Unlike the fairly mild and universal compression provided by most tights I tried, the R1 tights use stronger materials around the knee to create their patented Knee Support System. The goal is to help “save the knees” by preventing the outward motion that causes wear and tear, in addition to the compression benefits for the whole leg. The resulting effect feels like a movable brace, giving the feeling of structured (but not limiting) support. The support is particularly strong just about the knee in the quad and hamstring area.
Although I don’t have knee issues myself, I did notice that the additional knee support was comfortable and could see that it would be helpful. The recovery benefits were great, particularly after the quad-pounding Miwok 100k. I felt instant relief on my knees from putting them on. Conclusion – strong structural support, and surprisingly helpful in recovery. I’ll be keeping these too.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised at the utility of compression products for racing and recovery. Most compression products are expensive (the 2XU calf guards were $62, and the Opedix R1’s are $170), but I’m game for anything that provides a little extra comfort or takes a day off my recovery path. There are certainly cheaper models out there, so try them out and see what works for you. I would love to hear from others who have tried compression products and what does/doesn’t work for you. Let’s learn from each other!
[In full disclosure, I paid for some of the products I tested and received some free test products from others. I paid full price for the 2XU Calf Guards, and received a tester for the Opedix R1 running tights. Since I’m now running in more 2XU gear than Sugoi gear, I’ve added their logo to my page and have a new pro deal with them through the Inov-8 Team.]