One of the running trends that I’ve noticed over the past year is the growing number of people wearing and raving about compression sleeves and socks. Compression product manufacturers like Zensah have effectively used social media sites like Twitter to expand their user base, and a number of my on-line running friends love their products. Even elites are utilizing compression garments, with such notable runners as Paula Radcliff and Chris Solinsky sporting compression socks during races.
I’ve long been curious about the potential benefits of using a compression product on the run or for recovery purposes. The skeptic in me sees a trendy gimmick, but the regular use of compression products in hospital settings to help reduce edema and increase venous return suggests that there’s some substance to the theory behind their use. I will admit up front that I haven’t read the scientific literature on compression products, but thankfully fellow running blogger, coach, and exercise scientist Steve Magness just recently posted a lengthy review of the science of compression garments. In a nutshell, Steve’s conclusions are as follows:
“At rest in certain populations, compression socks definitely increase venous blood flow. The question is does this happen during exercise and if so does it improve performance? I’m afraid that testing that idea during intense running is a bit too hard to do at the present moment. There seems to be a bit more consistent effect demonstrated on decreasing muscle soreness and thus enhancing recovery in a wide variety of groups. The results for performance enhancement while running due to blood flow increases and/or product removal is mixed. Although neither is well studied at this point in time.“
So basically, the gist is that there are likely benefits for blood flow at rest (hence their use in hospitals), but it’s hard to extrapolate this to running conditions. Evidence seems stronger that compression can help reduce muscle soreness, though the mechanism isn’t well know. Magness also discusses how compression can theoretically help reduce muscle vibration and increase muscle power, enhance lactate clearance, and there seems to be reasonable evidence supporting the use of compression after runs to help enhance recovery. Based on all of this, I’m satisfied that there is at least enough evidence of a positive benefit to make experimenting with compression garments worthwhile.
My own interest in compression primarily originates from some anecdotal personal experience – three of my fastest races have come while wearing running tights, including my marathon and half marathon PR’s, and my second fastest 5K. While not compression products per se, I have long found that wearing tights during and after long runs feels good, and seems to help with recovery. The realist in me says that my performance in those races is more likely related to the cold weather in which they were run (hence the need for tights), but psychology is a powerful force when it comes to performance, and I’ve always “felt” more efficient when running in my tights (have to add – my wife hates it when I say that I wear “tights”).
Since I have been running a lot of miles in Vibrams lately, my calves have been tight and sore, and I figured that this would be the perfect time to try out a compression product. I decided to get in touch with the people at Zensah to see if they would provide me with a pair of calf compression sleeves to review. They graciously offered to send me a pair, and what follows are my thoughts after a few wears.
First, the Zensah sleeves are remarkably comfortable – I got a size L/XL, and they provide just the right amount of pressure without being too constricting. I put them on when they arrived, and wound up wearing them for about 12 hrs straight – something about the compression just feels great. From an aesthetic standpoint, although my wife accused me of resembling an old man in black knee socks, I actually kind of like the look.
I’ve now worn the Zensah sleeves on a Vibram Bikila run (in which I knocked out a 5:52 mile – near my personal best), a hard Fartlek run, and an 18 mile long run in my Saucony Kinvara’s (nice shoe by the way – review coming soon). They remain comfortable on the run, and although it’s hard to say for sure, my sense is that I feel a bit less sore in the calves when I run in them. In particular, my legs felt remarkably good after my 18 miler this afternoon – the Zensah/Kinvara combo worked out great and it was the best long run I have had in quite some time (pace was just under 8:00 miles).
Perhaps the best endorsement I can give for a product is to answer the question of whether I will continue to use them. The answer to that for me is a resounding yes. In fact, I suspect I will be wearing the Zensah sleeves during my Fall marathon (Hampton Smuttynose Rockfest), and I already have plans to pick up a second pair (this time in red to placate my wife).
As per usual, the best price I have found for the Zensah sleeves is at Running Warehouse – you can follow the link below to check them out.