I had just started training for a half marathon when a friend brought up compression sleeves. She had been running longer than I had, so on most topics, I took her words for gospel. But compression sleeves? They sounded a little weird. She insisted that after getting some, she never had pain in her calves again.
I decided to give them a shot, and I’m so glad I did. They have been a great choice. While I don’t typically use my compression sleeves for short runs, they are the best thing since sliced bread for long runs, making long training runs that much more comfortable.
If you’ve been wondering about compression socks and sleeves, this article will tell you everything that you need to know. How they work, the benefits of wearing them, when to wear them, and some downsides.
What are Compression Socks?
As the name implies, compression socks provide compression to your feet. Many compression socks are knee-high, and also provide compression to calves and shins. Other options are ankle-length. Briefly, compression socks help to improve blood flow to your feet, ankles, and legs.
What are Compression Sleeves?
Compression sleeves are the top part of a knee-high sock. They cover from your ankle to your knee and provide compression to your calf and shin area. Like compression socks, they are tight around your ankle and looser up toward your knee.
Compression Socks versus Compression Sleeves
While they are similar, compression socks and compression sleeves bring different benefits. Socks will increase blood flow to your feet, ankles, calves, and legs.
Fortunately, there are a lot of options for compression socks out there, so you likely can find ones that will be best for you and match your aesthetic style.
If you prefer your other socks, though, compression sleeves are a good option. You can wear your favorite socks and still get increased blood flow to your calves and legs.
Additionally, compression socks are better at protecting your feet if they tend to swell, or if you travel a lot. You’ll experience more relief from shin splints if you opt for just sleeves.
How do Compression Socks and Sleeves Work?
Compression helps to circulate blood. In addition to runners and other athletes, pregnant women and senior citizens will sometimes wear compression garments to help avoid blood clotting. For runners, they will help lessen pain in your legs.
Because there is pressure on your legs, your blood vessels work better, allowing blood to flow more freely and making it easier for your muscles to relax, making for a more comfortable run.
Benefits of Compression Socks and Sleeves
There are a lot of benefits to compression socks and sleeves. I was even able to sell my mom on them after she mentioned pain in her legs after moving to a new house that had a harder floor.
The benefits are many. Enhanced oxygen delivery. Reduced lactic acid. Fewer cramps. Faster recovery times. And a better feeling when your legs are tired and sore. Who wouldn’t want that?
Do You Have Increased Performance If You Wear Them?
The evidence is inconclusive, as studies reveal that wearing compression sleeves has little (if any) effect on your performance. Even so, some runners still believe that they give an edge.
What is more scientifically proven is that they can assist in a faster recovery (although this evidence is somewhat debated as well). The idea is that with better blood flow, muscles will have more oxygen and there won’t be as much tissue damage. With better circulation, the body will recover faster.
My friend and I talked about this and we both came to the conclusion that even if it was a placebo to wear them and feel better during running, it worked and that was all that mattered.
Other Reasons to Wear Them
Another reason I love my compression sleeves is that they provide extra warmth in the winter. When it’s really cold outside, I’ll put on my compression sleeves underneath my ankle-length leggings, and it makes it so much warmer.
Compression sleeves can also be great during other seasons. Especially with trail running, they help keep dirt and mud off your legs. Throw them in the washer on the gentle cycle and you don’t have to worry about scrubbing caked mud off your legs!
Some compression sleeves even include SPF in the fabric so that you can avoid sunburn if you burn really easily!
Should I Wear Them During or After a Run?
As I mentioned above, the evidence is more in favor of compression sleeves for recovery. Many runners put them on after a long race like a half marathon or a marathon in order to recover faster.
I personally wear mine both during and after a run. My calves don’t hurt as much when I’m running – even when I’m running on the beach – if I wear my compression sleeves. And it feels good to wear them for 15-20 minutes after my run.
If you typically experience a lot of pain in your legs after running, it’s likely because you have a lot of swelling in your legs. Compression sleeves will help with this, reducing muscle soreness in your feet and legs.
Related: Best Compression Boots
How to Find the Right Size
First, know what exactly you want. Consider whether you want knee-high socks, ankle socks, or just sleeves. Each brings its own advantages and disadvantages. You can also get thigh-high socks if you need more compression and/or you want to use them in the winter.
With knee-high socks, you’ll experience compression from your knee down. Ankle socks will just help your feet and ankles. Sleeves won’t be helpful for your feet and ankles, but they will target your calves and shins, which is an area of pain for many runners.
Another factor to consider is graduated compression. Typically, socks and sleeves provide this type of compression so that it’s tighter farthest from your heart (namely, around your ankle) and looser up near the knee to help with gravity. This also will make them more comfortable.
Finally, think about what kind of fabric you want. You can find sleeves in every variety of color and fabric that you can think of from neon green to black, from Spandex to nylon and wool. If you have skin issues with some fabrics, not to worry. There’s definitely one that will work for you.
How Much Compression Should Socks or Sleeves Provide?
This depends on your personal preference. Compression levels are measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg), and this corresponds to blood pressure levels. A typical range is 10 to 30 mmHg.
The lower numbers provide mild compression and will likely give you the compression you need for most activities. If you’re worried about blood clotting or if you have more serious pain in your lower legs, you’ll want a higher compression.
Most running compression socks and sleeves are 15-20 mmHg, which falls into a Class 1 sleeve. If you want more pressure, you’ll have to go up to a Class 2, which will likely give you around 30 mmHg of pressure.
Are There Any Downsides?
From my experience, compression sleeves are amazing. But as with anything in life, there are always pros and cons. For some people, compression sleeves and socks might not be the best choice.
First, while you can wear compression sleeves for a good period of time, you shouldn’t go to sleep with them on. And you shouldn’t wear them all day unless a doctor tells you otherwise.
Make sure that they are flat when you put them on. Don’t fold or roll them, because it will make them too tight, which could impact blood flow.
Although I love my compression sleeves, some people aren’t as thrilled about them. My sister wore some sleeves I got her when she was pregnant, and she found them a little too tight for comfort. While this could have been the amount of compression, it also could be that her body just isn’t a good fit for compression sleeves.
Additionally, if you run a lot in the summer when it’s hot and humid, having an extra layer (that is so great in the winter) can be sweltering! While you can get compression sleeves that are made of wicking material and that are lighter (which I have), it still can be annoying.
Finally, if you have especially sensitive skin, compression sleeves might be uncomfortable. You might be able to get around this discomfort by putting on moisturizing lotion before and after your runs. But in some cases, it just might be too uncomfortable to have something on your legs.
Compression sleeves have made my long runs much more comfortable, and you’ll never see me without them. However, I also have several other friends who run long distances regularly who never wear sleeves, and they seem to be just fine.
If you’re not sure, it might be worth trying out a pair to see what you think. Who knows? You might end up a believer like me! (And if you’re not sure what to try, I opted for CEP because that’s what my friend recommended. I couldn’t be more pleased.)