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Do Calf Compression Sleeves Help Me Run Faster?

We look at the findings of Mota et al who produced a systematic review of published research in a paper titled Effects of Wearing Compression Stockings on Exercise Performance and Associated Indicators. Their work was published in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine in 2020

Their findings suggest no direct performance gain. However, during recovery they find that wearing compression stockings could benefit muscle function and muscle soreness. So, wearing calf sleeves on your run may not help your time today but could improve your performance levels next time or over a training block.

Let's dig deeper.

The goal of the paper was to look at all available research to consider the effects of wearing below the knee compression stockings on sports performance. After filtering by their inclusion criteria:

  • Original study using healthy adults
  • Below the knee compression garments
  • Garments worn during exercise

They were left with 21 studies to analyse. 16 of these (76%) considered running as the form of exercise in the study.

Only two of the studies found any performance benefit of wearing compression stockings.

  1. Moderately trained runners on a speed incremented treadmill test until voluntary maximum (with the speed increased every 5 mins)
  2. Under 20s footballers' performance over 2 matches that were 72 hours apart. Those in compression covered a greater distance

A third found an improvement in a subsequent performance undertaken 1 hour later but not in the initial effort.

3. Two 5k time-trials with 1 hour rest in between. On the second run, the group wearing compression beat the control group by 9.5 seconds

None of the studies presented a mechanism for the performance benefits observed.

The authors of this analysis expressed caution in drawing conclusions given the variety of design in the studies, the levels of fitness of the athletes used and the risk of any bias or placebo effect.

Across all papers, there were other benefits found from wearing compression stockings whilst performing (or recovering). But none that impacted the performance itself, which is the focus of the analysis.

The main beneficial effects of compression sleeves appeared when garments exerting over 20 mmHg of pressure were used in the studies considered. These benefits are found accrue during recovery rather than performance with improved muscle function or fatigue indicators and a reduction in perceived muscle soreness.

Again, the mechanisms are often unprescribed although better venous return (thus improving metabolic removal from exercising muscles and reduced cardiac load), reduced muscle oscillations, better movement mechanics, lower muscle damage have been presented as hypothesis across these papers.

The authors of this analysis of research suggest that future studies might consider a longer experimental design period to judge whether the effect of wearing compression sleeves during performance have compound performance benefits through the recovery advantages observed.  

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