To compress or not to compress? This question has bounced around the running world for decades. A quick look around local training clubs or race events will tell you how popular compression is with full-length socks, calf sleeves, tights and more. Compression apparel can be found at almost any run, no matter the distance or ability level of the runner. So, do they work?
While scientific consensus about the benefits of compression may be lacking, enthusiasm around the products most certainly is not. Many runners swear by the benefits of compression, and anecdotal testimonials are easy to come by. Devotees give a variety of reasons for their use: improved circulation and muscle support during intense activity, delayed fatigue during longer efforts, injury protection or prevention, faster recovery after training or racing. The simple fact that compression garments make people feel better during activity is a metric that shouldn’t be overlooked; if you think they’re helping you, then they probably are.
So, what is exactly is compression? It is exactly what it sounds like: a tight-fitting garment that compresses or gently squeezes your muscles. Their most popular application is in the lower legs, and that is our area of focus for this review. Full length socks or calf sleeves that are separate from the foot, are worn up the entire length of the calf and use elasticized materials with directional fabric alignment to apply external pressure and support to the musculature of the leg. Done correctly, compression garments provide graduated compression that is tighter near the ankle and more relaxed as you move up the leg, for the purpose of decreasing swelling further down.
But why should you do it? To begin, look to the medical industry. Compression garments have long been used to treat circulatory disorders associated with leg ulcers, deep vein thrombosis, diabetes, venous insufficiency, traumatic swelling, lymphedema and more. It stands to reason that if compression has a therapeutic effect for medical ailments, it can also have performance or recovery benefits for athletes. The jury is still out on this one, though, with studies that point in both directions as to the efficacy of compression for running. One reason for the discrepancy is that for comfort reasons, the amount of pressure in some performance-oriented compression is typically lower than what is found in medical grade garments. But the feeling is similar – and as we mentioned, if you like how they feel, there’s a good chance they’ll help you perform.
How did we test?We received both full-length socks and calf sleeves from four major brands and put them through their paces. The garments were worn for a variety of distances and conditions, and then also as recovery pieces over the course of a 4-6 week period. Below, we’ve pointed out some of the construction details of each, and included our thoughts on performance and fit.
Zensah blows the competition away in style points, with a constantly changing lineup of seasonal collections featuring modern art, holiday graphics, animal faces, or whimsical cartoons. Don’t worry, they’re also available in basic black and solid colors. Zensah socks are built with ribbing in the arch and ankle (for the full-length sock) and in the shin (for sleeves) to provide muscle support, and targeted compression in high demand areas. Their fabric has odor control in addition to being lightweight and moisture-wicking, allowing multiple uses between washings.
Our testers loved the overall comfort of these models, with a durable feel that isn’t excessively warm. They seem easier to get on and off than other brands, despite having similar levels of compression. Zensah’s sizing uses a straightforward XS-XL system for sleeves, and a S-XL system for socks that correlates to shoe size. The sleeves do refer to a calf measurement and user height for proper sizing, but our testers found that they wore the same size in sleeves and socks with almost no exception. One unique item in the Zensah lineup is a full-length leg sleeve, which one tester compared to the Normatec air compression system at a fraction of the cost; this kind of sleeve is also becoming more prominent among basketball players and other athletes during competition.