Compression Sleeves – Placebos or Do They Stop Cramps?

After nearly two years of running on a fairly regular basis without any compression sleeves, this winter I finally bought myself a couple of pairs, one for my arms as well as for my calves. My intent of course was warmth during morning runs, ability to peel them off easily in the middle of a race and stuff them into my SJ Ultra Vest. Less so to increase my running performance or reduce cramps. The Zensah Compression Sleeves (the one that I own) can run you up ~$40, which is pretty expensive for a pair of socks. They do come in all sorts of wonderful colors and patterns so you can matchy-matchy with the rest of your running gear. But, do they really reduce cramps?

Compression Sleeves And Calf Cramps

Berkeley Half Marathon Start

Trying out compression sleeves @ Berkeley Half

During the 2012 Summit Rock Half Marathon (my second trail race ever and I didn’t know what compression sleeves were) I got nasty calf cramps at mile 8. I’ve been mostly experimenting with Succeed S Caps as a way to regulate electrolyte intake and taking the time to eat during long runs. Since then, I haven’t had much issues with cramps to the point of DNF’ing or walking it off. What I learned was that compression sleeves were first designed to treat patients with lower limb diseases like varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis, leg ulcerations, etc. After seeing benefits in recovery, they were introduced to athletes, the marketing spin began on how compression sleeves could increase cardiac output, decrease heart rate, increase sprinting performance, decrease lactate production, improve economy of movement, decrease muscle damage and increase power during exercise. Wow, can I get a dozen of the compression sleeves please?

Gobler et. all [1] studied 11 male athletes on the effect of compression sleeves and no difference was found in muscle oxygenation though the skin temperature was slightly higher with the sleeves than without. Fletcher et. all [2] studied 16 participants on a 2-hour run followed by 24 hours post-run and concluded that their research fails to support the claims made by manufacturers of compression garments to increase performance, decrease post exercise discomfort, or improve recovery time.

Well, many of the references in those papers all conclude the same thing: YMMV. As for me, I ran the Pacifica Foothills Trail Run 30K last month, almost starved towards the end and just as I was trying to sprint to the finish line, bam! Cramps. And yes, I had my Zensah Compression Sleeves and they sure did keep me warm in the morning. So I think I’m going to keep my compression sleeves for what they are worth for – warmth during cold morning runs and stashing them away quickly when the temperature rises. And for cramps? I’m going to stick with eating and hydrating regularly on the long runs.

Do you use compression sleeves? Do you think it helps you with calf cramps?


  1. Gobler et. all – The effect of graduated compression socks on calf muscle oxygenation of endurance athletes.
  2. Fletcher et. all – Efficacy of compression socks to enhance recovery of distance athletes.
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