Over the last year or so, I began seeing more and more runners sporting various leg and arm compression sleeves. I tend to shy away from things that appear to be fad-like, which is where I placed compression sleeves.
My opinions changed after Shelly purchased a pair of matching pink arm and leg sleeves. She bought them for the UV protection aspect, though I'm sure the aesthetics of the pink color swayed her purchasing decision. She tried them on various runs and wore them for a few races. She praised them often, but I wasn't convinced.
During a long run, she commented that she felt faster when wearing the sleeves. Hmmm... that piqued my interest. I was considering giving them a try, but couldn't quite pull the trigger. The clincher came when I read a blog post by my friend Dr. Scott Hadley (the physical therapist that gave my the calf-rolling self treatment from his TrekoClinics site). He discussed an article that appeared in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The runners in the study were able to run longer, farther, and faster when wearing calf compression sleeves. While a single study is but one data point open to debate and replication, it gave me enough reason to begin experimenting.
Admittedly, I was also fascinated with the idea that compression sleeves could be a solution to my kilt dilemma. In my opinion, the kilt looks A LOT better with kilt hose, but they are socks. That's an obvious problem for the barefoot runner. Compression sleeves could be a barefoot runner alternative to the traditional Scottish attire.
I contacted Zensah, the same brand Shelly uses, and they graciously agreed to send me a pair for testing. They arrived after two or three days. Since I was recovering from the Fallsburg Marathon, I did not have any runs scheduled. I was eager to try them out, so I wore them around the house the rest of the day. And at night. And the following day. I even wore them when Shelly and I joined our running crew at the local Buffalo Wild Wings that night.
When worn casually, the feeling was familiar. They felt much like my compression pants I wear during the winter, only isolated to my lower legs. I feeling was pleasant, though I did not experience any positive effects. I did seem to drink beer faster at BW3's, but I suspect that was not an effect of the sleeves.
I didn't get an opportunity to use them for a run until several days later. The real test came from a vigorous workout. Shelly and I planned a hill running session. The course starts up a 150 foot sand hill at a 20° grade. Once we reach the top, we immediately run a quarter mile down an asphalt hill at a 10° grade, run about 100 yards on flat ground, then back up another asphalt road of the same length and incline. Once we reached the top, we ran down the same sand hill. We would repeat this route four times.
The sleeves felt good, but were not really noticeable... until I started running. For the first time ever, I was able to run to the top of the sand hill. I usually make it about 2/3 of the way, then power-hike the remainder. The run to the bottom of the asphalt, back up, then finally down the sand hill went well. I could feel the gentle compression the entire distance.
Much to my surprise, each "lap" seemed easier than the previous one. After four laps, my legs felt strong. I kept the compression sleeves on for about an hour after the workout ended.
These results were repeated in two more shorter training runs. I am still undecided if the compression sleeves are actually causing physiological improvements, or if it is some sort of placebo effect. If it is a placebo effect, it is nonetheless improving my performance.
The true test will come this weekend during and after the North Country Trail 50 miler in Manistee, Michigan. I will be running a distance that normally induces considerable fatigue, soreness, and swelling. I will give a full report after the race. Until then, I am tentatively giving Zensah's compression sleeves a resounding thumbs-up!