It’s common to see elite sprinters and distance runners clad in next-to-skin compressionwear. At this point, it’s a little weird to see elite athletes without it—unless, of course, it’s the middle of summer and they’re wearing running shorts.
Why the trend? Some athletes argue that compression tights help reduce shock, limit muscle fatigue, and boost performance by locking the glutes, quads, hammies, and calves in place. But here’s the thing: When it comes to the science, compressionwear doesn’t really help improve performance, according to a new Nike-funded study—yes, you read that correctly—performed at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
This isn’t a new finding or a conclusion that drastically differs from what we already know. Previous research published in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation found no clinical evidence to support the effectiveness of compression socks for athletic performance and recovery. And another study, published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, found next to no difference in running efficiency or biomechanics when endurance runners wore compression and when they didn’t.
So the new study isn’t exactly groundbreaking—but it is significant because Nike, which obviously turns a profit by hawking athleticwear, funded the project. Brand-sponsored studies have a tendency to promote products made by their sponsors, according to an Associated Press report. We’ve read more than our fair share of studies with supposed health and fitness benefits questionably backed by companies who stand to profit, like that Hershey-sponsored research purporting brewed cocoa and caffeine can lessen anxiety, boost energy, and sharpen attention. There’s also the Barilla-backed study that found people who eat pasta are naturally slimmer. So hey: Kudos to Nike for funding research that could potentially dock sales.
In the Ohio State study, volunteers ran on a specialized force-sensing treadmill for 30 minutes at 80% of their maximum speed on two different days, once wearing compression tights and once without. As they ran, motion-capture technology tracked their body position within a fraction of a millimeter. The treadmill tracked how hard each runner’s foot landed, as well as how efficiently they were able to push off, and how that changed over time. Runners were also fixed with heart rate monitors to measure exertion.
“When your muscle vibrates, it induces a contraction that uses energy, so the theory was that less muscle vibration would translate to less fatigue,” lead study author Ajit Chaudhari, Ph.D., said in a press release. “However, the reduced vibration was not associated with any reduction in fatigue at all. In the study, runners performed the same with and without compression tights.”
What’s more, the runners’ leg strength and jump height were tested before and after each trial run. Ultimately, the compression tights didn’t reduce fatigue.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear snug-fitting athleticwear. “Every little bit of perception counts when running long distances, and they may be benefiting runners in ways that we aren’t able to measure,” Chaudhari said. If you feel like compression tights prevent calf cramps and keep you running longer and more comfortably (even if it’s all a placebo effect), then by all means keep suiting up. There’s no evidence it can hurt your running.
Anyway, here are our favorite performance tights for training, running, and recovery in 2017, if you’re still on the compression bandwagon. (We are.)