Calf Sleeves: Are They Worth the Hype?
Have you noticed increasing numbers of your fellow athletes, both elite and amateur, wearing calf sleeves? Intrigued? Are they a fad or a long-term game-changer? Read on to find out…
- Why more and more runners are considering calf sleeves as an essential piece of kit
- The science behind them
- Why they might or might not work for you
What are calf sleeves?
Calf sleeves look like long socks without the feet. However, despite their apparent simplicity, they are far from being merely a garment. Decades of research and testing have culminated in the engineering of a sophisticated and beneficial piece of sports kit for women and men.
Calf sleeves are made using lightweight, breathable and stretchy fabrics. Despite this, they apply gentle but consistent, reasonable pressure to the calves. It is this pressure that brings the main benefits.
You might hear calf sleeves also referred to as calf guards, or compression socks. Let’s look at what makes them so appealing to athletes, endurance runners and triathletes.
Why are runners wearing them?
Runners believe that there are four significant potential benefits to be had from wearing calf sleeves. These are:
- A positive effect on running performance
- Reduced discomfort
- Improved recovery times
- A lower risk of injury
We’ll look at these claims in more detail.
The gentle pressure that calf guards put on your lower leg assists your cisculation by helping to dilate your arteries. This helps to fight the effects of gravity on your blood flow. In fact, your whole circulation system can work more effectively. Blood is better able to reach your muscles, meaning your muscles are getting more of the oxygen and nutrients they need for maximum performance.
Runners report better agility, higher power output and improved endurance.
Calf sleeves also help to combat the effects of vibration. Vibration can quickly cause muscles to tire but the muscular support calf sleeves provide help prevent fatigue. And because calf sleeves prevent fatigue and discomfort, they contribute to improved performance in this respect, too. Runners report improved comfort and endurance as a result of the support calf sleeves provide.
At one time or another, all athletes will have experienced pain caused by the buildup of lactic acid. Lactic acid naturally accumulates in the muscles during exercise but causes discomfort post-exercise when it cannot sufficiently drain away.
However, the compression supplied by calf sleeves can help your circulation and lymphatic systems clear lactic acid and waste products from the muscles more effectively. This means less build-up will occur and that post-run recovery will be much quicker.
Compression from calf sleeves may also help you recover from minor injury. The medical benefits compression brings (more on this below) will mean reduction in any swelling experienced. Calf sleeves should also help those suffering from cramps, tendonitis and shin splints.
Finally, because of the support calf sleeves provide, they may help prevent muscular injuries. In addition, they add a protective layer that shields the skin from superficial injuries like scratches and bumps. UV protection is also offered.
What does the science say?
So, these are the purported benefits. But is there real, scientifically proven evidence that wearing calf sleeves can improve the performance of the human body? Or is the evidence just anecdotal?
Compression wear wasn’t originally created for the benefits of runners and athletes. Its origins are in medical science, where it has many proven benefits. Doctors routinely use compression stockings to improve outcomes for many of their patients, particularly those who are largely bed bound and thus may be at risk of circulation issues and other serious problems.
Medical benefits of compression stockings include:
- Reduced swelling
- Reduced orthostatic hypotension, which causes lightheadedness
- Prevention of venous ulcers
- Prevention of deep vein thrombosis
- Improved lymphatic drainage
But what about sport science? Can compression wear also offer proven, significant benefits for runners? This question has garnered lots of interest from researchers. Multiple studies have been published looking at the effects of compression wear and calf guards on performance, injury prevention and recovery. Here are some of the findings:
Performance and comfort
There’s good news when it comes to wearing calf sleeves for both comfort and improved running times. Several studies have measured improvements in times; participants reported improvements in their comfort levels, too.
An Australian study published early in 2019 titled “Wearing compression socks during exercise aids subsequent performance” measured the effects of compression socks against physiological, perceptual and performance-based parameters. It concluded that “wearing sports compression socks during high-intensity running has a positive impact on subsequent running performance.”
Previous research from late 2016 specifically looked at compression wear’s ability to improve endurance. The study, from the Research Center for School Sports in Karlsruhe, Germany, found that endurance was boosted through “improvements in running economy, biomechanical variables, perception, and muscle temperature.”
Results are encouraging for muscle recovery as well.
An earlier 2013 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at the effects of these garments on recovery. The paper, “Compression garments and recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage: A meta-analysis,” reached results which “indicate that compression garments are effective in enhancing recovery from muscle damage.”
French researchers from the Université de Franche-Comté found that their results “seem[ed] to indicate that wearing the elastic compression during and after the sports practice decreases the risk of injury of the runners.”
Compression sleeves may therefore help prevent a visit to the sports injury clinic.
Should I make calf guards part of my kit?
Both anecdotal evidence and peer-reviewed research suggested that many runners may benefit from wearing calf sleeves.
Perhaps you are looking to boost your running performance to get an edge in competition, or are frustrated by the discomfort that vibration can bring. Maybe you are particularly keen to avoid injuries or are looking to recover from endurance runs faster.
There are a whole multitude of reasons for making calf sleeves part of your running kit. Just be sure to find a pair that offers lightweight, breathable and moisture-wicking fabric, alongside targeted support. These features will bring maximum performance benefits with no added superficial discomforts.