Do I Need Running Tights?

One common question for distance runners is, do I need running tights? Distance runners may be able to learn something from their track cousins – the sprinters and jumpers. For years athletes in the “power” track events have been training and competing in tights or compression shorts. These athletes believe that they gain an advantage through both an aerodynamic effect and the muscle support that compression tights give them. The vast majority of distance runners have resisted the use of tight, supportive clothing, preferring the comfort and freedom of standard running shorts. There is very little scientific data that shows any performance advantages to wearing compression tights, but a recent study is turning heads.

Researchers in France (Int.J.Sports Med. 2006 May;27(5):373-8) examined the effects of running in compression tights compared to elastic tights and standard running shorts. The researchers secured the volunteer services of six experienced and highly training runners. The volunteers ran in each type of shorts at speeds ranging from 10 kmh to 16 kmh in two kilometer per hour increments. The study participants were requested to monitor their RPE (rating of perceived exertion) and overall comfort during the trial. There were two parts of this investigation. In part one the researchers monitored the energy cost of each runner. Part two took a look at the effects of the types of clothing on the runner’s slow component. During exercise a runners oxygen consumption (VO2) rises quickly before leveling slightly. Oxygen consumption continues to rise slowly until VO2 max is reached. It is that continuing slow rise that is known as the slow component.

The results were somewhat surprising in that energy costs were less when wearing compression tights or elastic tights when compared to standard running shorts. In part 2 of the test, wearing compression tights resulted in a 26% decrease in the slow component when compared to elastic tights and a whopping 36% reduction versus standard shorts. The volunteers reported no difference in RPE or overall comfort between any of the clothing types.

The researchers believe that there are three advantages provided by compression tights that reduce energy costs of running.

  • They assist with the blood pumping action to move lactate from the muscle
  • The compression supports the contraction of the muscle fibers
  • Compression tights improve muscle coordination, propreoception and power.

The researchers also believe that the compression tights decrease muscle oscillation which further decrease the energy costs of running.

I can also offer a bit of anecdotal information. After reading this research report, I tried some compression shorts during an interval training session and also a 6 mile tempo run. During the interval session I found that I was able to run more repeats with less recovery time than with conventional running shorts. I felt like I had more power and “pop” or energy return in my legs. During the tempo session my energy level felt higher and my leg turnover more quick and consistent. Thinking this may be a psychological effect; I continued to use the compression tights for each high intensity workout over the span of several weeks and had the some positive results. The data from my personal tests are certainly not scientific proof. None the less, I have become a believer in the performance enhancing benefits of compression tights plan on continuing their use in the future.