Running tights used to simply keep you warm on cold winter days, with a possible side benefit of making you look like Superman. But in the last few years, a new class of highly engineered—not to mention expensive—tights had performance aspirations as well. They claimed to provide pressure on certain muscle groups to increase endurance and aid recovery.
Like any field where there’s exciting, emerging medical research, the marketing claims for these products have out-kicked the scientific studies. In other words, the makers of compression tights would have you believe that these form-fitting bottoms will take loads of time off your trail marathon PR and have you ready to do it all over again the next morning.
But it’s clear something interesting is going on. Compression tights are working off the popularity of the compression socks that many elite runners now swear by. A 2009 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed an increase in running performance while using compression socks. And just as doctors have used compression garments to aid recovery in the lower extremities of injured patients, studies such as this one and this one indicate a faster recovery for athletes who use compression gear. Anecdotal evidence from ultramarathoners, such as the excellent user reviews of runner Jonathan Savage, suggest users have witnessed a performance benefit that science has yet to fully explain.
Better circulation and recovery times are already a common topic of discussion, but one of the most tantalizing new theories about compression tights has to do with the science of resonance. It’s an idea that comes out of the renowned Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Calgary, which over a decade ago floated a theory that competitive running creates intense vibrations throughout the legs. Our bodies’ efforts to manage these vibrations are a primary source of our fatigue. In short, bad vibes limit endurance. The Human Performance Lab has been putting more evidence up to support the theory; it’s been getting more play in public forums; and now it’s driving many of the new design of features of high-performance tights. That’s why you will see mentions of how the products "decrease muscle vibrations" in several company blurbs. Let’s hope they’re onto something.
After the jump, we’ll show you our favorite picks for the season’s warmest, feature-rich compression tights. Hang on to your superhero cape.