Have you ever seen runners wearing arm sleeves (also called compression arm sleeves, athletic arm sleeves or arm warmers) while running? Do you wonder what the heck they are for? I know I did and started to wonder, so I decided to find out.
Turns out that runners typically wear arm sleeves for a variety of reasons including to improve circulation, aid in recovery, keep arms warm during cool runs or keep arms protected from the sun during warmer runs.
For this article, I have explored the purpose of arm sleeves for runners. I delve into the history and science, why runners wear arm sleeves and whether they might be a useful accessory to all runners.
The Surprising Backstory of Arm Sleeves in Sports
The origin story of the athletic arm sleeve may surprise you (it did for me!). In January of 2001, basketball star Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers was suffering from a painful case of bursitis in his shooting elbow. One night, the 76ers athletic trainer, Lenny Currier, cut a piece of compression stockinette tubing and suggested that Iverson wear it on his arm for support during the game. Iverson went on to score 51 points during the game that night, and eventually led his team on to the N.B.A. finals, all while wearing his jerry-rigged elbow support accessory.
Eventually, an up-and-coming athletic clothing brand named Under Armour offered to custom-make colorful nylon arm sleeves for Iverson, in order to match his team uniforms. Iverson wore an arm sleeve on his shooting arm for the remainder of his career. It went on to become more than a quick fix for the sore arm of a basketball star, but also a fashion statement!
Over time, arm sleeves have become a common accessory for athletes across all sports, including running. It’s common nowadays to see elite distance runners competing at marathons wearing arm sleeves. In fact, several elite runners wore arm sleeves during the most recent Boston Marathon!
Possible Benefits of Runners Wearing Arm Sleeves
Sportswear manufacturers and proponents of arm sleeves make several claims about the benefits that runners can reap by wearing arm sleeves.
Arm sleeves are said to provide benefits such as:
- Improving circulation and reducing swelling: By providing mild compression, arm sleeves are said to help boost blood flow, increase oxygen saturation, and reduce swelling in the arms.
- Adding warmth: Arm sleeves can be worn instead of a long-sleeve shirt or jacket, providing added warmth in cool weather that runners can easily and conveniently shed mid-run or mid-race, as opposed to a regular long-sleeve layer, which can be cumbersome to remove on the run.
- Cooling the body in warm weather: Depending upon the sleeve materials, arm sleeves can provide a cooling effect to the body as it heats up, by quickly wicking sweat away.
- Protection from the sun: Many types of arm sleeves are constructed using UV-blocking fabrics, thus eliminating the need to apply sunscreen on the arms.
- Protection from bugs: The coverage provided by arm sleeves can help prevent pesky bugs, such as mosquitoes and gnats, from biting your arms.
- Improving runner safety: Some arm sleeves are constructed out of bright, reflective materials, which aid in boosting runners’ visibility to vehicles and others.
What Science Says Arm Sleeves Can and Can’t Do
We took a deep-dive into the scientific research surrounding athletic arm sleeves and compression garments. Despite the many claims made about them by manufacturers, and enthusiastic anecdotes from athletes, arm sleeves may not be as beneficial as some people make them out to be.
Don’t Improve Athletic Performance
Multiple studies have shown that compression gear (calf sleeves, compression socks or compression arm sleeves) does not improve athletic performance. However, compression garments can lower the perceived effort associated with performance. In other words, if you wear compression garments while running hard, your perception will be that you’re not having to work as hard as you actually are. That sounds like a big bonus to me, even if it’s just placebo effect!
Don’t Negatively Impact Performance
One study from 2014 found that, while compression sleeves did not improve athletes’ performance, their performance was not hindered by wearing the sleeves, either. The researchers concluded that coaches and athletes may use compression sleeves as desired without fear of negatively affecting performance. The researchers suggested that compression sleeves could aid athletes during recovery.
Can Help with Endurance Performance
A 2016 study on compression garments worn by runners found that compression gear may slightly improve some of the factors related to endurance performance. They, too, noted that runners should benefit from reduced muscle pain, reduced muscle damage and reduced inflammation by wearing compression gear for recovery purposes.
Do Aid in Recovery
Although arm sleeves (and compression gear in general) are not a magical performance-enhancing tool, scientific conclusions on compression gear worn for recovery purposes are positive. Researchers in a 2013 study found that compression clothing had small to moderate effects on recovery of maximal muscle strength and power; reduced muscle swelling and perceived muscle pain; increased blood lactate removal; and increased body temperature. A 2017 study showed that compression garments are useful tools to promote post-exercise recovery because they reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and accelerate muscle function recovery.
This is similar to the research we found to write the article, “Should Marathon Runners Wear Compression Socks?”
Do Keep You Warm
So even though arm sleeves may yield little to no result on enhancing a runner’s performance, does not mean that they are completely useless for runners on the run. Researchers have confirmed that runners who wear arm sleeves/arm warmers are able to reduce cold stress and lower their production of plasma lactate in the early stages of exercise.
Why Do Runners Wear Arm Sleeves?
It’s clear from reviewing the scientific research that arm sleeves are not performance-enhancing accessories. We also know from the research that arm sleeves won’t hinder performance, either.
The key takeaways from the research is that arm sleeves can help warm the body, and if they’re compressive, they can aid in recovery.
When we see elite runners (and others) line up at races wearing arm sleeves, they’re probably wearing them for the main reason of keeping their arms and body warm during a cooler run. With some arm sleeves providing UV protection, this may also be a sound reason. As far as the compressive benefits, it’s much more common for runners to need this from compression socks or leggings to aid in recovery for their legs.
So, should you consider wearing arm sleeves?
Like so many things with running, deciding whether to wear arm sleeves is a matter of personal choice and preference. If you’re thinking about trying some arm sleeves yourself, it makes the most sense to consider wearing them for added warmth.
How many of us have gone out for a chilly morning run, layered up in long-sleeved shirts or jackets, only to be roasting after only a few minutes of running? Then you’re stuck with removing the shirt or jacket (probably stopping running in the process), tying it around your waist, and having it flopping against your body for the remainder of your run. That’s just annoying.
Arm sleeves provide a simple, less-bulky, less-cumbersome way to have that added warmth at the outset of a run. There is no restriction around your shoulders, like there would be in a long-sleeve shirt. Once warmed up, all it takes is a couple of convenient pulls off of each arm, and you’re no longer overheated. In fact, you probably don’t even have to stop running to take them off! The arm sleeves can stash easily in a pocket or rolled up in your hand.
Adding arm sleeves to your collection of running accessories could be a complete game-changer for comfort and convenience when it’s chilly out.
Good Options for Buying Your Own Arm Sleeves
There are several quality options if you think arm sleeves would benefit you on the run.
If you’re ready to buy your own arm sleeves, proper sizing is an important issue. Make sure to measure your arms carefully and check size charts before purchasing your sleeves. When in doubt, it’s best to size down because you don’t want them so loose they are falling down. You’ll also want to consider the material or fabric used for the sleeves, and note the thickness, as these factors may impact your comfort.
Here are some arm sleeves to check out:
- Nike Aeroswift Sleeves
- Unisex Under Armour Team Sleeve
- Zensah Arm Sleeves
- New Balance Performance Arm Sleeves
Hopefully you now have a better understanding and a new appreciation for arm sleeves! The next time you encounter someone wearing them, you won’t be so confused, and perhaps you’ll have your own pair to match.
* Cover photo credit: William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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