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What Do Compression Shorts Actually Do?

Anyone who works out or runs is told that they’re an absolute must. But what does the science say? And is that worth the hefty price point?

From pretty much the moment I began running, I was told to wear compression shorts. The tight, breathable fabric allegedly keeps your muscles warm, cuts down on chafing and prevents The Boys from jostling around too much — or so I was told. Thus, I’ve continued buying and wearing them ever since — expensive as they may be — steadfast in my belief that these tighter, sleeker versions of my boxer briefs were critical to my daily five-mile runs. 

But is that true, or is it bullshit that I’ve been brainwashed into believing because I’ve simply heard it enough? 

The available research does indicate that they provide a slight edge. As a 2016 study suggests, “Wearing compression clothing, runners may improve variables related to endurance performance slightly, due to improvements in running economy, biomechanical variables, perception and muscle temperature. They should also benefit from reduced muscle pain, damage and inflammation.” 

All of that, though, is pretty minimal, and RunRepeat’s Paul Ronto, a veteran of six marathons and one ultramarathon, says that it wouldn’t really matter to someone like me, who runs mostly for fun/exercise. That’s because such incremental benefits are better suited for professional runners, where small improvements add up to improve their overall time and aid in faster recovery so that they can train just as intensely again the next day. 

“Pro sports tech always trickles down to the public and companies make millions, so that’s why it’s here and why we’re told we need it,” he tells me. What’s more, Ronto adds that it’s likely that Usain Bolt or anyone else at his level has expensive custom compression shorts made specifically for them, maximizing the benefits even further. 

For the rest of us, then, it’s mostly about fit. “If they aren’t tight enough, they won’t work as well, and if they’re too tight and you’re stretching them, they could cut off some blood flow,” Ronto explains. “Overall, you may be getting some benefit from them, but most people aren’t getting all the benefit.” 

Which is to say, even though the science behind compression shorts isn’t quite as definitive as Nike’s marketing department would have you believe, there is some benefit to be had — just not the way you’d expect. 

“Part of the idea behind compression gear is that it helps with recovery, but to get that benefit, you need to continue wearing it after your run, during recovery,” Ronto says. “Most people take them off the second they get home, given that they’re smelly and sweaty, but ideally, they’d wear some light compression gear for up to three to four hours post-workout to get the most bang for their buck — some of the science even says that this is where you see compression shorts help recovery the most, rather than wearing them during exercise.”  

But before you start staining every piece of furniture in your house by sitting around in your sweaty underwear after your run, know that doing so is a big ol’ invitation to jock itch. Instead, Ronto suggests taking a shower and putting on a fresh pair afterwards. “I do this with my compression socks after a long run,” he tells me. “I have a clean pair that I chill on the couch in, and though it might be a placebo, it feels nice when everything is sore and I’m hobbling around.” 

In the end, that is what actually might be the biggest benefit of compression shorts — comfort. “I have pretty thick thighs,” says Ronto, “so anything that helps with that I’m game to try, and compression shorts fit that bill.” 

Still, despite what you’ve heard — over and over and over again — don’t feel like you need compression shorts. “If your Hanes boxer briefs work for you, maybe save the money,” Ronto says. “In five years, I think you’ll be finding compression shorts in the clearance bin for $4.99 when a new trend replaces them.”