Why Do Runners Wear Arm Sleeves (Are There Any Benefits?)

If you’ve ever watched professional runners, particularly marathon or ultramarathon runners, you might have noticed that they wear one or more arm sleeves during the race. But, of course, for the casual fan, this begs the question, why do runners wear arm sleeves?

Runners wear arms sleeves for muscle compression and swelling prevention. However, other benefits include body temperature regulation, night visibility, and style. Studies on the effectiveness of compression sleeves suggest they only have a minimal impact on performance and recovery.

Take a look below to find the answers to other common questions regarding arm sleeves for runners.

How do arm sleeves work?

Hand with elastic wrist and arm support sleeve for relieve injury

In running sports, many accessory trends make their way into the marketplace. One such recent trend is compression arm sleeves.

When world-class marathoner Eliud Kipchoge shattered the world record for the most grueling of all races in Berlin in 2018, he did so by sporting two white arm sleeves. While Eliud’s performance inspired millions to take up the sport, he also inspired an accessory fad.

Compression arm sleeves are supposed to work by facilitating blood flow in the veins in a runner’s arms.

In the same way that squeezing a tube of toothpaste from the bottom forces a greater glob of paste out of the tube’s nozzle, providing graduated compression on the limbs at the ends of the extremities, such as near the wrists or ankles, can help regulate blood flow up and down the limb.

Compression in these areas is essential because the extremities are the most likely to exhibit blood clotting in the human body. This is especially true for the lower extremities.

For this reason, diabetes patients have often been prescribed compression sleeves for their calves.

Regarding running, repetitive movements and rigid posture can lead to swelling in the legs and arms. However, the impact of these sleeves is inconclusive after several scientific studies have yielded negligible results.

Compression arm sleeves have little to no effect on muscle performance during exercise. There is very little need to increase elbow flexion performance in running sports. Instead, the focus should be on comfort, recovery, and swelling reduction. The use of compression material post-exercise can, however, moderately boost recovery. 

Overall, advertisers’ stated impact of compression sleeves has little to no effect on muscle performance.

Do arm sleeves help runners run faster?

Recovery is one thing, but what about performance?

In truth, compression arm sleeves most likely do not help runners run faster. However, the possible (yet somewhat inconsequential) effects of improved blood flow and body temperature regulation that arm sleeves may provide could theoretically lead to an increase in performance. Still, it appears to be a bit of a stretch.

In addition, any aerodynamic improvements would account for such a minute difference that it’s not worth mentioning. Instead, arm sleeves are mostly worn for weather protection, increased night visibility, and style.

Do arm sleeves keep runners warm?

We’ve established that arm sleeves don’t impact performance much, but are they just for looks?

In some cases, arm sleeves can improve comfort and marginally help regulate body temperature when running in brisk or cold weather. Although the material with which the sleeves are manufactured will determine how much help they will provide.

Most arm sleeves are made of synthetic polyester and moisture-wicking material, designed with UV protection and sweat management in mind. Unfortunately, this material will not provide much protection against winter weather.

If, however, the sleeves are made of thermal material, they may help substantially, although, at that point, it could be wiser to opt for a jacket or windbreaker.

Why do runners only wear one sleeve?

If runners wear arm sleeves for temperature control or UV protection, why do some wear only one sleeve?

Some runners may only don one arm sleeve to address a specific swelling issue with a particular arm. However, the more likely answer to this question is simply personal style preference. Runners with one arm sleeve may be wearing it in the same spirit as players in the NBA, who might wear a sleeve on the arm of their non-shooting hand simply as a fashion statement.

What are the different types of arm sleeves for runners?

  • Compression Arm Sleeves
  • UV Protection Arm Sleeves
  • Thermal Arm Sleeves
  • Reflective Arm Sleeves

Compression Arm Sleeves

Most running sleeves will advertise as compression sleeves; however, only a few brands live up to the claim. Compression sleeves can offer marginal benefits in recovery time, especially if worn immediately after exercise.

If you’re interested in purchasing compression arm sleeves, check out the New Balance Unisex Outdoor Sports Compression Arm Sleeves, which are made with more rigorous elastic for better compression, and moisture-wicking material to help regulate body temperature during a run.

UV Protection Arm Sleeves

UV protection arm sleeves are rated for UPF sun protection. These might also offer some compression benefits, but their primary function is blocking the harmful effects of sun radiation.

If you want to purchase UV Protection arm sleeves, try these UPF 50-rated arm sleeves from Tough Outfitters. They come with a recommendation from the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Thermal Arm Sleeves

Thermal arm sleeves provide warmth to the upper extremities during a run in cold or brisk weather. While these sleeves offer some of the previously mentioned benefits, they mainly regulate body temperature in cold weather.

If you want to purchase a pair of thermal arm sleeves, try these thermal sleeves designed for cycling and running. These sleeves are made by Rock Bros and are designed with a “soft-brushed” material. But they are still capable of moisture-wicking to transport sweat from the inside of the sleeve to the outside.

Reflective Arm Sleeves

Reflective arm sleeves are made with light-reflecting features, which help keep runners visible while running at night. These may come with other features but will mainly be geared toward increasing runner visibility.

If you want a pair of reflective arm sleeves, look at these light-reflecting sleeves from McDavid that come in loud colors and contain a reflective strip for safety during late-night runs.

How do runners choose the right arm sleeves?

Selecting the proper arm sleeves as a runner will depend on your desired outcomes. Different arm sleeves may offer different benefits. For example, Icelandic runners may be more interested in thermal arm sleeves than a runner from South Beach in Miami. That said, in most cases, the more features a specific pair of arm sleeves contains, the better.

Something all runners will probably want to consider is compression and reflective technology. These features can benefit runners everywhere, and the recommended brands range from about $11-21.

If you find yourself paying more than $20 for a pair of arm sleeves, it might be wise to do a little more research to find exactly what features you’re paying for.

When should runners wear arm sleeves?

No specific situation would rule out using arm sleeves unless you’re attempting to run with inappropriate sleeves for a given climate.

Keep in mind that the research on improved recovery and performance when wearing arm sleeves is not overly positive. Therefore, wearing arm sleeves may be beneficial when completing a consistent running routine. For example, if you plan to train for a marathon, wearing compression arm sleeves may provide some marginal benefits to recovery time.

However, when wearing compression sleeves for recovery after intense exercise like marathon running, keep the muscles under compression for 12-24 hours after a workout.

This technique has been found to bring the most significant results.