It would seem the disconnect between ultra runners and triathletes has raged as long as cats and dogs have chased each other up trees. I have no idea why the two disciplines dont always get on but that is just another mystery of the universe I suppose ?
This leads me to a little bit of a quandary when I was approached by Swiss company Compressport last year to trial some of their compression gear during my time in Chamonix. Do I need all this compression gear to make me run better ? It might work for an Ironman event but does it help in ultras ? And exactly what benefits am I looking for ?
I gladly took them up on the offer to see what all the fuss was about. I was soon decked out in compression socks, calf guards, quad support and a nice visor. As it turned out the gear was great and performed admirably on the trails, but there was something a little lacking. What was it ? I think it came down to the complexity of different bits of my clothing doing different things. Some people wear compression to keep warm, some to stop chafing, some to look good and some actually believe the physiological and psychological benefits of it. But most runners add on multiple layers of gear by putting shorts over the top or leggings over their tights etc resulting in a complex mix of materials carrying out different functions.
I want all of this to be simplified. Isn’t that why we are ultra runners ? We like the freedom to escape the rat race and just enjoy the trails. No fuss, no nonsense !
So I was very interested late last year when chatting about gear with one of the great ambassadors for ultra running Seb Chaigneau who said that he was helping to advise on some new innovations in the gear he would be using. Why was I excited ? Well Seb has numerous race victories but more importantly he keeps his racing simple. Go up hill as fast as you can and descend as fast as you can and stay safe and you will do well. Simple!
So when a box of the new Compressport Trail Running range arrived on my doorstep I was keen to see what has changed. The box contained socks, shorts and shirts. Those of you who have read my reviews before know I am not into my socks, just wear what is comfortable. So I was much more interested in what the shorts and shirt offered.
My first impressions were that both items appeared to be on the small side even though I had gone to great lengths to measure all aspects of my anatomy and then cross referenced them to the comprehensive sizing chart. My initial reaction was probably a little premature as the medical grade compression makes the apparel look like they have shrunk in the wash.
I will cut straight to the chase. Quite simply the best thing about these shorts is the rubber grips on the front of the shorts. A pattern of small open and closed circles down towards the lower thigh. What are they there for ? To allow you to put your hands on and push off when climbing. Why are these so good ? Well I have seen a few competing brands attempt to provide decent traction on the front of their shorts but after a few training sessions this either wears away or degrades the front of the shorts and stretches the compression. In the case of the Compressport Trail shorts, this tread is so grippy and so robust that the shorts still perform as well today as the day I got them. Even better is the fact that the compression element of the shorts is still very tight.
I have worn these in conditions from the extreme heat of Australia where they have been soaked in sweat and my hands were clammy to the cold wet snowy conditions of the UK and on all occasions when the grade requires your best granny gear to climb and you reach for your knees – the grip is there.
How do they fit and feel ? Compressport uses medical grade compression materials graded differently depending on which muscle group is to be supported. The pressure around the major muscle groups of the quads and buttocks is on the tighter side, but once on you soon forget about it. The lack of seams gives you confidence that no chafing can occur and they feel more like a wetsuit that a short.
They do take a bit of getting on the first time as there is a grippy rubber feel at the bottom of the legs and also around the waist top. The aim of this material is to hold them in place especially when you have things such as backpacks pressing down on your spine. They are also on the long side with the bottom of the short finishing just above the knee. Great if you want the type of UTMB coverage of the thigh, but may not be to everyones liking if you want more leg showing. A range of details such as a nice gel pocket with a cover and tab to grab on the rear makes it possible to take your nutrition and supplements with you on the run. I was able to put 3 Hammer bars and 2 Shot Bloks in the pocket without too much trouble with a space blanket and iPhone.
At the back of the short is a small red Compressport logo made up of thick rubber and is used as a reflective motif. On a couple of occasions I noticed this making contact with the back of my knee and I was worried it would restrict blood flow and impinge on my knee capsule. I soon worked out that I needed to work the shorts up a little to prevent it touching and to get the short to fit better. The shorts feel very lightweight and an average pair weighs around 100 grams with a material that makes moisture retention difficult.
My reaction to the trail shirt is that is looks on paper to be a slightly more colourful version of the Salomon S-LAB Exo gear from 2 years ago. Again, getting the shirt on was a little tricky to begin with as the fit and feel is on the tighter side. This is due to the different panels and different types of compression. What I did like is that the back of the shirt is about 5-6 cms longer than the front, this is great for runners who regularly use backpacks and dont like the shirt riding up between your backpack.
Another feature carried over from the shorts is a series of rubber grip material around the collar bone area. It is designed to help your backpack to stay in place when running. I noticed that with a fully loaded pack – similar to those worn in TNF100 or UTMB the grip was very stable and actually helped stabilise any excess movement. Maybe this was more to do with the weight of the pack ? When I went running with a lighter pack, I didn’t really notice much benefit.
One thing that did feel a little weird is the way the rubber shoulder grips snag when you are wearing a waterproof jacket over the top.
The neckline and sleeves have the same grippy rubber as the shorts and on occasion it felt like putting on a lycra cycling top and it wouldn’t favour those runners with larger biceps as it did feel a little like it could cut the circulation. This is a shirt for those who like a very slimline fit.
I like shirts with a 3/4 zip and this one fits the bill nicely allowing for small adjustments. The zip and fastener is much thinner compared to some I am used to and it forms a smooth seal with no seams to chafe your chest.
The compression feel was ideally located around the shoulders and small of the back and there was enough movement for those more agile of manoeuvres such as scrambling over rocks and boulders.
The shirt wicked well in humid conditions and the durability of the material seemed robust enough to use every day as a training top and not just reserved for race day.
I really liked this gear, a lot of thought has gone into the clothing in the same way Salomon reinvented the backpack for all to follow. It combines many features not seen on all brands at the same time. Is it worth a slight premium over the usual running gear ? Well without doubt, the shorts are the pick of the bunch. No other brand comes close to combining compression, fit, feel, durability and the ability to push off our knees with the full force required to get up some of the steepest of mountains grades. The shirt is beautifully made and again offers a great fit and feel with a quality build about it but I found the rubber a little annoying when worn with a jacket.
When comparing it against other pure compression brands like Skins and 2XU, they seem very reasonable on price and actually are tailored especially for trail runners and not triathletes.
For now I will be keeping the shorts on my must pack list for every run that offers a grade greater than Douche Grade.
*Ultra168 was provided the apparel for trial direct from Compressport HQ we are grateful for the opportunity to test them.