How Tight Should Compression Shorts Be? Can They Be Used for Swimming and Cycling ?

Compression wear has recently burst onto the market and really taken hold – especially for triathletes looking for a competitive edge. It is somewhat surprising to see something created to treat varicose veins used by so many high-performance athletes!

Compression shorts have become popularised as workouts like HIIT and Crossfit have become more popular. That’s because people who do programs like this need more movement and support when training and exercising because of the sheer amount of dynamic movements they are making.

Compression wear is a new technology to most triathletes. The evidence on the benefits of wearing it whilst exercising can be patchy, but one area where the evidence is strong is recovery. Compression sleeves and socks work by using graduated compression.

That means they are their tightest at the furthest extremity of your body. Compressing the blood vessels there helps your body to fight gravity and results in an increase in blood flow at the point where it’s usually slowest.

Most of us who invest in buying compression wear are aware it’s supposed to be tight, a lot tighter than normal clothing. We also highly recommend that you check out out post titled”The Real Difference Between Recovery and Compression Tights!

But how tight should compression shorts be? The point of compression shorts is in the name- it is compression. However, compression shorts should not be constrictive. The compression shorts should be tight enough to feel the compression, but not tight enough to feel uncomfortable.

Can You Wear Compression Shorts for Swimming?

While it is possible to wear compression shorts whilst swimming, as there is evidence that it provides a boost to those who wear it, however,it is not recommended. For swimming, it is advisable to stick with swimming-specific wearables such as a tech suit, trisuit or speedos.

Check out our post on Why Are Swimming Tech Suits Expensive? Is It Faster Than A Tri-Suit!

Compression wear works by compressing your blood vessels, which increases blood flow back to your heart. That means oxygen-rich blood gets back to your muscles quicker – and oxygen-depleted blood gets out of them faster too. Not only does that keep your muscles stronger for longer whilst you are exercising, it can also help speed up recovery too.

There is nothing to stop you from wearing compression shorts whilst you’re swimming. However, there’s absolutely no evidence that compression brings any benefit to you whilst swimming. In fact, even if they did, the majority of swimming power is generated by your core, not your legs, so the effect would still be minimal. (Source)

What is certain, however, is that your compression shorts will wear out a lot more quickly if you wear them in a pool.

That’s because they aren’t designed fo swimming, so they aren’t made to withstand the amount of chlorine that is present in most water used for swimming. They’ll quickly wash out, and the chlorine may affect the stitching too.

Also, check out our post on Can You Wear Running / Exercise Shorts For Swimming & Triathlons?

Compression wear also has a benefit in reducing muscle temperature. If you are cycling or swimming in hot conditions, there may be a role for compression wear to help keep you cool. This isn’t so much of a problem whilst swimming, as the water will tend to keep you cool, but could bring significant benefits to those running in hot conditions. (Source)

Can You Wear Compression Shorts Cycling?

It is possible to wear compression shorts while cycling but unless the ride is a short distance, say to get to the gym or a training session, it’s usually better to wear cycling shorts. For bike competitions and training, one needs the extra padding cycling shorts to offer.

Wearing compression shorts whilst cycling is a different proposition to running.

That’s because the activity of cycling makes very specific demands or your body, which require specialist cycling shorts in order to be comfortable. Running, on the other hand, can be done – comfortably – in almost any kind of shorts.

Whilst cycling shorts and compression shorts look remarkably similar, they are in fact different. Compression shorts tend to have a higher blend of spandex, in order to make sure that they keep a firm fit.

Cycling shorts are also designed with small elasticated grips that run around your thigh, which most spandex shorts don’t have. That strip is there to keep your shorts anchored on your thigh, preventing it from riding up into your groin.

As well as the lack of an elasticated strip, compression shorts don’t have the all-important chamois pad on the underside of the shorts. Unless you have a very comfortable non-racing bike seat, that pad is imperative to keep you comfortable on rides.

We highly recommend that you check out our post “Why Do Cyclists Where Lycra / Spandex? Benefits & Potential Hazards!

Are You Supposed to Wear Anything Under Compression Shorts?

The majority of compression wear has been designed to be worn against the skin. Putting another layer underneath that could cause discomfort, as well as nullify the compression benefits. Compression wear is designed to be bought close against the skin.

Having another layer underneath that will mean that that layer is also being compressed. That can result in painful rubbing, as the underlayer causes friction with your skin. It may also reduce the compression effects of the shorts by providing a buffer against your skin.

In addition, if your workouts are particularly intense or taking place in hot conditions, then the underwear you’re wearing will absorb all the sweat from your skin. Your compression shorts don’t get damp, because they are designed with materials that wick moisture away.

Wearing damp undershorts underneath your compression shorts will affect the ability of your compression shorts to remove moisture, meaning you’ll be wearing damp shorts for the whole of your workout.

Not only will that be uncomfortable, but it will also reduce your ability to control your temperature, resulting in more sweating.

Increased sweating and temperature is the surest way to burn out as quickly as possible!

Do You Wear Compression Shorts Under Running Shorts?

Wearing compression shorts underneath running shorts is the best way to wear them. Depending on the kind of compression shorts, one may not even need to wear running shorts. Whilst compression wear is usually reserved for recovery, there is some evidence it can boost performance.

One 2016 study found that there were some benefits to be had whilst running; it took those wearing compression wear slightly longer to reach exhaustion, improved their running economy, and provided a positive effect to rates of perceived exhaustion. The improvements were more related to endurance performance, which can provide huge benefits to triathletes. (Source)

As well as compression benefits, compression shorts are more aerodynamic than running shorts, which can bring huge benefits to runners. That may be a placebo effect, but the fact is that if something makes you feel faster, it should make you faster!

Also, check out our post on Do You Wear Underwear With Running Shorts? (Why The Liner!)

Should I Wear Compression Shorts Under Bike Shorts?

As long as the seam down the back of the shorts is not too prominent, it should be fine to wear compression shorts under your cycling shorts. A prominent seam could cause major discomfort by rubbing up against your body. However, it’s quite unusual to wear any underwear whilst cycling, because the comfort offered by the bike shorts is too important to be risked.

So yes, you can – in fact, most compression shorts have been designed to be used as underwear but it is not recommended.

It’s also important to bear in mind that the biggest benefit of compression wear is not whilst exercising but in recovery. You would be far better off putting the compression shorts on after your bike ride, not during!

We recommend that you check out our post Do Cyclists Wear Underwear? What Not To Wear!


An extreme triathlete who have competed in dozens of triathlons including IronMans and Extreme triathlons.

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