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Why do runners wear arm sleeves?

Athlete Running Outdoors next to a Row of Garages
Why do runners wear arm sleeves? We discuss the four main benefits of covering up your arms on long runs (Image credit: FreshSplash)

A runner’s wardrobe isn't known for being a complicated affair. A good pair of trail running shoes, some lightweight running shorts, a comfortable running top and perhaps a hydration pack for longer runs should do the trick nicely, thank you. But you may have noticed an addition to this lineup on some runners – arm sleeves. 

These stretchy, tubular sleeves run from wrist to bicep and have become a common sight on marathon runners as well as every day runners once colder weather moves in. If you’ve never tried arm sleeves for running, you might be a little perplexed at their use. The same runners are usually wearing shorts – do they suffer from a cold forearm but a warm calf? Why wouldn’t they just wear a running jacket if they’re cold? Why do runners wear arm sleeves? 

It turns out that there’s more than one reason why a runner might don arm sleeves, and each runner’s reason might be different, so we lay out a few different benefits of arms sleeves here to help you decide if you need to add a pair to your running kit.

Blank Black Arm Sleeves

These stretchy, tubular sleeves run from wrist to bicep and have become a common sight on marathon runners (Image credit: Lilkin)

Why do runners wear arm sleeves? 

Arm sleeves are worn primarily – though not exclusively – by long distance runners. These tubes are usually made using a stretchy, lightweight and breathable mesh fabric and pull up your arms for a snug fit, without covering your hands. There are four primary reasons for wearing arm sleeves: 

1. Versatile warmth 

As you might have guessed by the fact that many arm sleeves come out in autumn, they do provide a little protection from the cold. Whereas a running jacket can do the same, some runners find they overheat with the extra layer, whereas the sleeves just keep the chill off the skin that would otherwise be exposed. And sure, a long sleeved running top would do the same job, but they are usually thicker than sleeves, and if your running kit is already filled with short sleeved running tops that you love, no reason to add another. 

An athlete enjoys the serenity of an early morning workout in Richmond Park, London

As you might have guessed by the fact that many arm sleeves come out in autumn, they do provide a little protection from the cold (Image credit: John and Tina Reid)

2. Compression 

You might be surprised to learn that some arm sleeves aren’t worn for temperature regulation at all, but rather they might provide compression. Not all sleeves are compression sleeves, but the chances are high that if you see them on the arms of a marathon runner, that’s what they’re for. If you don’t know, the theory behind wearing compression clothing is that it aids the circulation of blood through the muscles, which in turn is thought to aid performance and recovery because the more oxygen your cells receive, the better they function. There is some science (opens in new tab) to suggest it might be slightly effective, but it’s still a controversial issue, however you can learn more in our article on compression clothing and make your own mind up. 

road running vs treadmill running

The theory behind wearing compression clothing is that it aids the circulation of blood through the muscles, which in turn is thought to aid performance and recovery (Image credit: Getty)

3. Sun protection 

Sun protection is vital for runners spending hours out on the trails. Sunscreen is messy and needs to be reapplied every couple of hours. Clothing can be an effective barrier against UV rays as long as it has a dense weave and most synthetics do, so arm sleeves are usually sufficient. In hot or sunny conditions, you can keep your arms protected without overheating – just choose a pair in a light color to better reflect the sun and keep you cool. 

Runners completing the New York marathon

Not all sleeves are compression sleeves, but the chances are high that if you see them on the arms of a marathon runner, that’s what they’re for (Image credit: Getty)

4. Safety 

Another reason to wear arm sleeves for running is to aid your visibility on the roads. Many running sleeves come in bright colors or with reflective detailing, which car headlights can pick up, adding to your visibility which is reduced if you’re wearing skimpy clothing to stay cool.

So there you have it. Arm sleeves might not be essential kit for every runner, but they might help you solve some problems you’ve been battling when you’re out on the trails.

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.