Compression Socks for Runners – Fad or Fabulous?
Many companies are selling compression socks for runners these days. Elites Shalane Flanagan and Meb Keflezighi wore them during the 2014 Boston Marathon, and recreational runners swear by them as well. In theory, they improve race performance, speed up recovery, and ward off injury.
But do they really?
My calves always seem to be tight. Stretching and strengthening have helped, but after long or hard runs, they are sore and achy the next day. Looking for any advantage I can find, I decided to purchase a pair of 2XU compressions socks and see how/if they do what the manufactures claim.
At $50 a pair, compression socks aren’t exactly something you buy on a whim. If you’ve been considering a pair, here are a few things to take into consideration before you purchase. Are compression socks just the latest fad, or the most fabulous thing for runners since the invention of the GPS watch?
What are Compression Socks?
Compression socks for runners are a super strong elastic sock, typically worn up to the knee. They compress veins on the surface of your leg, as well as arteries and muscles, so that blood is circulated through your legs through smaller circulatory channels. Blood gets back to your heart faster, making it less likely to pool into your feet.
Most brands apply graduated compression, meaning they are tighter around the ankle, and less so at the knee, which makes them tricky to put on. Since leg sizes vary, you can find compression socks to match your foot and calf size. Make sure they aren’t too tight – they shouldn’t feel like a tourniquet!
Compression socks have been used for a very long time, commonly in the medical field. Patients who are bedridden, or with very limited mobility wear them to increase circulation in their legs. My grandfather wore them every day for the last six months of his life. Medically speaking, compression socks are a valuable tool for blood circulation.
Benefits of Compression Socks for Runners
For athletes, compression socks are designed to reduce swelling, muscle soreness, and muscle fatigue experienced post exercise.
According to one study, most compression sock manufactures claim they,
aid athletic performance by improving circulation and blood flow, limiting exercise induced peripheral edema of the lower extremity, supplying muscles with more oxygen, enhancing lactic acid removal, or decreased muscle soreness during and post exercise.
The perceived benefit here is that if you can circulate blood faster back to your heart, you can regenerate blood quicker to your legs.
According to Competitor.com, compression socks show the most benefit to runners when they are sitting. Compression applies gentle pressure on the blood vessels in the calves so that blood cannot pool in the lower legs while stationary.
Do They Work?
There is a lot of debate on whether or not compression socks for runners perform as advertised. Some runners love them, while some find no benefit at all.
The study I read looked at distance runners who wore them during a 2 hr run, and then again 8 hours post run. Their findings indicated that there was not a statistically relevant benefit from wearing compression socks.
This current research fails to support the claims made by manufactures of compression garments to increase performance, decrease post exercise discomfort, or improve recovery time.
Steve Magness, author of “The Science of Running” also seems to agree. He reviewed a bunch of other research and concluded that there is too much variance to say whether or not compression socks make any difference in performance during a run. He does say that post run, there is some benefit in decreasing muscle fatigue and speeding up recovery.
Lots of anecdotal evidence from individual runners seems to support these findings. There certainly isn’t any harm in wearing compression socks, so if you think they help with recovery, then by all means, give them a try!
I wore my compression socks for several hours each after a hard workout, an easy run, a long run, and a rest day. In my experience (from admittedly a small sample size), my legs felt better than they normally would after each activity. I felt less sore and more “recovered.” It was as if 1,000 little fingers were giving me a calf massage.
While my experience is hardly conclusive evidence that compression socks work, there’s no denying that these things are comfortable to wear. At this stage in my training (two weeks before marathon day), feeling less sore and more energized is exactly what I need (even if it’s only a placebo).
Should You Buy Compression Socks?
If you’re sitting for long periods of time, compression socks can help. If you’re traveling to or from a race, you could benefit from the increased blood circulation (apparently long haul truckers and pilots love them).
If you have a specific goal in mind for your next race, or are especially sore going into it, you may want to pick up a pair. Can’t hurt, right? Try wearing them after every run and see how you feel.
If you’re hoping to use them to shave precious minutes off your time, research says they won’t help. Unless you’ve been training with them, they will probably just feel weird anyway.
If you have have any type of chronic injury, skip the socks and find a physical therapist or chiropractor who knows how to treat runners. Fancy socks won’t help you get better.
Don’t forget, however, that the action of running breaks down muscle tissue. This breakdown is important so that muscles are able to grow back stronger during the recovery period. While compression socks (or ice baths, or Advil, or anything that reduces inflammation and soreness), can help you feel less sore, that soreness may be necessary to help your body adapt, grow, and become stronger for your next run.
Do you wear Compression Socks?
What do you think? Leave your experience below.