Compression garments, including stockings, socks, sleeves and wraps, were designed primarily to help improve blood flow in post-surgical patients, diabetics, those with circulatory issues or individuals prone to swelling (edema), phlebitis, varicose veins, and deep vein thrombosis (DVT). For these inactive and bed-ridden patients, the tightly fitting leg wraps help blood return to the heart so it doesn't pool in the lower extremities and cause swelling. The compression also reduces and risk of blood clots.
Athletes started using compression socks in the hopes of gaining similar benefits regarding improved blood flow. At first, a small handful of runners where wearing the tight stockings after workouts, and then during longer endurance runs. The anecdotal reports of faster recoveries, improved running performance and decreased soreness while using compression socks started building, and with it, a long list of potential benefits of compression socks was emerging.
Compression Socks and PerformanceWearing the socks during exercise was believed to aid performance, increase oxygen delivery and blood flow, reduce the jarring, vibration and stress to the muscles, and prevent soft tissue damage such as shin splints. Some athletes felt the added compression around the calves and ankles also aided proprioception and even improved balance. It was also hoped that improving venous blood flow, and adding calf muscle compression, would result in increased endurance, more efficient muscle firing, and faster running times.
Some, but not all of those theories have panned out in the research. The bulk of studies haven't yet found any statistically significant differences in performance while wearing the compression socks. A few studies have reported improved running times during ultra-endurance events in some athletes, but the bulk of the research hasn't found dramatic benefits in the use of compression socks to improve sports performance, race times, or endurance. So far, the benefit of wearing compression socks during exercise is unclear, but some athletes are convinced it works for them.
Compression Socks and RecoveryWhen it comes to wearing compression socks for sports recovery, the research paints a slightly different picture: a growing number of studies suggest that the use of compression socks may, in fact, speed recovery and reduce soreness after a strenuous workout. The results vary, but the trend points to a decrease in reported muscle soreness and possibly less muscle damage and faster recovery when using compression socks post-exercise. Some studies also support the theory that wearing compression socks during intense endurance runs, plyometrics or sprint training may also reduce the amount of post-exercise soreness reported by athletes.
Keep in mind that accurately measuring soreness is tricky business, and rating the level of soreness an athlete experiences after training is subjective and hard to quantify. There's also the very real placebo effect that some athletes may experience while wearing compression clothing. The psychological boost and the belief that the clothing can improve recovery, along with the sensation of compression, may have a greater effect of an athlete's perception of soreness. And as any athlete knows, what we believe can have a very real impact on our performance.
So while compression socks may not be the magic bullet to improved performance and faster recovery in all athletes in every situation, they may offer another good recovery aid for some athletes under the right circumstances. The current recommendations of experts and athletes alike seem to suggest that athletes may find some slight boost in mechanical efficiency when wearing compression socks for long, tough endurance events. More likely, the use of compression socks may provide another tool for aiding recovery during the 24-hour period following a hard workout or competition.
Get the Right FitTo get the benefits of compression socks, the right amount of compression is essential. It should be tighter at the ankle and gradually decrease compression up toward the knee. So be sure to follow the manufacturer's fit instructions before you buy compression clothing. The ideal compression is still being uncovered, but the current studies indicate that compression of about 15-25 mmHg of pressure is ideal, as long as it is graduated (a bit more pressure on the ankle and less as you move up the leg). Too much compression can decrease blood flow, and too little compression offers little benefit, so getting it just right is the trick. When buying compression socks, you'll need to measure your calf and ankle circumference, not your shoe size. Most brands on the market offer a similar fit, but follow the manufacturer's instructions and use the size recommended for your calf measurement to get the appropriate compression pressure.
Still not sure they are a true training aid or just another fad? The best way to discover if the socks work is probably to experiment with them yourself and see what you think. They may not be for everyone, but they certainly won't harm your recovery.
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de Glanville KM, Hamlin MJ., Positive effect of lower body compression garments on subsequent 40-kM cycling time trial performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Feb;26(2):480-6.
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