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Running Compression Socks: All Hype or Must-Have?

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Are compression socks really what they are bragging about? Explore the potential benefits for yourself and decide if compression gear is a must for your running gear.

Compression socks have permeated the running world, and they seem to have become one of those must-know running terms.

The proof is in the pudding: Look around at your next race—you're likely to see quite a few runners galloping down the track wearing compression socks and sleeves.

Some athletes swear by them. Many runners believe wearing compression socks can help them reach new heights of exercise.

Talk to any compression enthusiast and prepare a presentation on the benefits of their fancy socks: preventing injuries, improving performance and shortening the recovery period for beginners.

How do compression socks work? What do they do?

These anecdotes are very convincing:

"After only wearing compression socks for a day, my legs don't hurt as much!"

"These compression socks help me run faster and longer."

"These socks are a must for distance runners."

With reviews like this, it's hard to resist the temptation to invest in a pair of compression socks for running. Who doesn't want to reduce muscle soreness and smoke during the race?

However, research on compression socks is not that simple. Limited research has proven that compression socks actually help improve performance.

So, here's the question: Do compression socks really help you run?

Let's dig a little deeper.

What are compression socks?

Compression socks for runners are elastic stockings designed to be worn down to the knee - think tube socks on steroids.

They can stretch from the feet to the knees, or start at the ankles (often called sleeves). These extra-strong socks squeeze around the calf, compressing the veins on the surface of the leg, as well as the muscles and arteries in the leg.

How to choose and use compression stockings

Compression Stockings: A Timeline

While they've really been a big hit in the running circle lately, compression socks are nothing new. As it turns out, compression therapy has been used for thousands of years.

Here's a quick timeline compressed by era:

Neolithic

Compression therapy dates back to the Neolithic era—yes, cavemen caught the trend long before your marathon buddies. Cave paintings dating back to 5000 BC depict soldiers with bandaged legs. While the researchers couldn't confirm whether the bandages were used for compression, it's generally believed to be the first evidence of this type of therapy.

Edwin Smith Papyrus

Fast-forward a few thousand years: An antique collector purchased the Edwin Smith Papyrus. This is the oldest surgical document in the world, dating from around 1600 BC, and it mentions—you guessed it—compression therapy for the legs.

Hippocrates

Another time jump: this time to the time of Hippocrates. The famous physician (the Hippocratic oath sounded the alarm?) wrote that he used compression bandages sometime between 450 and 350 BC to prevent blood from accumulating on his patients' legs.

Hey, if it's good enough for Hippocrates, it's good enough for us too.

modern pressure therapy

Over the next thousand years, compression therapy was used in different ways.

But let's get to the good stuff - let's see its arrival in the modern world.

In the 20th century, new forms of compression therapy emerged: Ladies and men lined up for lace-up stockings, elastics, and adhesive bandages.

Today, compression therapy is used to treat a variety of conditions, especially for those battling specific health problems, including:

  • diabetes
  • deep vein thrombosis
  • Varicose veins
  • leg ulcer
  • swelling of the legs
  • loop problem

In recent decades, compression therapy has jumped from a medical to a sports gear must-have. Compression gear can now be seen on professional athletes and recreational runners alike, from compression socks to compression armbands — and everything in between.

understand blood flow

Before we dive into the nasty details of compression socks, it's important to have at least a basic understanding of how blood flows throughout the body -- and how these tighter-than-normal socks work.

The heart's job is to deliver oxygen-rich blood to the muscles and extremities through the arteries. Once your cells run out of oxygen and nutrients in your blood, the deoxygenated blood and other waste products enter your veins and then funnel back to your heart.

After the deoxygenated blood returns to the heart, it oxygenates again from the lungs -- and the process starts all over again.

Okay, good science - but how does this affect your running performance?

Let's put it simply: the more oxygen your cells get, the better they function.

Compression stockings help blood circulate more efficiently through your legs, thereby returning blood to your heart faster. The faster the blood flows, the better the circulation. The better the circulation, the more oxygen in the cells...you know what we're doing.

What are the benefits of compression socks?

That all sounds great, but before you get your hands on a pair of compression socks for your run, let's take a closer look at some of the supposed benefits:

Enhanced Oxygen Delivery: As mentioned above, maintaining oxygen-rich blood flow to muscles is critical to athletic performance. You don't want to have your calves shit on you halfway through your run.

So how do compression socks help you achieve this important oxygen delivery? The purpose of compression socks is to provide graded compression, which means they are tighter at the bottom and looser at the top.

They are designed to help your legs fight the effects of gravity by pushing blood back to your heart. The pressure created by stockings helps deliver fluid to the legs and increases blood flow to the heart—meaning you get these good nutrients and essential oxygen exactly where you need them, when you need them.

Lactate reduction: Compression stockings may also help relieve muscle soreness - trust that this will get your attention.

When you exercise, your body produces a waste product called lactic acid. If you let lactic acid run through your muscles, you could be very sore tomorrow morning — and not be able to complete your planned 5 miles.

Compression socks to save the day! Like we mentioned above, proper compression therapy can help shrink your veins - but don't worry, it's a good thing!

As your veins get narrower, the speed at which blood flows (this starts to feel like high school physics, doesn't it?) actually increases.

The increased speed means your blood and lactic acid can actually return to your heart faster, reducing the muscle soreness you're bound to feel for days after a big run.

Prevents cramps and swelling: Compression may help reduce calf muscle overexertion - why do your legs get so overtired? Wearing compression socks while running may help reduce the strain on your legs, which means you'll build your muscles more easily and reduce the effects of fatigue.

Compression socks for running can also be used to control swelling in the feet, ankles, and legs. Because these socks crowd around these areas, they prevent fluid build-up in the tissue.

Learn more about running a compression sleeve with the how-to video below:

Do running compression socks really work?

Running circles have locked onto compression socks, citing the above benefits as the answer to all their running woes. But how does this theory work? Can Compression Therapy Really Take Your Performance to the Next Level?

It depends on who you ask.

Let's take a look at some research - please note some conflicting statements, folks!

"Compression stockings and functional recovery after a marathon run: a randomized controlled trial"

What's your name? According to the long-titled study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, just two weeks later, runners who wore compression socks for 48 hours after completing a marathon improved their running performance on a treadmill test.

To be sure, this is a positive finding, but unfortunately, this result has not been shown in other studies. Case in point: our next study.

"Efficacy of compression stockings to improve recovery in distance athletes"

In the study, published by Horizon Research Publishing Company, runners wore compression straws during a two-hour run and continued to wear socks eight hours later. The findings were less positive: The researchers found little change in muscle soreness and didn't find anything linking compression socks to enhanced performance.

"Calf Compression Sleeves: Implications for Running Mechanics and Economy in Trained Distance Runners"

OK, it's time for the tiebreaker. Does our third study support compression gears?

No.

For the study, researchers looked at 16 well-trained male distance runners. Everyone was tasked with completing two 12-minute running tests. During one session, subjects wore calf compressions, and during the other, they did not.

When the test was done, it turned out that the calf compression device did not significantly affect the runner's performance.

Considering these three studies, it's safe to say that compression gear hasn't proven to be a must-have performance booster for today's runners. Unfortunately, most research doesn't support the idea that compression socks can change your athleticism -- but that's not to say they don't offer some other great benefit.

But hey, it's up to you! Just because research doesn't prove compression socks work, as mentioned, some runners swear by them. At this point, it's a personal choice.

If you're feeling more or less sore after a run, if it's comfortable to keep your compression gear comfortable during your stride, or if you notice a reduction in swelling - keep wearing those bad boys!

How to adjust the size of compression stockings?

If you decide to try compression socks, make sure you buy the right size—wearing compression gear that's too tight is a no-no.

Tight compression isn't just an athlete's problem—it's also true if it affects compression fittings in the medical field.

A 2008 study in the American Journal of Nursing found that 26 percent of 149 hospitalized patients were told they were wearing the wrong size compression stockings after surgery. About 29% of study subjects did not wear them correctly.

Improper use of compresses can cause excessive pressure on the skin, which can lead to discomfort and even bruising.

While this is more common with medical compression stockings, it's still important to consider size when shopping for a pair of compression stockings for running.

Unfortunately, resizing isn't always that simple. There is no universal standard for compression stockings or stockings, so it is crucial to measure yourself with a tape measure. Measure different parts of your legs, including thighs, calves, and ankles, and try them on before buying.

If you're shopping for medical-grade stockings, be sure to do your homework. Better yet, head to a medical supply store and ask a professional fitter to help you choose the size and compression level for your medical needs.

However, if you're shopping for compression socks for running or other sports, then you may need to do some trial and error at the store to ensure a proper fit.

Try on a few different pairs of shoes and walk around to see what feels comfortable. There's nothing wrong with bouncing around in stores - how do you know what's working for you? !

What do the different compression levels mean?

When you're shopping for compression socks, it's also important to consider how much compression you actually need -- there's no need to put all the boas on your lap.

Traditional compression stockings come in four different compression levels. You'll find them in millimeters of mercury (mmHg), which indicates how much pressure the stocking will put on your leg.

The higher the measurement, the higher the pressure.

Below 15 mmHg: This is considered mild or mild compression and is generally recommended for healthy people who are tired from standing or sitting all day. Think: pregnant women, waitresses, medical professionals.

15 to 20 mmHg: This is considered moderate compression and helps prevent deep vein thrombosis or leg swelling in people traveling by air.

20 to 30 mmHg: This third layer is sometimes called "medical grade" compression and can be used to help prevent and treat varicose veins, edema, and blood clots.

30+ mmHg: Compression stockings of 30 mmHg or above are often seen in post-operative situations and are usually graduated (insert your favorite hat and gown joke here!). Because they're tighter at the bottom and looser at the top, these socks don't cut off circulation - they help enhance it, as expected.

What is the difference between compression socks and compression sleeves?

When you buy compression gear, you'll see socks and sleeves designed for your legs. Compression stockings are worn on the feet and extend all the way to the knees. One sleeve goes over the leg and runs from the ankle to the knee.

Choosing between the two is a matter of personal preference - and where you think you need support the most. If you're looking for extra support for your Achilles tendon, ankle, or arch, you may want to opt for compression socks as they cover these sensitive areas.

However, if you feel you only need leg support or improved blood flow, then sleeves may be fine.

Are there any side effects of wearing compression stockings?

Compression socks for running are generally safe to wear because socks used for sports activities have a relatively low level of compression.

However, if you have certain health issues, you should avoid medical compression stockings (we're talking about a lot of compression).

Any type of pressure therapy should be avoided by anyone dealing with the following problems or conditions:

  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Other Conditions That Affect Skin Feeling
  • peripheral arterial disease
  • skin infection
  • thin skin
  • Extensive swelling of the leg
  • Pulmonary edema due to congestive heart failure

If you experience any of the above, make sure to make an appointment with your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen. While you're there, double-check that pressure therapy is right for you.

Compression stockings aren't a panacea -- but they work

Compression stockings are great for increasing blood flow and may provide you with some great benefits in your daily running. But if you see compression stockings as a panacea for running pain, don't get your hopes up.

While compression therapy may prove beneficial for some runners, compression stockings are not a cure for any type of illness or injury. If you experience pain while running, make an appointment with your doctor and be evaluated for any type of injury. Compression socks for running may be great for relieving symptoms, but they won't help you break bad running habits.

In any case, keep a pair of running compression socks in your bag to help you recover from a tough run, to help you stay motivated in the final miles of a marathon, and as a preventative measure against swelling — but Don't expect a pair of socks to make you run pain-free.

Bottom line: Compression socks are a great addition to your running gear, but make sure you're staying healthy and happy with proper running style, the right running shoes, and medical help if needed.