You've been running for years, but recently, your legs seem to be heavier. The blood vessels in your calves are popping out and your legs cramp after every run. If your legs cramp a lot, or you're looking for a more effective way to recover after a long run, the answer to your prayers may be compression socks. Runners often rely on them to help them finish long runs, and nurses and others rely on them to stay on top of their jobs.
Some compression socks are designed specifically for long runs, while others help speed up the recovery process after a lot of miles.
Running for long periods of time can cause swelling. This swelling is natural and in most cases nothing to worry about. If the swelling becomes uncomfortable, some treatments for the problem include cold showers, ice packs, bathing in Epsom salts, or wearing compression socks after a long run.
Some runners and athletes swear by compression socks - but how reliable are they? Are these socks scientifically proven to improve your running recovery game, or is it just a placebo effect?
Compression stockings are designed to do exactly what they describe - to compress the blood vessels in your lower legs so your blood and other fluids don't pool in your lower body. Compression stockings put pressure on the calf to help maintain blood flow and reduce discomfort and swelling. The pressure is tightest around the ankle, and then eases off as the sock lifts up onto the leg.
Compression stockings apply constant pressure to the legs to prevent fluid buildup. Compression helps blood circulation, allowing more oxygen to enter your tissues. Socks create positive pressure that forces your blood to flow from your legs back to your heart.
Another benefit of compression socks is the lactic acid produced after a long or sprint. Whenever you exercise, your body produces lactic acid. Lactic acid is a waste product, and the longer it stays in the muscle, the greater the chance of being sore the next day. Wearing compression socks during and after a run can help reduce or avoid soreness.
Finding the Right Size Compression Socks
Lower body of a man wearing running shorts and compression socks.
"Compression socks are everywhere this year" by triitalian licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Before shopping for the best compression socks to aid recovery, remember that size matters. To ensure a fit, try on a few pairs at the store. Trying on socks can be difficult if you order online, so check the size chart and buy a few different sizes.
To find the correct compression stocking size, measure the circumference of the largest part of the calf and the smallest part of the ankle. Measure your feet for an accurate shoe size, and if you're between sizes, choose the larger compression socks.
Be sure to pay close attention to the compression level. Compression levels are measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and are divided into the following levels.
Less than 15mmHg: These lightweight compression socks are designed to relieve the stress of long runs or standing. These socks should be enough for most runners.
15 to 20 mmHg: These socks provide more pressure and are good for runners after a marathon or ultra runner.
20 to 30 mmHg or higher: These medical compression stockings are often prescribed by doctors to treat varicose veins or worn after surgery to help increase blood circulation.
Do runners' compression socks work?
For runners, compression socks can relieve muscle soreness and foot pain. Research shows that compression stockings can help reduce muscle damage and inflammation, especially after marathons and ultramarathons.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that wearing compression socks for 48 hours after a marathon improved performance by 2.6 percent two weeks after the race.
Some other reasons runners might adopt compression socks as part of their daily running:
Compression stockings keep your legs warm on cold running days. Socks are good for runners who ditch pants and prefer to wear shorts every season.
Compression socks add an extra layer of protection during test runs, protecting your legs from cuts, scratches, dirt and poison ivy on the trail.
While research has shown compression socks to aid recovery, no studies have concluded that wearing compression socks during competition is good for performance.
Wearing compression socks during a run or race may make the runner feel better and trick him into thinking he's running better. If this is the case, wear compression socks during the activity. Be sure to wear the correct type of compression socks.