With so many companies claiming that compression gear improves overall recovery and performance, running compression socks have turned into one of the hottest fitness products on the market today.
In today’s article, we’ll be taking a look at some of the science behind compression socks (if there is any) when it comes to recovery and performance.
I’ll also share with you a few practical guidelines on how to make the most out of compression running socks (if you decide to purchase a pair).
So, are you excited?
Then here we go.
Running Compression Socks Explained
As the name implies, compression socks are snug-fitting, stretchy socks that gently squeeze the lower legs.
Typically worn up to the knee, compression socks apply gradient pressure to the veins on the surface of your lower legs as well as the arteries and the muscles.
This means they’re tighter around the ankle and get looser as they move up the leg, which makes them tricky to put on.
In theory, the pressure improves blood circulation through your legs via smaller circulatory channels.
You can purchase these socks over the counter or at a sporting goods store. If your doctor prescribes them, your insurance may cover the cost.
You can also get a compression sleeve—just the tube part without the foot.
Compression running socks can be made from a wide range of materials such as spandex, nylon, cotton, and natural rubber.
But in general, most stockings are made of 80 percent nylon, and 20 percent spandex, fitting snugly to the legs.
The Science of Compression
Plenty of research suggests that compression socks improve blood flow and reduce muscle oscillation.
This, in theory, can help speed up recovery, keep your body well aligned, and prevent energy waste—all of which can help you become a better runner.
The Recovery Gains Explained
Running (and exercise in general) increases blood flow.
But here is the kicker:
Following a run, gravity often forces the blood to pool, usually in the lower legs and the feet, resulting in circulatory problems.
This blood pooling hinders the venous return of blood to the heart, causing fatigue and leg cramps, and hindering full recovery post-exercise.
Here is where compression gear can come in handy.
Running compression socks apply significant pressure to the layer of muscles around your lower leg, which improves venous return of blood to your heart.
By putting pressure on the surface veins, arteries, and muscles, blood circulation is forced through narrower channels, resulting in more blood returning to the heart against gravity and less blood to pool in the lower extremities, speeding up recovery in the process.
In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers assessed the effectiveness of wearing compression socks in the 48 hours following a marathon and what they found was quite compelling.
In the experiment, 33 marathon athletes were divided into two groups:
(1) Group One wore compression socks for 48 hours after the marathon.
(2) Group Two wore non-compression socks (placebo).
In the end, the subjects who wore the compression socks performed better on the post-race treadmill test—by almost a minute — than the placebo group.
The result shows a significant beneficial effect of compression socks on recovery compared with placebo.
Another research published in the Journal of Sports Medicine reached similar conclusions.
Muscle Oscillation Reduction
Another acclaimed benefit of using compression gear while working out is a reduction in excessive muscle movement.
Oscillation, or “tissue jiggle,” is the movement of the muscle that occurs when vibrations go up your body as your foot strikes the ground.
It is believed that excessive muscle oscillation is to blame for DOMS and other exercise-related aches and pains.
In theory, running compression socks limit this excessive vibration, thus, prevent microtrauma to the muscle caused by the repeated impact during prolonged training.
The South Africa Study
Following marathoners participating in the Two Oceans Ultra Race in South Africa, researchers concluded that athletes who wore compression socks during the competition had drastically less muscle damage and recovered faster than those who raced in regular socks.
Does Compression Gear Improve Performance?
Research on the utility of compression gear in athletic pursuits has been a hit or miss.
In fact, little evidence exists that support the notion that compression gear improves performance when worn during exercise.
Not only that, many of the studies that found improvements in performance while wearing compression gear did not use a control or placebo group.
This makes it almost impossible to tell if the performance improvements stemmed from the compression or the athlete’s perception of the compression—what’s known as the placebo effect.
Furthermore, plenty of research has found no differences in running times, oxygen consumption, VO2 max between athletes sporting the socks and those where weren’t.
Note. Just keep in mind that no research has shown that compression wear hinders athletic performance, either.
In the end, I don’t think that compression socks are the next item you need to help reach your full running potential.
But, as based on scientific studies, it’ll help with recovery. And for some runners that might be enough reason.
How to Choose The Right Running Compression Socks
Compression socks are by no means cheap. In fact, expect to pay anywhere from $40 to $120 for a pair.
At that price range, compression stockings aren’t exactly something you buy on a whim—unless you got plenty of money to throw around.
So, if you’re sold on the effectiveness of compression socks, here are a few things to consider before you reach for your wallet.
1. Gradual Compression
As previously stated, compression stockings are designed with gradient compression.
Gradient compression helps provide the right level of compression where you need it the most—the ankle—but not where you don’t—the foot.
Research suggests that proper gradient compression offers the most blood flow and recovery benefits.
2. 22 to 23 mmHg of pressure
The unit of measure for gradient compression is millimeters of Mercury or mmHg for short. This is the same standard doctors use when assessing blood pressure.
Compression levels are posted on most products. As you look at different compression sock, you’ll see it described with numbers ranging from 8 mmHg through 30 to 40 mmHg.
As a general rule, shoot for 18 to 24 mmHg of pressure.
Research by Byrne et al. revealed that 20 mmHg at the ankle is the optimal amount of compression needed to improve blood flow and optimize recovery benefits.
Further research concluded that when it comes to compression, the sweet spot to aim for is 20 +/- 5mmGh level.
3. Get The Right Size
A good compression sock should not feel too tight—it’s not a tourniquet.
Follow these guidelines to get the measurement; you’ll need.
Check this awesome YouTube Tutorial.
Your compression socks should be long enough to cover your entire calf and shin, ending just below the knee joint.
If your socks are too low, they won’t provide enough compression, whereas if they’re too high, they might irritate the back of your knee while running. And you don’t want that.
Measure the distance from the back of the bend of your knee to the floor behind your heel. Remove your footwear for an accurate measurement.
Measure the circumference of your ankle by placing the measuring tape at the narrowest part of your ankle, just above the ankle bone.
Next, measure the circumference of your calf—the widest part.
Measure Your Arch
Arch length is measured from the point on top of the foot to the highest point in the foot arch.
To size it up, place your barefoot on the floor, then wrap the tape around your foot.
Assessing Your Results
The last step is to take the recorded measurements and use them in conjunction with the sizing charts for the specific brand you want to choose the correct size.
Don’t worry. Most compression wear companies, such as Sigvaris, Juzo, Jobs, or Medi, provide these sizing charts. These offer quick tips that suggest which measurements you need to find the most appropriate size for you.
Don’t skip this step. Otherwise, you’ll end with the wrong socks, and that sucks.
Note: Many Products—Many Sizes
Size may differ between different brands. In fact, each manufacturer/brand has their own sizing chart. So, a medium size in one brand of compression socks may not the medium in another.
4. The Right Materials
Beside proper size, the fabrics of your running compression socks is the next thing to consider.
As a rule of thumb, look for socks made with breathable, high-performance materials, and have skin cooling and moisture-wicking fabric properties.
These fabrics let moisture move away from the skin to the other surface where it evaporates, allowing you to use the socks while exercising or wear them for hours post workout.
If a pair does not allow for moisture to escape, then it’ll turn into itchy and irritable materials, and over time, it will cause blisters and develop an odor.
5. Don’t Buy White
It gets dirty fast, and you don’t want that.
Instead, feel free to choose from a variety of basic colors that compression socks come in, including black, beige, navy, etc.
If you get anything from today’s post is that there is always a place for compression socks in your running gear.
Are they the magic pill for improving performance? I don’t think so.
Do they help with recovery? Yes. As research suggests and experience dictates, yes of course.