If you have been to any sort of competitive running event lately you may have noticed a number of competitors wearing colorful knee-high socks. While it may appear at first glance as if runners are trending towards a “1970’s schoolgirl” fashion look in their knee socks, the choice in hosiery actually has a theoretically functional purpose as well. Regardless of the fashion versus function motivation, it is clear that compression socks are an extremely popular trend in the running world these days. In this post I would like to highlight their potential benefits in performance, recovery and, of course, fashion.
The Science Behind Compression Socks
Let’s start with compression benefits in terms of performance and recovery. (You may want to get your dictionary out for this section, because it is chock-full of technical jargon.) Compression socks claim to facilitate fresh, slow-to-fatigue race day legs in two ways: First of all, compression of the lower leg facilitates circulation to this area, thereby reducing the likelihood of blood pooling in the legs. The idea is that if compression socks can produce increased venous blood flow, then more fatigue-inducing exercise by-products transported by the blood stream (such as lactic acid) can be quickly cleared from the legs, resulting in delayed on-set of muscle fatigue and thus, a stronger run. This concept applies to post-run recovery as well. If its true that wearing your compression socks after a big race or hard workout improves venous return, increasing the removal of lactic acid from your calves, then your legs should feel fresher and ready to get back in the game sooner rather than later. In layman’s terms, wearing compression socks is believed to both keep your blood from gathering in your ankles (where you don’t need it as much), redirect it up towards your quads, hamstrings and glutes (where you do need it) and flush the waste by-products of running from your legs more quickly. All of this while looking super-snazzy!
In addition, compressions socks are thought to reduce muscle oscillation (vibration of the muscles and tendons of the lower leg due to the impact of running). As with the increased circulation theory, it is believed that reduced muscle vibration could result in delayed fatigue and reduced wear and tear on muscle and connective tissue, resulting in improved performance, reduced injury and faster recovery.
Currently, the scientific evidence verdict on the effectiveness of compression socks is still out. Although there are some studies supporting the theories behind compression and performance, they do not offer significant proof supporting the idea that compression improves venous return during exercise, or the theory that decreased muscle vibration yields reduced injury or faster race results. There is some conclusive evidence that the increased venous return that compression socks create when used at rest does aid in faster recovery. I learned a lot about the science of compression socks here: Science of Running: Compression Socks. Check it out if you would like to delve deeper into the research behind the compression wear phenomenon.
Fast, Fabulous, and Functional for Racing and Recovery!
But enough of this technical scientific rambling, let’s talk about some real life personal compression sock experience… I for one am embracing the compression sock trend both on race day and for recovery. I find my compression wear extremely comfortable to run in. I don’t know if it’s all that science-y stuff or what, but it sure feels like my calves, ankles, and feet are getting little hugs of encouragement with every step I take! I will also be the first to admit that I love the fashion value that compression socks bring to my race day outfits. I am pleased to report that they are available in a multitude of flashy colors, and a good obnoxiously hot pink pair tends to get a lot of attention from race spectators. I must confess that I find chants of “Love those socks!” and “Go Pink Sock Girl!” and the high fives that often come with them to be extremely motivating and spirit lifting. In fact, for me this may be the most significant way in which compression socks boost performance.
But more than I love compression socks for racing, I love them for recovery. Like their popular long run recovery counterpart the ice bath, I find that they do a nice job of combating fatigue, muscle soreness, and swelling and helping my legs feel fresher sooner. But unlike ice baths compression accomplishes all of this at a perfectly comfortable ambient temperature, sans shivering, cyanosis, chill bumps, and general unpleasantness. Furthermore, compression socks are much more stylish than blue lips and fingernails. I have found that they spruce up a casual outfit just as effectively as they do my race day digs (although those of you who are not lucky enough to work at a running store may find it somewhat challenging to pull of compression-casual on the job.)
I have even been known to sleep in my compression socks after particularly long and/ or hard efforts, and I felt that this yielded fresher-feeling legs the next day. And as if compression wasn’t sounding awesome enough already, I have also gone so far as to wear my compression socks on several long airplane trips, and I am pleased to report that so far I am 100% deep vein thrombosis free!
Calf Sleeves and Other Compression Sock Alternatives
In other good news, compression wear is not limited exclusively to socks! If socks aren’t your forte, you can still treat your calves to some compression love in the form of the calve sleeve. These sleeves are perfect for those who want the joys of compression without being forced to give up either their favorite pair of running socks or their post-run flip-flops. They offer all the perks of the traditional compression sock: graduated compression from calf to ankle, bright, eye-catching colors, and potential running and recovery-related physical benefits but they simply stop just above the ankle. Given that many brands of compression socks tend to feature a slightly thicker, cushioned sock, I recommend that readers who prefer an ultra-thin sock or no sock at all consider the calve sleeve option.
You can also treat the entire length of your legs and glutes to a big compression-y hug with compression tights, and your arms can get in the fun with compression arm sleeves as well! The compression options are truly endless.
Compressing Both Your Calves and Your Bankroll
In my opinion, the biggest downside of the whole compression craze is the sticker-shock-inducing price of many compression products. Your average pair of compression socks will probably set you back around $50.00, which does seem like an awful lot of money for one pair of socks. However, it has been my observation as a running store sales associate that high prices have not significantly thwarted the popularity of compression wear in the running community. I guess the general consensus is that $50.00 is a worthwhile investment for potentially improved and expedited recovery.
Fast, Fabulous Compression Favorites
My personal favorite means of calf compression is the CEP Running Compression Sock. These socks offer an anatomical fit (meaning they are right foot/ left foot specific) and medical grade graduated compression (compression is greatest at the foot and ankle and lessens as it moves up the leg) that fits super-snug, plus they are available in a nice variety of bright colors. Check out CEP compression socks here: CEP Compression Socks
Other popular compression brands include 2XU (great variety of options, specific products for racing and for recovery, 2xu Compression Socks), Zensa (My favorite sleeve option. Super comfy, not-so-tight feeling, and available in every color imaginable! They even have tie dyed ones! Zensah Compression Leg Sleeves), and Swiftwick (less exciting color options, but a quality product with an attractive $35.00 price tag, Swiftwick Compression Socks.)
I hope that this semi-scientific and fully fashionable assessment of compression socks and sleeves has helped to demystify the compression trend for you! I, for one, definitely regard compression wear as contributing to a runner’s ability to be both fast and fabulous!
Big thanks Cat and Allie for all of their input for this post, editing skills, and compression wear modeling. More thanks to Allie’s wonderfully patient husband for agreeably snapping countless compression sock photos. And most of all, thanks to all of you for reading!