For one reason or another, I’ve gotten several questions over the past couple weeks about my opinion of compression recovery socks. If you’re wondering what compression socks are, you may have seen them at races over the past few years, as they and compression calf sleeves have become very popular in running and triathlon, especially at longer races like marathons, 70.3, and Ironman. You may recognize them by their knee high length and often bright colors worn on the legs of athletes at packet pick up, during the race, and hanging around after the race. What I’d like to do with this post is answer the question of what my opinion is as well as share some information about what the science is behind compression socks and why they have become so popular.
Lets start with the theory of compression socks. Due to gravity and generally low blood pressure in the veins, blood tends to pool in the legs. Due to this tendency, compression socks have been used for years in the medical field to prevent patients from getting deep vein thrombosis when forced into inactivity. The idea is that the compression helps increase blood flow and prevents pooling. A few years ago, this theory was adapted to sports. Since the agents of fatigue are often in the blood, the idea is that the increased blood flow helps to flush out the poor blood while replacing it with fresh blood via preload in the heart.
There has also been some theory that compression socks do give some benefit during actual exercise. Lately, we’ve seen several elite level athletes racing and winning wearing compression. The idea here started as thinking that the increased blood flow that comes with the compression would prolong the onset of fatigue while racing leading, obviously, to faster times. The other theory is that the compression would reduce the amount of vibration that occurs in the calf muscle each time the foot hits the ground, which is thought to be one of the causes of DOMS.
Lets look at the science now. With the increase in popularity, there has also been an increase in the amount of research that has gone into looking at the usefulness of these socks. Starting with blood flow, is has been shown that blood flow does increase with compression in the legs, especially graded compression (more compression at the foot, less higher up the leg). To test this effect with muscle recovery, several studies have shown that this increase of blood flow does in fact decrease the amount of blood lactate for certain amounts of time after exercise. In fact, the results have been very similar to the effects of keeping your legs elevated after exercise. So for the time being, research has backed up the claims that compression does in fact aid in muscle recovery.
Research on compression during exercise on the other hand has had mixed results. There have been studies that have seen absolutely no difference in racing with compression vs no compression as well as studies that have shown an increase in performance. Most of the studies that have shown evidence of improvement have been based around time trial studies, having subjects complete a set distance time trial with and without recovery. These studies have had somewhat consistent results across a multitude of race distances, though it has not yet been determined if these benefits, if they do actually exist, are due to circulation or decreases in muscle vibration. There still needs to be a lot of research done on this subject with consistency on the types of sock used and the fitness level of subjects. But for now, it at least hasn’t shown to be a hindrance on race performance, so long as you can be comfortable in the taller socks and not get too hot in the summer.
So in conclusion, compression socks have been shown to have a benefit as a recovery tool. Although the benefits that have been cited are able to be induced by other means, recovery socks are great for sleeping, traveling, sedentary rest, etc. During exercise, compression socks have also shown some slight promise in increasing performance, though nothing has been determined yet. So what is my opinion on compression socks? With current research, it does seem that they have their place in the world of distance running and triathlon.