Compression socks. You already know you look super sexy in them but can they actually improve athletic performance and recovery?
In this article, we will discuss what compression socks are, how they work, claimed benefits, and if they are worth your hard-earned money.
Compression socks are exactly what they sound like. Tight-fitting socks that wrap and compress around the foot and lower leg. Depending on if they are medical grade or meant for athletic performance/recovery the level of compression will vary from very tight to somewhat tight
The theory behind compression socks is they can improve blood flow, reduce vibration, decrease fatigue, and clear metabolic waste. All of which can possibly help with lower leg muscle function, athletic performance, and recovery.
We’ll discuss each of these more in-depth in later sections of this article.
In general compression socks are made from a combination of nylon and spandex. With spandex accounting for 80% and spandex 20%. They may also include technical fabrics that wick away moisture from the foot and lower leg.
Medical grade compression socks can be broken down into 4 categories of graduated compression based on millimeters of mercury (mmHg). These are:
Compression socks meant for running other athletic activities can also be broken down into 4 categories. These are:
For both medical grade and athletic compression socks, they will be tighter around the foot and the compression will gradually decline as it moves up your leg.
Many claims have been made that compression socks can improve performance and recovery.
These are some hefty claims but are they supported by the available research?
Surprisingly, there have been quite a few studies done on compression socks. And honestly, it's really a mixed bag of results.
On the one hand, some of the studies were very poorly run and there are a lot of inconsistencies. On the other hand, there are some solid research studies done on compression socks. Let’s look at these next.
First, let’s look at studies that measured performance when subjects wore compression socks.
In this study, researchers brought 12 runners to the lab on 2 separate occasions and had them do a 5k time trial followed by 60 minutes rest and then another 5k time trial.
On one occasion the runners wore compression socks and on the other, they did not.
After crunching the data, the geeks discovered that on the occasion when the runners wore the compression socks that their 2nd 5k time trial was only 6 seconds slower compared to their first. When the didn’t wear the compression socks, they were 17 seconds slower.
So why were the runners faster when they wore compression socks?
The researchers concluded that when the runners wore the compression socks it reduced muscle vibration or oscillation. In turn, this may have decreased fatigue and increased oxygenation of the leg muscles.
The compression socks may also have increased running efficiency.
A 2016 study discovered that the use of compression socks improved the oxygen cost of running approximately 9% at velocities of 10, 12, 14, and 16 kilometers an hour.
This improvement was attributed to the compression socks increasing muscle coordination and propulsive forces during running.
Simply put, the compression socks improved muscle function and allowed the runners to generate more power with each step.
The research actually backs this claim up quite a bit.
There was a big meta-analysis done, which is a review of a bunch of different papers on compression garments, that showed that compression garments do reduce the inflammatory response.
Now, is this a good thing? We've mentioned in other articles that sometimes we want the inflammatory response to occur to allow adaptations to exercise. Point being? It’s not always a good thing to blunt the body’s inflammation process.
The research agrees that compression garments can reduce the amount of creatine kinase after intense exercise. Creatine kinase is a biomarker of muscular damage.
After an intense exercise session, muscles are damaged, and concentrations of creatine kinase are elevated in the blood. And what the researchers think compression socks do here is they act like a “muscle pump”, so they help clear creatine kinase out faster so your muscles can recover a little bit quicker.
Compression socks can either be worn during exercise to improve performance, after exercise to promote recovery or both.
The easiest way to put compression socks on is to turn them inside out and “roll” the sock over your foot and up your lower leg.
As a rule of thumb, the compression socks you choose should feel snug around your foot and lower leg but not so tight where the muscles become painfully compressed.
Most athletes will see benefits from using a compression sock that is 18-24 mmHg.
Research has demonstrated this amount of graduated compression is the optimal amount to improve blood flow and maximize recovery.
There is no straight answer here. Some people will wear them all day long. Others will only wear them during exercise. Some will only wear them after exercise. Experiment with each and determine which strategy works best to improve your athletic performance and recovery.
Usually, the size of the compression sock you’ll need will match your shoe size. If they are too big or small, it can cause blisters or restricted blood flow. Do the following measurements to determine your ideal size:
Once these measurements are done, reference the sizing chart (usually included on the packaging) on the compression socks you are considering.
According to runnerclick.com the best compression socks as tested by runners are:
Compression socks can be purchased online, at sporting good stores, and typically at running and cycling specialty shops.
A high-quality pair of compression socks, whether designed for athletic or medical purposes, will cost you $40 to $200.
For the most part, the research does agree that compression socks can help performance and recovery.
If anything we know they DO NOT hurt anything.
Whether you get the performance or recovery benefits really depends on the compression gradient of the sock and how you choose to wear them.
Matt Mosman (MS, CISSN, CSCS) is a research scientist, endurance athlete, and the founder and Chief Endurance Officer at EndurElite. Matt holds his B.S. in Exercise Science from Creighton University and his M.S. in Exercise Physiology from the University of California. Matt and his family reside in Spearfish South Dakota, where they enjoy running, mountain biking, camping, and all the outdoor adventures Spearfish has to offer.