My friend Simon surprised me about a year ago when he took off his pants. I, uh, I’ll explain. We had been running all year long in leggings and when it finally got warm enough to run in shorts, I found out he was wearing compression socks. It had never crossed my mind that he’d need, or want, to wear compression socks for running.
But there they were.
He swears by them.
And it led me to dig into this a little deeper.
Having suffered through an achilles injury that kept me sidelined for 8 months, I wondered if there would be anything in them for me.
And here’s what I found.
For starters, they’re not new.
According to Wikipedia, compression wrapping around the legs has been used to treat leg ulcers and other issues with getting blood back to the heart from the lower legs since perhaps 5000 – 2500 BC. Hippocrates, the father of all physicians, who lived between about 460 and 370 BC, treated his patients’ leg ulcers with tight bandages.
People who suffer from blood pooling in the lower legs might also suffer from leg ulcers or blood clots developing. The pooling can be caused by a number of factors. One of the primary culprits is the malfunctioning of one or a number of the venous valves that prevent backflow of blood in the leg veins. These valves keep the blood moving uphill to the heart. If they aren’t working properly, blood will pool in the lower legs. Compression wrapping of the lower legs counters this pooling by squeezing the leg muscles and veins, narrowing the veins and speeding up the flow of blood back to the heart.
It has worked for centuries.
But Do They Do Anything for Runners?
Manufacturers claim that compression socks and sleeves damp the vibration of working muscles and stabilize them, reducing the amount of wasted energy and helping you run more efficiently. This is the feeling my friend Simon swears by.
Manufacturers’ primary claim, though, is that compression socks increase blood flow to the heart and therefore oxygen flow back to the leg muscles. (I did look into the Vitalsox VT1211 Compression Sock – if you’re interested, I’ve reviewed it here.)
This is, or should be, true. How much additional oxygen your leg muscles actually get is another issue – and is that extra oxygen enough to make a difference during your run?
I was able to find just one study to sort out the help from the hype. It examined the use of lower leg compression by runners. It didn’t, however, confirm much.
The study set out to look for any increases in running efficiency – oxygen uptake or kinematic improvements – from wearing lower-leg compression sleeves (not socks). It involved 12 experienced and fit distance runners running for an extended period on a treadmill while being monitored for oxygen consumption and running kinematics. Six of the subjects wore compression sleeves, the other six did not.
The study found no appreciable differences between the two groups in terms of improved oxygen use or running mechanics.
The Mental Game
But it did conclude that individuals responses to wearing compression sleeves varied greatly, indicating a possible (and very real) placebo effect for those who liked the sleeves.
Help for the Rank and File
The study didn’t evaluate how well compression sleeves or socks might help rank-and-file runners – runners like us for whom a slight increase in circulation might make a measurable difference. What the study did suggest was that further study was needed to determine how exactly lower leg compression might benefit runners, while they’re running.
Medical history over thousands of years, though, can attest to the therapeutic value of compression – for rehab. For runners, this means compression socks can benefit you after the fact – helping to flush your muscles of waste products like lactic acid and at the same time replenish them with oxygen and nutrients.
They can help get the fatigue out.
With all the evidence I can muster, there is:
- oodles of evidence that compression socks can help you in rehab,
- plenty of suspicion that they might up your mental game, but
- no conclusive proof yet that they’ll boost your running performance
Simon wears compression socks because it makes his calf muscles feel more stable. For someone prone to calf injuries, the socks give him the support and confidence he needs to continue running while he rehabs.Had I used compression socks during my convalescence from achilles injury it might well have sped up my return.
Sadly, though, Simon didn’t take off his pants until after I’d healed.
So the real conclusion is timing.
Timing is everything.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Please share your experiences with compression socks or your thoughts by leaving a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.
I learn something from your article. I run very often, but never wear compression socks. Based on your research, there are evidences that compression socks will increase blood flow to the heart and therefore oxygen flow back to the leg muscles. I feel that with more oxygen the entire body should function better. I think I am going to buy some compression socks for myself. Do you have suggestions on what kind of compression sock best for people of 50 year old? Thanks for the nice information.
Anthony, sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you but I’ve been on an extended hiatus. Thank you for your comment. As I mentioned in the post, there haven’t been any studies yet that have proved the physiological benefits (in terms of speed or improved oxygen delivery, for example) of compression socks but runners, including my friend Simon, swear by them. The best socks I could find were the Vitalsox (you can see my review here) not only because Vitalsox have been making them a long time, but also because they are well engineered to do what they do and because users swear by them. Hope this helps.
See you out there.
I am a runner and I am over 40. I know that I am not going to win an olimpic medall or beat any record, but still I continue running, basically for two reasons. First of all, it is good for my health, I feel it, and whenever I spend a few days without running, my body misses it. On the other hand, it is also good for my head. When I get out of the office after a bad day, there is nothing better than running a little bit to review all the problems and afterwards relax a litle bit.
I could not agree more Steve. When I get back from a run, no matter what’s it like out or how long the run was and my wife asks me how my run was, my response is always the same…”it’s always great”.
Have fun out there!
For myself, I’m not into running, but I’m researching for better ways of getting through my work day. I work construction, and I’m constantly on my feet, etc.
Checking into how the compression socks work I’m thinking about trying them out to see how they may improve my work day being on my feet all the time.
I figure a little extra help with controlled circulation should be a good thing, what do you think?
Travis, thanks for the comment.
I understand they’re terrific for people on their feet all the time. I don’t know how well they’d wear inside work boots, but certainly they’d help out with circulation. And we know people use them every day to help keep them going. Definitely might be worth a try for your construction work – especially if you’re looking for a better way to get through the work day.
If you do decide to try them, I’d love to know how they work out for you.
This is helpful information on the benefits of compression socks. Sometimes I see people running with compression socks, but I’m not sure what this can do. I assumed these socks help runners perform better. This article helps me understand how compression socks actually work. Compression socks could be great to use to help runners recover from injury and improve blood circulation.
Exactly Felicity. That’s what the research appears to say. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, there isn’t much evidence of improved performance yet – at least not lab or field results anyone can point to.
Thanks for your comment!
All the best in your running too!
Hey nice article. I have never heard of compression socks for athletes. I always thought it would be only for elder people suffering injuries but never for running. It might help me as well to get back into shape much faster. When i run too long my calf hurts and the doctors say I cant strain my leg too heavy. I might test this socks and hope they can help me a bit 🙂 Thank you Larry
Great Pascal – and thanks for the comment. The socks might help you. As I said, my friend Simon swears by them. I know they help out circulation on long flights and if you have to stand for a long time. And they’re not, ultimately, that much tighter feeling that normal sport socks.
With or without the compression socks, I hope your leg gets feeling better soon Pascal.
It’d be great to have you out there.