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.