“Do compression socks work for running – whether in improving running performance or recovery?”
It’s something a lot of runners have wondered – especially given the amount of compression products out there.
Compression technology was initially designed to help improve blood flow in post-surgical patients or people with circulatory problems, but recently it has taken the fitness world by storm.
In fact, in the past few years, many runners—both recreational and advanced—have started to add the tight garments to their bag of recovery and performance tricks.
Why the fervor?
The theory is that sporting compression attire boosts oxygen delivery, improves blood flow, and enhances muscle efficiency—all of which should result in improved performance and faster recovery.
But is there any sound evidence behind these claims?
Or just clever marketing by companies selling these tools to runners?
Today I’m putting on my Mythbusters duct-tape hat, and delving into the subject of compression gear.
I’ll discuss some of the science behind compression socks and their impact on both performance and recovery according to the current research literature.
Let’s get started.
What are Compression Socks?
Just like it sounds, compression socks are knee-high, super-strong elastic socks that apply gradual compression to your legs.
They’re a bit tighter at the ankle and gets looser towards the knee. Because of this, they feel tighter than typical socks.
- Related: Side Stitch While Running
Compression Socks- What’s the Point?
When you run or exercise in general, blood tends to pool in your lower limbs.
This condition, also known as chronic venous insufficiency, makes it difficult for blood to return to the heart (where it gets re-oxygenated) from the legs and may limit performance as well as hinder proper recovery following exercise.
By putting gradual pressure on the blood vessels, muscles, and arteries, compression socks can limit blood pooling by restricting blood vessels enough to allow them to pump blood against gravity more efficiently, therefore, improving recovery and performance.
But does the research support this hypothesis?
Do Compression Socks Improve Recover?
So do compression socks work for running recovery?
There are a few studies that may not agree, but in contrast to the performance claims (as we’re going to see shortly), the majority of recovery research admits a benefit.
Let’s start with a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
The researchers used a randomized controlled double-blinded study design to measure the functional recovery effects of compression socks following a marathon.
During the research, 33 subjects completed a marathon and wore compression socks or a placebo—non-compression socks—for 48 hours following the race.
Next, the subject’s recovery rate was measured by running to exhaustion on a treadmill. Maximum and normal heart rates, as well as time to exhaustion, were all measured.
The compression group performed better than the placebo group.
They were able to complete the treadmill test for a longer period than they before the race—by almost a minute.
Conversely, the placebo group took about a minute longer to perform the second test.
The result indicates a drastic positive effect of compression sock on recovery compared with the placebo group.
Still not convinced?
Check the findings of other research papers:
- A study looked at runners participating in the Two Ocean Ultra Race in South African and found out that marathoners who used compression socks during the race had significantly less muscle damage and were able to recover faster than those racing in regular socks.
- Research reported that compression wear improved perception of lower muscle soreness following a marathon.
- Another review out of Sports Medicine indicated that compression socks resulted in a not-so-significant improvement in post-run soreness and lowered markers of muscle inflammation and damage.
Do Compression Socks Improve Running Performance?
So do compression socks work for running performance?
Many studies looked into whether or not compression socks improve performance in runners as advertised, and the evidence seems to be anecdotal—at best.
Although it shouldn’t be considered as reliable evidence, research revealed that low to medium compression might boost leg power following endurance training. However, there was no improvement in performance time.
A German study looked at the efficacy of lower limb compression garments in improving performance. All participants completed two maximal effort treadmill tests, one group sporting compression socks, and the other wearing regular running socks.
The researchers reported a little boost in endurance during the maximal effort treadmill test, but the underlying mechanism was only partly explained due to an increase in oxygen intake.
It’s also hard to tell if the performance gains were the results of improvement in bio-mechanical areas or a placebo—you run faster and farther simply because you believe you can do it.
Check the following studies for more:
- A study reported that compression socks had no positive impact on running pace during a marathon race among advanced participants.
- Research out of the Journal of Sports Medicine found that compression garments had no statistical effect on running performance.
- Another study that assessed female 5K athletes revealed that compression sock did not improve running performance in 5K time trials, and may instead increase the rate of perceived exertion.
According to the current scientific literature, it seems that compression garments are not going to help you break that performance edge. Thus, they’re unlikely to help run faster during a marathon.
That said, plenty of runners will still tell you that compression socks make a difference.
I also need to highlight the fact that no research has found that compress technology limits athletic performance, either.
Compression Socks for Runners – My Advice
When it comes to performance, these elastic socks are not a game-changer.
The evidence that they could boost your running endurance is small, and often contradictory, but they do a great job in soothing excessive soreness and limiting muscle damage.
I’d recommend that if you’re keen to try them out, you wear them during your hardest workouts—think interval sessions, hill workouts, and long runs.
If you feel like they do your performance good, then put them on race too!
You call the shots.
Do compression socks work for running?
Compression socks might not be for everyone, but they definitely won’t harm your recovery and performance.
So if you have no qualm spending $40 to $60 on graduated compression, socks, then be my guest. Just make sure you get the right pair!
Compression Socks for Runners – Buying Guide
In case you decide to give compression socks a serious try, make sure you get the right fit.
Get the right compression level
Shoot for 15 to 25 mmHg of pressure. It should be tighter at the ankle and gradually less as you move up toward the knee. Follow the brand’s fits instructions before you purchase compression gear.
Low compression provides little benefit, and too much of it can limit blood flow and compromise your performance, so getting it just right is key.
Take the right measurements
When choosing a pair, make sure to measure your calf and ankle circumference, not just your shoe size. Use the suggested manufacturer’s instruction for your calf measurement to find the right compression pressure.