The next time you watch a race on television, look at the elite athletes leading the field. Many will be wearing compression socks. You may be asking yourself, “do compression socks for running really make a difference?” The answer is yes. Here, the reasons why runners and athletes should wear compression socks will be discussed.
How Compression Socks For Running Work
Compression socks are knee-high, elastic socks that compress the entire lower leg including feet, ankles, and calves. Compression is created in the socks by the strong elastic or rubber fibers used in the construction of the sock to apply pressure around the leg.
When compression is applied to the lower legs, the diameter of distended veins is reduced, which increases the velocity of the flow of blood through the veins. In addition, the effectiveness of valves in the veins and arteries is improved. As a result, venous pressure is reduced, blood circulation is increased, and venous walls are given greater support. When veins, arteries, and muscles are compressed, circulating blood is forced through narrower channels in the lower legs. Therefore, the pressure placed on arterial channels is increased, which in turn increases the rate at which blood returns to the heart.
Running compression socks utilize graduated compression, meaning the socks have more compression at the foot and ankle, and less compression toward the knee. This design is purposeful, as it helps to push blood flow away from lower extremities and toward the heart.
Why is graduated compression for runners important? Simply put, the faster one can improve circulation of metabolic waste products away from the muscles and toward the heart, the quicker recovery can occur. Poor circulation results in swelling which hinders performance while decreasing muscle recovery following a hard workout or race.
Athletes and Inflammation
For runners and athletes, “inflammation” is a commonly used term. Inflammation is also a reason why compression socks for runners are important. Although inflammation has taken on negative connotations recently, this process is also the natural response of the body to stress caused by intense exercise.
For instance, to grow stronger athletes rely on the tear/repair cycle. After a hard training session, muscles develop harmless microtears. After this damage has been detected, the body’s immune system immediately goes to work to repair these microtears, resulting in overall stronger muscles. White blood cells are sent to the damaged muscles, as well as mediators such as cytokines. This normal (and necessary) immune response results in temporary swelling and soreness. The entire repair process lasts 24–72 hours, depending on the relative severity of the muscular damage. After the repair cycle, muscles are stronger than before.
However, when athletes are training at high intensities, chronic inflammation is more likely to occur. In this instance, the immune system is continually triggered at a faster rate than repair can occur. Chronic inflammation can lead to the feeling of tired, heavy legs as well as chronic soreness, weight gain, and decreased athletic performance. Compression socks can improve the way that runners and athletes feel by naturally reducing inflammation and improving the rate at which white blood cells, localized swelling, and immune system mediators are flushed out of the system.
Running Compression Socks: What to Look For
Choosing the proper compression socks for running is important. First, it is necessary to make a distinction between compression socks and compression sleeves. Compression sleeves only cover the calf and shin and should only be worn during times of activity. Wearing compression sleeves for recovery or during travel is not recommended as blood may pool in the ankles and feet.
On the other hand, compression socks can be worn for all activities and are distinguished from sleeves by covering the entire foot, up to the knee. Compression socks do not allow blood to pool below the ankle because of the increased level of compression that is provided in the foot and lower extremities. These compression socks can be worn before, during, and after activity. Runners should look for compression socks that have an appropriate level of compression for their individual needs.
To determine the correct size, start by measuring the circumference of your calf and matching your measurement to an appropriately sized sock. It is also necessary to choose a sock size that best fits your typical shoe size. Always choose compression socks for running that have graduated compression, otherwise you will not gain the full benefits of compression socks.
When choosing the best compression socks for running, there are many important features to consider. First, the footbed should be padded. This padding helps to absorb shock and decrease muscular vibrations while further protecting feet and lower legs.
Calf support is essential, which helps to stabilize the muscles and guard against muscular oscillations. The bands should be comfortable below the knee, and not cut off circulation at this area. If the band cuts into the leg too deeply, venous return can be hindered or cut off altogether, negating the positive effects of compression.
Additionally, compression socks should be the proper fit. Runners should measure the circumference of the largest part of their calves and match this number to the compression socks. Too much or too little compression can both be detrimental, resulting in fewer benefits.
The level of compression in the socks is also important. In general, 20–30 mmHg is recommended for runners as this level of compression is ideal for moderate to severe swelling.
Benefits of Compression Socks for Running
The benefits of running compression socks are practically endless. They include:
Enhanced Athletic Performance
Athletic performance relies on the precise balance of oxygenated blood flow to hard-working muscles and the removal of deoxygenated blood and metabolic waste products, such as lactic acid. As the muscles in a runner’s lower legs continually pound the trail or pavement, their muscles are constantly undergoing the processes of breaking down and recovery. The faster the swelling and inflammation can be removed from the lower legs the quicker fresh blood can replenish tired muscles. Preventing the buildup of lactic acid and edema results in less muscular fatigue and therefore enhanced performance.
Faster Recovery from Hard Workouts and Races
When athletes are training to be in peak condition, the balance between training and recovery is of utmost importance. As legendary running coach Joe Vigil states, “there is no such thing as overtraining, just under-resting.”
Compression socks give athletes a boost in this regard, particularly when proper recovery is not feasible due to full-time jobs and busy schedules. A main principle of recovery is adequate blood flow to fatigued areas of the body. As soon as a workout is complete, inflammation sets in to repair any damage sustained during exercise. While inflammation is a necessary part of the recovery process, the residual effects (i.e., pain and swelling) can be lessened by speeding up the rate at which blood and edema move away from the affected areas. With the help of graduated compression, increased blood flow to the lower legs improves muscle recovery and reduces the sensation of tired and achy legs.
Runners and athletes frequently travel long distances for races and competitions. However, it is well documented that sitting still for long periods of time, particularly during air travel, can lead to blood clots, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism. Compression socks are proven to reduce the risk of blood clots in the lower legs, keeping athletes safer both before and after competition. Even the most highly trained athletes are at risk of developing this potentially lethal condition, as Serena Williams suffered a pulmonary embolism following a cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles in 2011.
Decreased Injury Risk
Numerous running injuries can develop due to insufficient blood flow and circulation in the lower legs. For instance, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, shin splints, and calf strains are all injuries where unsupported muscles, chronic inflammation, and lack of circulation are risk factors.
When wearing compression socks, runners can reduce their risk of developing these injuries because enhanced venous return reduces the amount of time that metabolic waste products and deoxygenated blood pool near these commonly used muscle groups. Additionally, injury risk is reduced because enhanced circulation keeps swelling and edema from forming and improves recovery times after difficult exercise.
Enhanced Warmth on Cold Runs
Every runner will experience a dreadfully cold run or race. Compression socks for running not only provide an additional layer of warmth against a runner’s skin, but also protect vulnerable muscles.
Compression socks increase warmth by drawing oxygen-rich blood flow to areas that traditionally suffer from poor circulation. Often, runners experience extreme cold in their feet because of lack of blood flow to lower extremities on cold days when the body preferentially keeps more important organs (such as the heart) from freezing. Runners who wear compression socks enjoy extra protection from bitter cold winds and weather.
In addition, some runners, such as Olympian Kara Goucher, prefer full knee mobility on cold days. For instance, running tights can feel restrictive during track workouts during winter. However, by pairing compression socks with shorts, legs can remain mostly covered and warm while the knee has full range of motion.
Improved Muscular Stability
Compression socks also provide muscular stability in the lower legs of athletes. When a person is running, he or she is exerting as much four times his or her body weight in force onto the feet and lower legs. Over the course of many miles, this force leads to jostling, lateral motion, and decreased stability in these muscles. These muscular vibrations and lateral oscillations decrease the amount time it takes for an athlete to fatigue while decreasing muscular efficiency.
However, compression socks reduce the overall jostling experienced by these muscles, which in turn can reduce injury risk and lead to enhanced athletic performance.
Less Muscular Damage
Studies have shown the use of compression socks reduces the amount of muscular damage sustained during athletic activity. A recent study was performed during the Two Oceans ultra in South Africa. Runners who wore compression socks during this race were found to have less muscular damage than those who wore regular knee-highs or crew socks. In addition, recovery times were significantly shorter for those wearing compression socks. Perhaps the most impressive result of this study was that runners wearing compression socks ran an average of 12 minutes faster than those who did not.
Less Cramping and Muscle Soreness
During a run or athletic activity, muscle cramping and soreness are inevitable for many people. While the causes of cramping are generally unknown (some researchers theorize that it can be due to poor hydration, poor nutrition, electrolyte imbalance, and muscular weaknesses), compression socks can be used to decrease cramping and soreness.
The secret lies in graduated compression. Muscle cramping and soreness can be delayed or reversed altogether thanks to increased blood flow to the areas of the body that frequently cramp, such as calf and feet muscles. During exercise, compression sleeves for runners constrict the veins and arteries in the lower legs to promote better blood flow. This increased blood flow draws oxygenated blood to the muscles, while also enhancing venous return, or, the rate at which deoxygenated blood returns to the heart for reoxygenation. Since blood flow is naturally increased during exercise, the use of compression socks further enhances blood flow and prevents cramping.
After exercise, muscle soreness is prevented or decreased due to the same principle. While blood flow is not enhanced to nearly the same degree, the improvement in venous return speeds the recovery process by ensuring metabolic waste products and inflammation are removed from the area and replaced with nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood that will speed the healing process.
Faster Injury Recovery
There are numerous injuries that commonly plague runners, such as shin splints, metatarsal stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, and calf sprains/strains. Compression socks are a key component in speeding along injury recovery. Many people are well familiar with the acronym RICE for running injuries, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
Compression helps to speed injury recovery because of the enhanced blood flow drawn to the area. For example, a stress fracture in a metatarsal heals much more slowly than a femoral stress fracture, mainly due to the discrepancies in blood flow. An area such as the femur is surrounded by more blood vessels and mitochondria, which encourage repair.
The foot, on the other hand, is farther from the heart and does not have access to the same amount of blood flow. Compression socks improve blood circulation by improving venous return. By drawing blood to the area and returning metabolic waste products, reducing inflammation, and ridding the area of deoxygenated blood, injury time will be reduced
Compression Socks Provide Protection to Trail Runners
Besides the numerous physiological benefits that compression socks provide to runners, compression socks also provide protection. Trail runners face many dangers during runs, including thorns, poison ivy, increased risk of falling, and trail overgrowth. The tight weave of compression socks protects these runners from cuts, abrasions, and potential poisoning from toxic plants.
Are Compression Socks Only for Runners?
Are runners the only athletes that can benefit from compression? The answer is no. All athletes who are on their feet during competition can benefit from compression gear. For instance, basketball players and volleyball players often suffer from shin splints. Compression socks can prevent these injuries from occurring by providing stability to lower leg muscles and reducing the effect of continual impact. Tennis players, soccer players, baseball players (among others) can all reap the benefits of compression.
When Should Compression Socks for Running be Worn?
Compression socks for running can be worn at any time of day. However, runners should beware the differences between compression socks and compression sleeves. Compression socks (those which cover from foot to knee) can be worn before, during, and after activity. Compression sleeves should only be worn during activity. Compression sleeves, when worn during times of inactivity, can contribute to swelling and edema in the lower legs.
To gain the most benefits from compression socks, the minimum wear time should be 2 hours, while continuous wear should not exceed more than 72 hours. When compression socks are worn for longer periods of time, nerve damage can occur.
Additional Benefits of Compression Socks
Are there benefits of compression outside of athletic activities? The answer is a resounding yes! There are numerous medical benefits for wearing compression socks.
Reduction of Tired/Achy Legs
Even non-athletes can reap the benefits of compression for the reduction of tired and achy legs. Workers who are on their feet all day, such as flight attendants, waitresses, factory workers, and nurses, among others, can all benefit from the use of compression socks.
In addition, people who are confined to a desk will benefit from the increased circulation that compression socks provide. Not only is the risk of blood clots reduced, but less swelling and edema will also occur.
Varicose Vein Prevention
Varicose veins are large, raised veins on the legs that can be painful and unsightly, as well as medically dangerous. Varicose veins occur when circulation is poor, and venous return is hindered. Since blood is unable to return to the heart for recirculation, blood pools in the legs and becomes trapped in the vein, causing enlargement. These enlarged veins increase the risk of burst arteries, blood clots, and ulcers. While activity helps to prevent varicose veins, this condition can occur even in young, healthy, and athletic people.
Compression socks reduce the risk of varicose veins by improving venous return and ensuring blood flow continues to the heart.
During pregnancy, women experience swelling and edema of the lower legs, no matter their fitness level prior to becoming pregnant. Swelling and edema are not only uncomfortable, but can lead to dangerous medical events, such as blood clots and pulmonary embolism. By improving venous return and enhancing circulation, compression socks can either be used to support women during both rest and activity.
Ultimately, compression socks are beneficial for multiple reasons. Most notably, the best compression socks for runners are ones that reduce muscle soreness, improve muscle recovery, prevent extensive muscle damage, and enhance athletic performance. Compression socks can be worn at any stage of athletic activity such as before, during, or after. For athletes that travel frequently, compression socks are important because they have been shown to prevent the risk of blood clots and deep vein thrombosis.
Additionally, compression socks are useful in the prevention and treatment of venous and circulatory diseases such as varicose veins. When purchasing compression socks for running, athletes should look for a padded heel bed, proper compression grade, the right fit, calf support, and graduated compression. Elite athletes all over the world, such as Paula Radcliffe, Meb Keflizhighi, and Kara Goucher utilize compression socks for training and racing, which should come as no surprise knowing the extensive benefits of running compression socks.