True or False : Compression Socks Need to be a Part of my Training Wardrobe?
Gone are the days of seeing white compression stockings only in the hospital. Historically, compression hosiery of different lengths have been utilized for medical purposes: to reduce risk of a deep vein thrombosis (blood clots) in bed-ridden or post-surgical patients, to increase venous return for those with a compromised circulatory system (patients with diabetes) and of course, nurses working long hours on their feet to prevent leg soreness. Wait, nurses are healthy, working, moving people, why are they using a piece of medical equipment?
In addition to the reasons above, compression socks improve circulation, in turn, reducing swelling, improving muscle efficiency, and promoting recovery after long or intense bouts of muscle activity. Nurses were ahead of the triathletes in knowing what is good for their bodies.
With any standing or weight bearing activity your circulatory system is working against gravity to pump blood back to your heart; the blood that just delivered oxygen to your working muscles and the blood that needs to pick up more oxygen from your lungs to keep your muscles working. Compression socks aid in the return of blood to your heart by reducing the diameter of your blood vessels and increasing the speed of blood flow. Surgical grade compression socks are also graded, meaning they are tighter at the ankle and looser at the top, creating positive pressure and working with your veins valve system to pump blood “up hill.” Compression socks have also shown to reduce the lateral displacement of muscles during jarring exercise, improving the efficiency of muscles, theoretically.
So the basic science is there, and apparel companies have profited big time on this science; marketing compression of every color and for every body part as an essential part of your training and recovery. But when is compression really necessary and will it make you perform better? The science and research on performance-based testing is not vast and is also a little scattered, due to the limited number of subjects and the varying definitions of “compression.” But here are some myths busted for those tinkering with the idea of squeezing into some neon compression socks.
True or False: Wearing compression socks will shave time off of my 5k?
False. There are limited studies showing improved performance of any kind while wearing compression socks and all of these studies did not have a control or placebo. Meaning, the improved performance could have been due to the athlete anticipating the compression aiding in their performance. In multiple studies, compression did not improve lactate levels, heart rate, VO2 max, or running time. Although research is new and limited, there is science to support improvements in recovery time by reducing soreness and muscle damage.
Bottom Line: Although compression may not be proven to improve your performance by shaving time off your run, there is solid evidence to utilize compression during your hardest and longest workouts to aid in recovery, reduce soreness, and prevent muscle damage.
True or False: Any compression is better than nothing?
Meh. True/False. Yes, any compression will decrease lateral oscillation and improve muscle efficiency. However, to achieve the optimal vascular benefits of compression socks, it is important to have the proper fit, type, and amount of compression.
Type: It is optimal to have a sock that is graduated in pressure with increased pressure at the ankle and decreased pressure as it goes to the knee. Brand specificity has not shown to make a difference; sorry branding and marketing teams.
Amount: This is an instance of more is not always better. Since you are moving in these socks, a mid-grade compression has been shown to allow for performance, while also creating positive pressure in veins. This ranges from 15-20 mmHG. This measurement of pressure will be labeled in ranges and if you have questions ask your local pharmacist, post-surgical compression socks are sold over the counter.
Fit: Compression socks are not one size fits all and require you to take circumferential measurements of your lower leg. Take these measurements in the morning when your legs aren’t swollen. Remember there should be no indentation of skin at the top of the sock, no changing in sensation or color of skin with the sock on. If you have a vascular condition, be sure to consult a physician before purchasing and implementing any compression garment into your exercise routine.
Although the science can be perplexing, a number of athletes have had great success with compression garments of different types. As with any addition to your exercise routine, do your research, and listen to your body.