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 they really make a difference?” The answer is yes and this article will explain how.
Compression socks look a lot like regular knee-high socks. Compression sleeves, on the other hand, start at the ankle and end just below the knee. Both, however, have a bit of snugger fit than ordinary socks because they’re meant to compress the surface level blood vessels of your legs. Because of the tighter fit, you’ll feel your muscles getting squeezed in.
Graduated compression socks have varying levels of compression throughout the sock, with the highest level at the ankle and gradually decreases to the lowest level at the top cuff. When worn properly, they work to reduce the diameter of veins in the lower legs. This reduction results in increased blood flow velocity. In addition, the reduction of vein diameter improves the effectiveness of the valves in both veins and arteries. The overall effect is reduced venous pressure, enhanced circulation, and greater venous wall support. Overall, when veins, muscles, and arteries are compressed and circulating blood is forced through these small channels, venous return (i.e., the flow of blood back to the heart) is significantly improved.
To fully understand the advantages of compression socks, you have to know how blood flow works and how it comes into play when it comes to running. Let’s start with the basics. The central muscle involved in blood flow is the good old heart. It pumps oxygen-rich blood throughout your body by way of veins and arteries.
Cells all over your body then use up this oxygen in order to function properly. To complete the cycle, deoxygenated blood is pumped back to your heart to essentially be refreshed. Now, how is this related to running?
When we run, we turn our focus to our legs. To ensure peak performance, we have to make sure that our blood circulates more efficiently through these lower limbs. When you use compression socks, you force your blood to start flowing faster, making each oxygenation cycle easier.
To cut straight to the point: the better your circulation, the more oxygen your legs get. The more oxygen gets utilized, the better your muscles are going to function.
When shopping for compression socks, the first thing to note is the sock height. Knee-high versions, which cover the entire lower leg from toe to just below the knee, are the most popular and preferred by many.
Second, you should find the appropriate level of compression for your needs. These levels are as follows:
Consult a physician if you are unsure which level of compression is best for you.
The third step is to measure your leg for proper fitting. For knee-high socks, you should first record the circumference of your calf by measuring the widest part of your lower leg. This measurement, in addition to your shoe size, is used to determine which sock size is best for you.
For runners and athletes, “inflammation” is a commonly used term. Although inflammation has taken on negative connotations recently, this process is also the natural response of the body to stress caused by intense exercise.
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 reducing inflammation and improving the rate at which white blood cells, localized swelling, and immune system mediators are flushed out of the system.
For runners, there are many sock features to consider, such as a padded footbed. 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 top cuff should be comfortable below the knee, and not cut off circulation at this area. If the cuff 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 fit properly. 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 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.
The benefits of wearing compression socks include:
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.
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 socks, 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.
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.
Runners can reduce their risk of developing these injuries by enhancing venous return, which 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.
Every runner will experience a dreadfully cold run or race. Compression socks not only provide an additional layer of warmth against a runner’s skin, but also protect vulnerable muscles.
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. Wearing compression socks will increase warmth by drawing oxygen-rich blood flow to areas that traditionally suffer from poor circulation.
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 running compression socks with shorts, legs can remain mostly covered and warm while the knee has full range of motion.
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 muscular efficiency and the amount time it takes for an athlete to fatigue.
However, compression socks reduce the overall jostling experienced by these muscles, which in turn can reduce injury risk and lead to enhanced athletic performance.
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.
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 socks 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.
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.
Besides the numerous physiological benefits, 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.
There are studies like this one that illustrate how athletes who wore compression socks for 48 hours after running a marathon recovered much faster than those that didn’t. Another study proves that wearing compression socks does, in fact, have positive effects on blood flow and volume. Plus, you get a ton of anecdotal proof from runners all over the world who believe in wearing them.
Runners are not the only athletes that can benefit from wearing compression socks. All athletes who are on their feet during competition can benefit from them. 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.
Besides athletic activities, there are numerous medical benefits for wearing compression socks.
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 to alleviate tired and achy legs.
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 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.