The basis of compression socks is the increased pressure helps prevent blood from pooling in the legs and improves blood flow back to the heart. The increased pressure improves circulation in individuals recovering from surgery and persons with medical problems like clotting disorders, varicose veins and edema (swelling). But does increased pressure on the calf muscles improve performance in healthy individuals?
Ali and colleagues1 studied the effect of wearing compression socks on run performance as well as recovery. They reported no difference in performance when participants wore compression socks vs. ankle length sports socks. However, during recovery participants reported less delayed onset muscle soreness 24 hour after continuous exercise (a 10K run) but not after intermittent running. Some researchers have proposed that compression socks may reduce repetitive impact motion during weight bearing activities such as running which could decrease post exercise muscular soreness.
Kemmler and his associates2 tested trained runners and reported no difference in aerobic capacity between trials wearing compression socks vs. traditional socks. However, runners did exercise longer during a maximal treadmill test and reach a higher speed when wearing compression socks. They also found running speed at anaerobic threshold was higher when wearing the compression socks.
Unfortunately, the jury is still out as studies report conflicting results. Some studies used trained runners while others used untrained subjects who would be more likely to experience soreness post exercise. Also, different types of compression socks were used. Some socks are designed to apply consistent pressure to the entire calf while others increase pressure from the ankle to the top of the calf (graduated pressure). Plus, the amount of pressure can vary with the brand of socks. More studies are needed to determine if compression socks improve running performance and speed recovery. If you have tried compression socks let us know what your personal experience was like. Did performance improve or recovery seem faster? Have you used compression socks in sports other than running and did you think it helped? I have to admit I am feeling the "pressure" to try them - a personal experiment (case study) is waiting. More to come.
1. Ali, A., Caine, M.P., Snow, B.G. Graduated compression stockings: Physiological perceptual responses during and after exercise (2007). Journal of Sport Sciences. 25:4, 413-419.
2. Kemmler, W., Von Stengel, S., Kockritz, C. et al. (2009). Effect of Compressive Stockings on Running Performance in Men Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 23:1, 101-105.