Wednesday, November 2, 2011

TRANSITION AREA: Compression socks - Athlete or not, they may be worth a try.

Compression socks historically have been used to treat people with conditions such as edema, varicose veins, or diabetes to help improve circulation.  In the past couple of years, however, compression socks have been making a splash with athletes, particularly runners and triathletes. Whether you're an athlete or not though, compression socks may be able to give you some relief for your tired, sore legs.  So I wanted to briefly - but not exhaustively - explore the basics of compression socks and allow you to consider whether they can help you - athlete or not.

What exactly are compression socks?  Let me first clarify my terminology. Compression socks are just that - full socks that go over the calf to just below the knee. There also are compression leg "sleeves" that cover only your calf & not your foot.  Many people (like me) just refer to them both as compression socks for simplicity, but you should know that there is a difference.

Next, what are compression socks designed to do?  Originally, compression socks were used for individuals with diabetes or arthritis to help improve circulation.  In addition, as we get older, the veins in our legs may stop working properly and circulate the same blood over and over, leading to fatigue and the feeling of heaviness in the legs. See Compression Socks Guide:    

Compression socks are supposed to aid in the circulation of blood within the legs.  The benefits can be two-fold. First, "compression increases the pressure in the tissue under the skin (subcutaneous) helping to reduce and prevent swelling. The compression of subcutaneous tissue helps move excess fluid (swelling) back into the capillaries (tiniest of the blood vessels) and helps prevent too much fluid from leading out of these little vessels."  Second, the "compression reduces the ability of the superficial veins in the leg to expand and overfill with blood. This in turn helps prevent blood in these veins from flowing backward and causing congestion. Congestion in the leg accounts for the leg complaints, swelling, and skin changes common with venous insufficiency." Compression Stockings website:

Given these benefits, compression socks have been widely used in the medical context for quite some time to treat conditions like edema and varicose veins, as well as general leg fatigue and pain.  So why have we started to see more athletes sporting them?  The theory is that wearing compression socks in a race "may enhance venous return to the heart through a more efficient calf muscle pump, leading to increased endurance capacity. And there is the notion that because muscles are kept more compact, balance and proprioception are improved and muscle fatigue is minimized."  The Running Times: But does it really work?

Whether compression socks have those purported effects for athletes during exercise is the subject of debate, probably because of a wide variety of uses and types of people using them.  I don't attempt here to address that debate.  The website -  The Science of Running - discusses several studies that you may find helpful on the use of compression socks during and after activity.

A few things do seem clear, however.  First, "the idea that compression socks improve venous blood flow at rest has been substantiated (Byrne et al., 2001).  Similarly, the idea that graduated compression is better than constant compression at rest has been demonstrated."   Also, according to a study presented at the 2007 American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting, wearing compressions socks after exercise promotes a faster lactate recovery.  

So where does this leave us?  Well, whether you're an athlete or not, it seems that compression socks (or sleeves) may help your legs recover from sitting or standing all day, traveling, or workouts.  For medical-grade compression socks or sleeves (for those who stand or sit all day or have a medical condition), I found these websites helpful:  

As for athletes who want to wear them during workouts, sorry, but you'll probably want to do your own research and see if they help you. Personally, I have noticed a difference wearing compression socks during my long runs (as well as after, for recovery).  In February of this year, I changed my running form to a midfoot strike, which is much more of a workout for your calves than the usual heel strike during a run.  I was experiencing cramping in my calves during my runs and considerable soreness and stiffness after (particularly the day after).  So, upon the recommendation of a friend, I started wearing Zensah compression calf sleeves. I've noticed a considerable difference both during my runs and in the speed of my recovery.  During my runs, I've experienced much less calf cramping and fatigue.  After my runs - particularly the next day - my calves have been significantly less sore.  As for whether the compression socks actually help improve my endurance - that's hard to say.  My primary goal was to help with the pain, and the compression socks certainly have met that goal for me.  That's my personal experience, but I'm very interested in what others have to say. 

Have you tried compression socks?  What brand do you recommend or not recommend? How did you use them (for a medical condition or for athletics)?  Did you notice any benefit?  

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