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March 08, 2013

Compression Socks - Are They For You?

Written by Dena Evans

compression_socksSurvey the start line at any road race these days and more and more knee socks are popping up.  Compression socks are one of the most popular new accessories for distance runners of all speeds.  Look more closely, and compression clothing of all kinds are now found on athletes of all ages and abilities.  Are they for you?

 

For decades, compression socks have been recommended by doctors to help with circulatory problems, including varicose veins, diabetes, and deep vein thrombosis / blood clots.  The increased elastic strength of compression socks, particularly around the ankle, acts like a pump of sorts, elevating the amount of pressure on veins and therefore decreasing their diameter and increasing the blood flow velocity.

 

While these benefits were previously sought by individuals who were forced to sit or stay put for long periods of time, non-active individuals with these circulatory concerns, and even post-op / bed-ridden patients in needs of some assistance with blood flow during recuperation, over the past several years, compression socks have become popular among runners who seek these benefits as performance aids.

 

Belinda Byrne of Melbourne, Australia, along with many colleagues in various studies conducted over the past fifteen years, has provided much cited research supporting the conclusion that compression socks aid in preventing deep vein thrombosis (a worry for those runners who travel home via long airplane rides soon after marathons).  Byrne has more recent work that also suggests compression socks aid in recovery by helping muscles clear more blood lactate faster, and that socks worn below the knee are also effective, compared to the previous model of medically prescribed compression socks that extended up through the thigh.

 

These recovery benefits appear to be generally accepted and are backed up with other research finding self-reported post-run/ race soreness decreases with the socks.  However, those looking for a mid-race performance boost from compression socks find a more limited field of supporting evidence.   A few studies suggest an increase in anaerobic threshold of a couple percentage points (Scanlon, et al. 2008; Kemmler, et al 2009), but many more studies found a lack of distinct or statistically significant performance advantage by wearing the socks.

 

Like many other distance running accoutrements, the usefulness of compression socks is defined by a combination of personal preference and experience, coupled with scientific evidence.   In this particular case, compression socks can cost as much as $60, so their use might require a bit of an additional investment as well - a financial commitment to be balanced with the enjoyment found in running and the importance of that experience going well.  The field of compression garments and their use by endurance athletes is a continually growing business, where new information (much with direct commercial motivation) continues to evolve.

 

If you struggle with delayed onset muscle soreness after long races, or wish to assist your legs in their efforts to recover quickly and train hard again, compression socks are a worthwhile tool with which to consider and experiment – how you feel they help you is often the most important variable.  However, it is also worth remembering that the most crucial aspect of your race plan is the training you put in, and compression socks won’t take the place of that.  Stay focused on good habits, and hard work, and perhaps compression socks will provide the opportunity to recover in time to go for it more often.

 

 

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