Podiatrists have been prescribing compression socks for years to treat things like chronic edema, lymphedema, varicose veins, and to prevent deep venous thrombosis; but recently they have started showing up on perfectly healthy runners. Yes, sometimes compression socks are used to treat shin splints, but do they make you faster? Can you run longer in compression socks? Many runners and triathletes swear by wearing compression. They say that they feel faster and recover better. Do they really work? Is there any scientific evidence that they really work? Or is this just more running lore?
In 2007, one study showed no increase in endurance or speed, but they were shown to stimulate blood flow, helping legs recover faster from a hard run. OK, so they help recovery, but can they make me faster? That early study didn’t think so, but that’s why we kept looking.
Most theories about how compression socks improve running performance focus on the physiological and biomechanical support of the lower legs.
It is assumed that compression socks 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. Sounds reasonable, but again, what does the research show?
It wasn’t until 2009 that a German study clearly showed that they enhance performance during hard runs. And research done in South Africa and New Zealand both show that knee-highs also improve recovery by boosting blood flow in the extremities. In fact, even compression socks (not your Grandma’s TED hose) have been shown to increase resting arterial circulation by 30% and 40% under physical strain. Many compression sock companies even tout that they have studies that shoe an increase in running efficiency by 5%, which can equate to taking 12 minutes off a four-hour marathon. Crazy? Maybe not?
Yet they still aren't for everyone. One German study conducted on super-fit elite athletes (not most of us in the back of the pack) reported no performance payoffs from compression. According to the study, the socks work better when they're squeezing more performance out of non-elites (you and me).
Lots more studies to come, but if donning some hot pink knee socks will take 12 minutes off my marathon time, bring them on!