Lately it seems that everyone is jumping on the compression sock bandwagon. In the past, they have been used for medical reasons, including preventing deep vein thrombosis, also known as blood clots in the legs, as well as aiding in circulation for diabetics. However, in the last few years, they have become more popular among marathon runners and even casual runners.
Advocates of compression socks believe that they help their muscles to recover quicker and help to prevent shin splints, muscle damage and lactic acid buildup. Scientific research on the subject seems to be on the fence, however. Should you pay for a pair of tight-fitting knee socks to help you with your running, or are the claims presented bogus?
The science of compression
We all know that the heart pumps blood through our body. It draws in blood that has passed through the lungs, where it receives life-giving oxygen. The blood is pumped out to your extremities and feeds that oxygen to your hard working muscles and organs. Once the nutrients and oxygen in your blood are used up, the blood then carries back waste products and de-oxygenated blood.
Included in the waste products is lactic acid, which causes muscle soreness when it builds up. The kidneys and liver remove these waste products. Your blood then returns to the lungs to pick up more oxygen and repeat the process.
Graduated compression, where the compression is tighter around the ankle than around the knee helps in several ways. The pressure that is placed on the leg forces the blood to exit more quickly than it normally would, increasing the blood flow and preventing the blood from pooling in your feet and legs. It makes the entire vascular system in your legs operate more efficiently by speeding up the blood flow in your legs.
This is valuable for people forced to remain in sedentary positions, including people who are bedridden or have jobs that require long periods of sitting. Compression socks can help to prevent the tendency for blood to pool and thus reduce the risk of clots in these individuals. However, there isn't a lot of evidence of a direct benefit for runners. Studies have been done in both the lab as well as the field, and the results were not conclusive.
Anecdotal evidence from runners who use them
Many runners use compression socks because they claim that they reduce soreness and pain and improve recovery time. There is definitely a benefit to having the lactic acid leave your muscle tissue faster, as well as having improved circulation in your legs. But these aren't the only benefits that are being claimed by those who use them.
Reduced muscle vibration is another frequently mentioned benefit. Every time your feet strike the ground, they produce vibrations that carry through your muscles, bones and connective tissues. These vibrations can cause:
It is plausible that compression socks could help to absorb and manage the vibrations, thus reducing the soreness following recovery. If that theory is correct, they could drastically reduce shin splints, which are caused by microscopic tears between muscle and bone.
Considering the additional benefits of compression socks
So, are they really worth it?
There seems to be some potential benefits to using compression socks, although we are still waiting for a conclusive study to give us a more definitive answer. At the very least, they do improve circulation, which is bound to be helpful for anyone engaged in a strenuous activity such as running.
There are several brands of compression socks available. Smartwool creates sized compression wear for both men and women with prices ranging from $15 - $50 depending on the quality and style. Vitalsox, Zensah, and 2XU are all popular brands as well that make higher-end socks for specific applications, including distance running and hiking.
Given the inherent benefits of compression socks and the fact that there are no counter-indications for their use in running, there's no reason that a runner shouldn't consider investing in a pair. While they may not be the magical cure-all that they are sometimes touted as, there are distinct advantages to using them.
The next time you're gearing up for a run and have the opportunity, give compression socks a try. You may just find yourself joining the growing number of runners that find them to be an invaluable addition to their gear.