Jul 2016 02

Compression socks, performance and recovery

By: Dave Wheeler

From time to time I get asked by runners what I think of compression socks.

There's no doubt that wearing compression socks is "a thing" amongst runners at the moment - with some swearing by them, and others dismissing them as a fad.

But what does the research tell us?

We probably all know that compression socks began life for the treatment of patients with varicose veins and then deep vein thrombosis. In the late 1990's professional marathon runners began to experiment with wearing compression socks after their event... and so the craze began.


Compression socks & recovery

The early pioneers wore compression socks for 48 hours after a marathon race, and claimed that it helped reduced DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Initial research in 2007 at New Zealand's Massey University by Ali et al. Ali conducted experiments on 2 groups of recreational athletes:

  1.  A group of athletes taking part in a "shuttle-run" exercise
  2. A group taking part in a 10km road run

In both cases the athletes the athletes repeated the trial 24 hours later. Half of each group wore compression socks, the other half wearing normal ankle-high socks.

For those taking part in the shuttle-run trials, there was no difference at all between those wearing compression socks and those not.

But for the 10km runners, a very small, but nonetheless measurable, decrease in muscle soreness was discernible reduction in muscle soreness after 24 hours.

So there seems only a very slight potential benefit from wearing compression socks: and then only when running some distance.

On the other hand, more recent research from 2015 suggests that there is significant benefit from wearing compression socks for 48 hours after a long run.

In an article first published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Armstrong et al showed that for marathon runners, wearing compression socks for 2 days immediately after their race improved their recovery time. Specifically, 33 athletes were tested on a treadmill run both 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after the marathon. Those who wore the compression socks after their marathon race improved on their pre-race treadmill performance by 2.6%; those who did wear compression socks after the marathon saw a decreased treadmill performance of 3.4%

So it looks like the early adopters were right: if you're running medium or long-distance - wearing compression socks for 48 hours after your run can help improve your recovery.


Compression socks & performance

Of course, what I've just written isn't what most people mean by "wearing compression socks".

For most runners, compression socks are about wearing them during a run.

So again, what's the science?

Research by Duffield et al published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance in 2008 found no improvement in performance from wearing compression socks.

Further research by Duffield et al published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport published in 2010 found no difference in performance between those wearing compression socks and those not.

Ali (who, remember, showed that there was an improvement in recovery from wearing compression socks) found no benefit in performance). Ali's research in both 2007 and 2011 found this to be the case. 


Should you wear compression socks?

The science is clear: if you're running medium-to-long distance, wearing compression socks for 48 hours after your run will decrease DOMS and increase your recovery time. So if that's what you mean by wearing compression socks, then yes, definitely you should.

But if you're hoping that science will tell you whether you should wear them to improve your performance, then you're out of luck. Science doesn't back you up on that one. 

On the other hand, any medicine that works is good medicine. If you find that compression socks help you, then they do. The mind game of running is as important as the purely physical and if you believe that compression socks help,  then they really will.