Compression socks – what are they and do they work?

Can compression socks really help your fitness?

Compression socks are the athlete’s version of compression stockings but instead of helping avoid deep vein thrombosis they help athletes recover from serious training sessions by using similar technology.  As they are designed for often fashion conscious athletes they also tend to come in more fetching colours than American Tan and Grubby White!

The key (claimed) benefits of compression socks are:

  • Regulation of body temperature and reduction in the build up of lactic acid;
  • Improve/increase the return of venous blood to the heart;
  • Reduce muscle fatigue by stopping the muscle moving around unnecessarily;
  • Speed up recovery from training or racing.

Compression stockings are used extensively in the medical world for the treatment of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and varicose veins andcompression socks it is this medical knowledge that sports companies and sports doctors have transferred to the fitness world.  They can also be used with other circulatory disorders and diabetes where the flow of blood around the legs is reduced The question is does the concept work for athletes?

The Science Bit

Well, from a serious medical perspective the question is difficult to answer conclusively with little evidence to back it up.  Most studies done into the benefits of compression socks and stockings have, quite naturally, used patients who suffer from DVT or varicose veins, rather than fit athletes.  In most of those studies some benefits were found to wearing the socks if you suffer from varicose veins but little benefit was noticed in DVT patients.

In the few studies using athletes some benefits were demonstrated but the benefits were hardly conclusive or emphatic.  Researchers found that soreness and aching was reduced and delayed but were vague in the extent of such benefits.

The conclusion to draw from this is probably that if you have poor circulation or varicose veins and you are an athlete then you probably will benefit but there is little science to indicate how much it might help.

Compression Socks In The Real World…

Looking at internet chat about compression socks and the experiences of those who bought them I was quite surprised by the lack of ambiguity from the athletic fraternity.

In a normal vox pop you tend to get a roughly equal group of people condemning the product and an equal number singing its praises.  With compression socks nearly everyone was over-flowingly positive about the benefits.  Even Paula Radcliffe is a fan; a BBC article describing all the high tech she used to assist with her running points out that she uses the socks.

As well as runners, cyclists and triathletes are being seen more and more often wearing compression socks, indicating that they too feel there is a benefit to wearing them.  And it’s not just during races that they give an advantage; many people describe wearing them immediately after races as part of their post race recovery routine and some even go as far as wearing them as normal day to day wear in an attempt to reduce the effect of muscle tiredness and damage.

So, in summary, I suppose the answer to the second part of the article title is a solid ‘it depends’!  Medical evidence is fairly neutral on the benefits but practical experience and feedback from those who use them seems to be they do work and are beneficial.

Like many of the high tech gadgets that athletes use, compression socks probably won’t make a huge difference to you if you just have a gentle trot around the local park on a Saturday morning (unless you also suffer from DVT and/or varicose veins).  But if you’re serious about your sport and are finding that the level of training required to keep competitive is leaving you more tired and sore than you would like then perhaps it’s time to give them a go.