Compression socks used to be the sole reserve of diabetics and airplane pilots, but have now become gradually acceptable among marathon runners and other runners generally. longer distance runners, in particular, have been using compression socks for several years now. There’s a reason why.
Though these usually knee-high socks look like something designed to scare aware potential dates, they have become something of a rage as wearers report many benefits from running in them.
Let’s see what these benefits of running compression socks, we just might convince you to include them in your gear.
What Are Running Compression Socks?
Compression socks are part of a specially designed group of hosiery created to help prevent the occurrence or progression of certain venous disorders, especially thrombosis. Its use can be traced back to the Middle Ages where physicians would wind tight bandages around patients’ legs to treat various ailments.
Nowadays, they are made from more user-friendly fabric that incorporate elastic fibers and rubber but are firmer than your normal everyday socks.
These snug-fitting, socks work their magic by gently squeezing your legs.
Hmm, sounds a bit uncomfortable right? But they’re actually the opposite.
Studies have shown they stimulate blood flow, and help runners’ legs recover quicker even after a prolonged, hard run. They work by increasing circulation thereby reducing lactic acid build-up in your system according to Absolute Medical.
Compression socks were initially designed for medical purposes and looked extremely dorky (like most medically-designed garments), and that’s putting it mildly. Thankfully, runners can now get them in more stylish colors and patterns and you can choose from the various brands available.
Who Needs Compression Socks?
As a runner, you may choose to wear compression socks while training and racing, or after a run. Compression socks are now noticeably common among pro runners and are a wise choice for you if you are one of the following:
- If you have a history or risk for circulation problems, like deep vein thrombosis, varicose veins, or diabetes
- If you’ve just had surgery
- You are returning to running after a long break for whatever reason. That includes inconsistent “weekend warriors”.
Other people that would benefit from wearing compression socks include pregnant women, the elderly, athletes in general, people who stand at work for long hours daily, bedridden people, people that find it difficult to move their legs, airline pilots and so on.
What Kinds of Running Compression Socks are Available?
They come in different variations and styles, the next most popular type being compression sleeves (the tube part of the sock without the foot).
The good thing is you can get compression socks that are hardly distinguishable in appearance from traditional socks, meaning you could wear them on and off track if you choose.
Lengths: The socks come in different lengths: just below the knee-high, thigh-high, full tights and waist attachments, but for this article we’ll focus on the knee-high socks for runners.
The three we recommend are below:
Compression: They are offered in different levels of compression, measured in mmHg.
For instance, graduated compression or “pressure stockings” are tighter around your ankles and gradually looser as they move up your leg.
This is where it gets tricky; stockings should feel snug enough on the legs but not so snug they become painfully tight. Runners should aim for mild compression, with lower numbers like 15 - below 20 mmHG, available over the counter.
If you already suffer from DVT, you'll need higher numbers like firm gradient stockings that range from 20 – 40mmHg, and are worn on doctors’ advice only.
Anti-embolism stockings, also known as Thromboembolic-Deterrent (TED) hose, are worn after surgery and when you are bedridden.
For recovering patients that can stand and move around a bit, graduated compression stockings are better.
If you’re a runner seeking stockings for medical reasons, see your doctor. They will measure your legs and prescribe the proper pair for you.
According to Absolute Medical, the MILD compression might be the best for newer runners.
Benefits of Running Compression Socks
Granted, compression socks will set you back about $40 - $70.
And as common with most innovations since the dawn of man, people will always argue for and against its use, either to seem relevant or just to hear the sound of their own voice.
Here’s my take and personal experience using compression socks:
- Relieves tired aching legs. You know that feeling when you’ve just had a good, long run and finally get to seat down for a little rest, but, your legs feel like they’ve been run over. Like a dull, aching pain?
Since I began wearing compression stockings, my legs feel notably better during the run but especially in the hours AFTER the run.
- Compression socks have been shown to limit swelling in your feet and ankles. They also help prevent and treat spider and varicose veins in people engaging in activity that put pressure on their feet.
This is mostly common in people that are required to stand for most of the day. For runners on long trails, often spanning up to 24 hours, it’s advisable to use compression socks.
- Warmth. It keeps the leg muscles warm and will help prevent muscle strain. This is especially true for runners that have a tendency towards foot inflammation after running. Heat is known to relax tightened and bunched up muscles by improving blood circulation and eliminating lactic acid waste accumulation.
- Pain Relief. Helps relieve pain from muscle soreness and stiffness after a running session.
- Though views are still divergent, studies such as this one carried out by Professor Elmarie Terblanche, a sports physiologist at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, show that athletes who use compression socks have a shorter recovery time AFTER major events compared to their colleagues that don’t wear them.
- Relieves Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Any kind of exercise is designed to task your muscles, especially a high impact activity like running. It gets worse for those who are not regular runners as their bodies would require a longer recovery time.
The next 24 – 48 hours after a major run will be a killer. Trust me.
Cursing and swearing at yourself or other running buddies won’t help either. Sorry. Just make sure you wear compression socks during and after your run.
- Protection. If your route includes woody areas and grassy trails, they will protect your legs from minor cuts and scratches and contact with dangerous plants like poison ivy.
Why Should Runners Wear Compression Socks?
Let’s look at the science behind compression gear. Don’t roll your eyes just yet, I promise not to use any weird-sounding medical jargon.
In simple terminology, they work by compressing the limbs. This has a double-pronged effect of reducing the diameter of distended veins and increasing venous blood flow velocity and valve effectiveness.
Just like a water pump pushing water through a network of narrower pipework.
The pressure applied on your legs will make the blood vessels work better.
This makes it easier for the arteries taking oxygen-rich blood to your muscles to do their job. The veins also get a push getting blood back to your heart.
Logically, once blood is moving well, chances of pooling and forming clots in the veins of your feet or anywhere else reduce.
So generally, blood flows freely and everyone is happy. Better blood flow can even prevent runners from feeling light-headed or dizzy when they stand quickly.
How to Choose and Use Compression Socks Effectively.
By now, I’ll bet you’re itching to run out and get yourself a pair of compression socks.
Good for you!
Here are a few tips to help you get the best out of them:
- Measure your calves for the right sizing. Compression socks should be just right: too tight and you will struggle to get them on and when you do they’ll be extremely uncomfortable. Too loose and they will give zero compression and keep sliding down your legs: totally useless.
- Get a texture and fabric you are comfortable with. You can choose for winter or warmer weather and they all come in a mix of breathable materials like nylon, cotton, polyester, wool, Lycra, and Spandex for comfort.
- Pull the socks tautly over your legs. They should be smooth from feet to knees and not bunch or fold.
- A Word of Caution. Do NOT roll the socks down under any circumstances. Just get a pair that are of the desired length. I can’t stress this enough. It will work like a tourniquet due to the added elasticity and restrict blood flow.
- If your running compression socks are medically prescribed, you'll likely have to keep them on for as long as possible during the day. Confirm from your doctor how long you’ll have to wear them daily.
This article from WebMd tells you more about the medical side of choosing compression socks.
They are available over the counter at medical supply companies, online stores, and in most drug stores. As mentioned above, there are my three favorite.
In conclusion, runners wear compression stockings for personal comfort, to perform better during and after sports, and even prevent serious medical conditions from developing or deteriorating.
Running is hard work, especially as we get older. If you’re already having issues with your feet, make things easier for yourself by trying a pair of compression socks on your next run. Don’t wait till you are in pain before making that move.