Written by Student Kinesiologist Janice Leung
These days, it is not uncommon to see runners sporting an assortment of high knee socks at races, or on the sidewalks through your car window. As many professional runners have now donned the compression calf sleeves or full socks, many have followed suit in hopes of enhancing their performances. However, the question remains whether or not there is true benefit to wearing such head-turning socks.
Whether it is compression socks or full compression tights, the main principle is to increase blood and lymph flow while preventing blood pooling in the lower legs. This is useful clinically in those that have deep vein thrombosis, varicose veins or any conditions with blood circulation difficulties (Metzler, 2008). The compression also comes in handy for those that travel a lot because sitting for extended periods of time will lead to blood pooling in the legs. Similarly, those that are forced to sit all day or stand for several hours at work can benefit from compression. Another reason to wear compression clothing is to decrease muscle vibration by compressing and hugging the musculature. Every footstrike sends force and vibrations upwards into the muscles and tendons of the lower legs (Magness, 2010). This is one of the theories behind what causes DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Both motives of promoting blood flow and minimizing vibrations contribute to the overall goal of increasing venous flow and decreasing the by-products that accumulate and lead to muscular fatigue (Magness, 2010). Essentially, the goal is to bring in good nutrients such as oxygen, and to flush out muscular waste.
Elmarie Terblanche, a sports physiology professor from Stellenbosch University of South Africa, conducted the first real-world study involving athletes competing in the Two Oceans ultra-race (O’Mara, 2013). It was found that athletes who raced in compression socks, compared to those in regular knee-high socks and those that raced in neither, experienced significantly less muscle damage and even ran an average of 12 minutes faster (O’Mara, 2013). Massey University of New Zealand conducted a study where twelve runners performed five 10km time trials and a vertical jump test was performed before and after each 10km (Ali, Creasy, & Edge, 2011). Subjects wore either a “control” sock without significant compression or “high”, “medium”, or “low” degrees of compression. Both subjects in “high” compressive and non-compressive socks had a decrease in their jump heights, but those that wore “low” and “medium” degrees of compression had in fact increased their heights. Ali and colleagues (2011) stated that no significant effects on lactate accumulation or heart rate were found when wearing compression socks. However, evidence in the vertical jump heights of the subjects that wore “low” and “medium” degrees of compression led to the premise that the subjects’ muscles were less fatigued during their 10km time trial with the socks on (Ali et al., 2011). Therefore the socks assisted in improving muscle recovery.
From personal experience, after grueling workouts where I know my calves took a beating, I jump straight into my compression socks. (Though in reality, it actually takes a bit of a sweaty effort to squeeze my calves in.) Sometimes when I have little niggles (small aches that runners tend to ignore and run through) that are anywhere from my heels up to my knees, I don the tight socks. And most of the time, the pain subsides after I wear the socks long enough. Sadly, compression socks and sleeves are not magical; they will not help kiss your problems below the knee goodbye. For serious injuries, my best advice is to seek professional help, book in for an appointment at Movéo! But usually the day after wearing the socks, my calves feel much fresher and ready to tackle the next workout.
Stay tuned for next week when I compare compression socks to sleeves and give details on my own experience in using compression gear.