Written by Student Kinesiologist Janice Leung
Last week I discussed some of the research behind compression socks in Part 1. If you missed out, you can find it here. This time I will be talking about the differences between compression socks and sleeves and share my own experience. Let’s get right to it.
So, Socks or Sleeves?
In reality, the only difference between socks and sleeves is that the compression will only start above the ankle when wearing sleeves. You may find out that you simply prefer one over the other. However, wearing sleeves for racing allows runners to wear their favourite lucky racing socks. Plus, imagine having to stuff your hot, swelling feet into full socks in the transition from swim to bike or bike to run during a triathlon. It would be less tricky to pull on calf sleeves than socks. For minimalist lovers, sleeves will allow them to still wear Vibram Fivefingers. Injinji now actually makes toe compression socks in addition to a whole variety of toe running socks, so runners can wear their Vibrams and receive compression through the feet. Although there are different opinions on wearing compression sleeves for racing and recovery, it may be best to wear sleeves only during exercise so that blood does not pool in the feet during more static recovery.
Take note that there are specific brands and models of sleeves that are meant for post-workout recovery. For instance, CEP does not advise customers to use their calf sleeves for recovery because their compression grade increases blood flow during activity, but not during rest. Now they have made specific recovery socks, just like other companies such as 2XU.
When purchasing socks or sleeves, look for those with graduated compression. It is better than constant compression because there is decreasing compression from the ankle to the knee which makes it more effective. Look for sleeves or socks that have around 20 mmHg as their medical compression grade. Sometimes the compression grade may be listed as a range, ie. “15-20 mmHg”, which indicates that it is 15 mmHg at the calf and 20 mmHg at the ankle.
My Experience During Workouts:
I have unfortunate large muscles for the small anterior and posterior compartments in my lower legs, so when my calves are tighter than usual and they begin to tighten and swell, the socks can give quite a squeeze. At first, I thought that maybe I was just not well suited for compression socks. But I gave a few more tries and ended up liking it. I find that my calves adjust after 10 minutes or so, and then they don’t feel overly constricted and actually feel good! Usually I find that my calves (as well as the tibialis anterior muscles) feel well recovered and not overly fatigued or sore for workouts the following day.
I never considered wearing sleeves, but my friends had them and seemed to like them. So when they went up on sale, I thought, why not? When I first wore them on a run, contrary to everyone’s concern about the sleeves, I didn’t feel like my feet were pooling with blood or, on the other end of the spectrum, feeling numb. I was quite aware that my feet were not receiving the compression love, as there was quite a contrast in tightness between my calves and feet. However, I still felt the same benefits as wearing compression socks once I felt adjusted to them. Again, the day after wearing them, my lower legs feel ready for another challenge. Perhaps if you suffer from any feet pain such as plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendinopathy (tendonitis), it may be better to use socks to receive compression below the ankles as well. Note however, that different brands will have different sizing or comfort. I found that Zoot recovery socks don’t give enough compression in my small feet and through my arches. Currently, I’ve found performance 2XU socks to do pretty well.
After strenuous workouts or long runs, I try to make sure that I get my recovery specific socks on for at least a few hours if possible. I can secretly also feel a tad less guilty if I do not have the time to roll or stretch, and justify that I am putting in some effort for recovery and prehabilitation. I have not tried recovery specific sleeves before, so I can’t comment on them.
Whether you wear the socks during or after races and workouts, and they make you feel better and perform better, then no one is to say that they do not work for you. The bonus is that while you know people in their cars are staring at you as you cross the street, you can hold your head up high and jaunt effortlessly in epic, professional looking running gear. If you are looking for any advantage and have the budget, find and test out the brand and type of socks or sleeves that work best for you. My advice is that if your running performance is quite important and you have troubles with tightness below the knee, try it out. Wear them in a variety of workouts to determine how they feel for you and how it affects your running. Then you can decide whether you want to race in them or not. If you plan to race in compression gear, train like you race; wear your socks for key workouts to simulate race conditions. Ultimately within the current research, there is no definitive verdict as to whether compression socks truly boost your performance levels or not. But at the very least, these socks surely help with recovery and can help decrease muscle soreness.
Movéo sells Compressport full socks and sleeves.