Compression socks have been used in the healthcare industry for years to aid in circulation and recovery of bedridden patients, and now athletes wear them to aid in performance and recovery.
For runners, compression socks are designed to reduce inflammation, muscle soreness and fatigue that is often experienced post-run. The socks compress the veins on the surface of your leg, as well as arteries and muscles, so the blood that is circulated through your legs travels through smaller circulatory avenues. This helps blood return to the heart and muscles faster, so the logic is that this process speeds up recovery.
Some people swear by compression socks, while others say they don't notice any substantial benefits. Two years ago, my wife had a calf injury and plantar fasciitis at the same time, so she explored compression socks to aid in her recovery. They did seem to reduce the tightness, swelling and pain for her, and she still wears them, especially if she is feeling more tightness than usual in her troubled areas.
But do they work to enhance performance during your run? Well, so far, current research is all over the map and makes it difficult to determine whether or not compression socks make any difference in performance while you're racing. However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from runners to support this.
My wife, for example, found that compression socks reduced calf cramping while she's running. However, she also found that the compression socks increased the probability of her losing a toenail, so if you are prone to black toenails or toenail loss from running, the compression "sleeve" might be a better bet.
Runners can choose form a variety of compression clothing, including socks, sleeves that are worn on the calves or arms, or tights. Sleeves and tights work the same way to aid recovery as socks, and they also have the added benefit of helping regulate body temperature during colder races. Fortunately, the arm sleeves can easily be pulled down/off if the runner gets warmer as race conditions change.
Compression socks (and sleeves) are not cheap. Better-quality socks cost anywhere from $38-70. When buying your first pair, finding the proper size is important. Most specialty running stores will have a qualified staffer to help you with sizing, but if not, you can take the following measurements (in inches) to find your proper sock size:
1) Measure the smallest ankle diameter,
2) the largest calf diameter, and
3) the distance from the floor to the crease of the knee (you might need someone's assistance with this measurement).
For additional sizing recommendations, compressionsocks.pro is helpful.
With anything else, a race is not when you want to try compression socks for the first time, so instead you will want to try them during training runs. They might feel strange at first, and there is an adjustment period.
Gerard Pescatore is an RRCA Certified Running Coach and ABC Certified Pedorthist trained to fit runners with the proper shoes and manage comprehensive client foot care. A Glenside resident, his approach is "Innovative coaching laced with old school grit." In his spare time, Gerard works for New Balance.