Compression garments are used to improve athletic performance and decrease recovery time between workouts. One garment becoming increasingly popular amongst athletes — particularly runners — is compression socks.
If you recently ran a 5K or watched the Boston Marathon on television, you may have noticed amateur and professional runners alike wearing compression socks. Advocates claim compression socks help improve blood circulation, reduce swelling and muscle soreness, and increase endurance levels.
If you're interested in incorporating compression socks in your training and recovery process, keep reading. Below, we'll discuss how compression gear works and the various health benefits of compression socks as backed by science.
Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If you suffer from damaged circulation or chronic muscle soreness, please consult a physical therapist about whether compression socks might be right for you.
What Are Compression Socks?
At first glance, compression socks look like regular, knee-high socks. Made of stretchy material (like spandex), they extend from your foot to the bottom of your knee, applying pressure to your Achilles and calf muscle.
In simplest terms, compression socks help athletes perform at their best. They improve circulation, limit lactic acid buildup, and prevent muscle soreness.
Athletes choose to wear compression socks when they exercise to improve performance or after their workout as a recovery technique. Advocates of compression socks say it improves blood flow from the heart to other muscle groups, which can reduce fatigue and soreness following exercise.
How Do Compression Socks Work?
Compression socks work by putting pressure on your lower legs, allowing blood to flow more freely. This allows blood to travel from your heart to your muscles more easily, which can prevent injuries and soreness, slow the onset of swelling or inflammation, and even decrease your risk of blood clots.
Compression socks, like all kinds of compression apparel, use extremely tight clothing to stabilize, compress, and support muscle tissue. Compression apparel began as a physical therapy technique (called compression therapy) but has since been used by athletes to improve athletic performance.
Compression therapy is nothing new. According to the NIH, compression therapy was used as early as 1440 to cure varicose veins. Since then, medical-grade compression stockings have been used to heal scars, enhance motor skills, and improve blood circulation (similar to muscle flossing).
The Health Benefits of Compression Socks
Compression garments have been used by physical therapists and athletes for years. Compressional apparel is said to decrease the possibility of injury, speed up recovery, and improve endurance performance.
Here are several of the benefits of compression socks as shown by science:
1. They Can Improve Your Endurance
Compression socks are extremely popular among runners for injury prevention, recovery, and performance. However, in one study conducted by the NIH, compression socks did not help improve running times from the 400-meter sprint all the way to half marathon distances.
With that being said, here's what they did find: Runners who wore compression socks showed reduced muscle pain, damage, and inflammation as well as a lower muscle temperature. This helped them improve their endurance.
In other words, compression socks won’t make you run faster in a race. They might, however, help you train for longer distances and decrease your recovery time.
2. They Can Prevent Muscle Soreness
While many athletes choose to wear compression gear during competition and training, science shows these garments can also be an effective recovery technique.
In one study conducted by the NIH, compression garments were shown to lower muscle fatigue and soreness. This helped athletes recover from workouts faster — particularly within the 48-hour window following a tough workout.
3. They Can Reduce Impact
It's no question that compression socks have become increasingly popular with runners and other endurance athletes. One study conducted by the NIH offers a viable explanation: Wearing compression socks can reduce the impact on your bones and joints when pounding the pavement.
Running can be extremely taxing on the body — particularly if you run on paved streets and sidewalks. However, the study showed wearing compression sleeves on calf muscles while running reduced soft tissue vibrations (i.e. the impact of your heel striking the ground).
4. They Can Improve Blood Flow
In a research review conducted by the NIH, scientists concluded wearing compression stockings helped patients with chronic venous insufficiency (a condition in which veins do not work properly, which makes it difficult for blood to travel from the heart and legs).
Compression socks were shown to treat a number of related medical conditions, including deep vein thrombosis, leg ulcers, lymphedema (chronic arm and leg swelling), and other circulation problems.
How to Incorporate Compression Gear Into Your Training
Whether it's a compression sleeve, socks, tights, or a long-sleeved shirt, all compression gear works in a similar way. It compresses your muscles, allowing blood vessels to easily transport blood from your heart to your muscles.
You can use compression gear in one of two ways:
1. For Training
From runners and triathletes to weekend warriors who love HIIT workouts, many athletes wear compression gear during training. Not only is compression gear lightweight, comfortable, and reduces the friction between limbs, but it's been shown to improve circulation. This speeds up recovery post-exercise.
Note: Compression gear improves circulation for the muscles it covers. In other words, if you have knee pain, you will especially want to wear a compression knee sleeve. If you suffer from tendonitis in your elbow or are doing an upper body workout, you will want to use a long sleeve compression shirt. Lastly, if you're running around the block, compression socks will help improve circulation in your lower legs.
Remember — like many recovery techniques, wearing compression gear will benefit your body even if you’re not suffering from a chronic injury. All too often, athletes wait until their bodies break down to do recovery work. However, preventative work — like foam rolling, wearing compression gear, and stretching — can prevent you from getting injured in the first place.
2. For Recovery
If you find compression gear too restrictive, here's a piece of good news: You can wear compression gear post-exercise and still enjoy the various benefits.
To help decrease your recovery time and jump back into your next workout, wear compression gear after your exercises. This will help improve blood flow, decrease swelling, and decrease pain related to muscle soreness.
Personally, I like to use compression gear for both workouts and recovery practices. I prefer the way compression gear feels during exercise, as it allows me to move more freely and easily compared to other, loser clothing. Plus, I tend to recover faster when I wear it during my workouts. In addition, I find wearing compression gear is a zero-effort approach to recover post-workout.
Finally, compression gear may offer an extra layer of protection during exercise, particularly during obstacle races. I leveraged the benefits of compression gear during Spartan and Legion races, where you have to climb ropes, climb barriers, and overcome other obstacles. Compression gear tends to be very robust, and protects your skin from rashes.
The Benefits of Compression Socks Extend to Training and Recovery
Compression socks are popular throughout the medical field and within fitness communities. While compression socks were originally invented to treat varicose veins, they're now used to treat a number of medical conditions related to poor circulation, including ulcers and lymphedema.
Recently, athletes started using compression socks to help them recover from their workouts. Science shows compression socks decrease muscle swelling, improve endurance performance, decrease recovery times, and even decrease the impact caused by running.
You can incorporate compression gear into your training by wearing it during or after exercise. Both tactics can help prevent injuries, decrease pain and inflammation, and improve your recovery times.
If you're interested in trying compression gear for workouts, I recommend starting with the Elastic and Comfortable Rash Guard from 4legsfitness.com. Made from polyester and spandex, the fitted design can be worn during or after training sessions. Try wearing it during your upper body workouts to feel the impact it makes in reducing fatigue and muscle soreness.
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