Do Compression Socks Really Do More Than Just Warm Your Shins?

When it comes to winter running, it certainly pays to wrap up fairly warm to remain comfortable, otherwise it becomes very easy to give up and take a break until spring. And when you are considering what to wear on your legs, recent research has suggested that a pair of compression socks might be great for keeping your shins nice and toasty, but that they are fairly useless for anything else. This should be quite a shock for a number of runners, as sports compression socks have been hailed as our savior from shin splints, muscular fatigue and even calf injury. I can vouch for the relative ineffectiveness of compression calf guards on a personal basis, having worn them in the run up to a calf injury that left me sidelined since August this year. And I also have the personal accounts of others for whom the compression sock was the enemy of injury-free running. So, what is the reality and what is the advice now?

Compression Socks For Running


Los Angeles Marathon
(photo courtesy of JMR
Photography under Creative
Commons 2.0 Licence

The use of these socks for running is a relatively new development, as the traditional role was for sports recovery after exercise, rather than for compression during. Part of the rationale for wearing them was that they improve oxygenation of calf muscles which should increase performance. But according to coach and author Matt Fitzgerald, a French study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine casts doubt on this idea. The study involved a group of 14 runners who on two separate occasions were asked to undertake running tests. This test consisted of sitting for 15 minutes followed by 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise. After another 15 minute break to recover the subjects were then asked to run at their maximum aerobic capacity pace until exhaustion followed by 30 minutes of recovery. On one test day the 14 athletes wore compression socks, and the second time they wore regular running socks.

The results were fairly surprising. Firstly, no increases in performance were observed while wearing compression socks, and in some cases the performance was better in subjects when wearing regular socks, though these results were not statistically significant. It is worth also noting that a group of 14 athletes represents a very small sample size, and so the jury is out on the reality of the situation when considering the effectiveness of leg compression during active exercise.

The Good News For Running Compression Socks

There is some brighter news however. Measurements showed that oxygenation levels in the calf muscles did in fact increase by an average of 6.4% after a period of wearing these socks. Since improved oxygen supply to muscles has been shown to help with recovery after vigorous activity, there is still a widely accepted view that a pair of compression socks or calf guards is useful in the post-exercise period. The French researchers did not study this aspect in great detail and so more work is required to better understand it.

The other aspect to consider is the placebo effect. When I wear calf guards I always feel that my legs feel more secure – even if they are not any less prone to injury. How widespread this feeling is among other runners remains to be seen though, especially as a group of 14 in the French study disagreed with me and did better without them.

What are your views on compression socks and calf sleeves? Do you wear them? Do you run better with them or without? Let us know in the comments below.


Ironman

Neil (nickname Ironman) is an avid runner and sports fan, who writes about all things triathlon-related, especially running and cycling. He also writes about sports injuries and regaining fitness - mainly from personal experience rather than academic knowledge - although he does study that too!

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