Compression Socks for Sports Recovery

Runner with compression socks at the starting line of a race

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Compression socks have been around for quite some time. But it's only been in the past few years that athletes have added the tightly fitted knee-high socks to their bag of performance and recovery tricks.

Compression garments were designed primarily to help improve blood flow in post-surgical patients, people prone to swelling (edema), and those with diabetes, circulatory issues, phlebitis, varicose veins, and deep vein thrombosis (DVT). For these patients, compression helps blood return to the heart so it doesn't pool in the lower extremities and cause swelling. The compression also reduces the risk of blood clots.

Athletes started using compression socks in the hopes of gaining similar benefits in improved blood flow. At first, a few runners wore the tight stockings after workouts, and then during longer endurance runs. The anecdotal reports of faster recoveries, improved running performance, and decreased soreness while using compression socks started adding up. Soon, a long list of potential benefits of compression socks was emerging.

Compression Socks During Activity

Many athletes believe that wearing compression garments during exercise aids performance, increases oxygen delivery and blood flow, reduces jarring, vibration and stress to the muscles; and prevents soft tissue damage such as shin splints. Some athletes feel that compression around the calves and ankles helps proprioception and even improves balance.

Athletes also hope that improving venous blood flow, and adding calf muscle compression, will result in increased endurance, more efficient muscle firing, and faster running times. Some, but not all, of those beliefs have been supported by scientific research.

A few studies have reported improved running times during ultra-endurance events in some athletes. But the bulk of the research hasn't found dramatic benefits in the use of compression socks to improve sports performance, race times, or endurance.

So far, the benefit of wearing compression socks during exercise is unclear, but some athletes are convinced the socks work for them.

Compression Socks for Recovery

A growing number of studies suggest that the post-exercise use of compression socks may speed recovery and reduce muscle soreness after a strenuous workout. Some studies also support the theory that wearing compression socks during intense endurance runs, plyometrics, or sprint training may also reduce post-exercise soreness.

Keep in mind that accurately measuring soreness is tricky. Rating the level of soreness an athlete experiences after training is subjective and hard to quantify.

There's also the very real placebo effect that some athletes may experience while wearing compression clothing. The psychological boost and the belief that the clothing can improve recovery, along with the sensation of compression, may have a greater effect on an athlete's perception of soreness. And as any athlete knows, what we believe can have a very real impact on our performance.

Get the Right Fit

When buying compression socks, you'll need to know your calf and ankle circumference, not your shoe size. Most brands on the market offer a similar fit, but follow the manufacturer's instructions and use the size recommended for your calf measurement to get the appropriate level of compression.

Current studies indicate that compression of about 15-30 mmHg of pressure is ideal. It should be graduated (a bit more pressure on the ankle and less as you move up the leg). 

Too much compression can decrease blood flow, and too little compression offers little benefit, so getting it just right is important.

A Word From Verywell

Experts and athletes alike suggest that athletes may get a slight boost in mechanical efficiency when wearing compression socks for long, tough endurance events. More likely, compression garments may provide another tool for aiding recovery during the 24-hour period following a hard workout or competition. The best way to discover if the socks work for you is to experiment with them yourself.

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  2. Clarke MJ, Broderick C, Hopewell S, Juszczak E, Eisinga A. Compression stockings for preventing deep vein thrombosis in airline passengers. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016;9:CD004002. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004002.pub3

  3. Beliard S, Chauveau M, Moscatiello T, Cros F, Ecarnot F, Becker F. Compression garments and exercise: No influence of pressure applied. J Sports Sci Med. 2015;14(1):75-83.

  4. Mota GR, Simim MAM, Dos Santos IA, Sasaki JE, Marocolo M. Effects of wearing compression stockings on exercise performance and associated indicators: A systematic review. Open Access J Sports Med. 2020;11:29-42. doi:10.2147/OAJSM.S198809

  5. Kim J, Kim J, Lee J. Effect of compression garments on delayed-onset muscle soreness and blood inflammatory markers after eccentric exercise: A randomized controlled trial. J Exerc Rehabil. 2017;13(5):541-545. doi:10.12965/jer.1735088.554

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