Claim: Compression socks, or tight knee-high socks designed to promote circulation and fluid movement, can help athletes perform better and recover quickly.
Reality: Some studies show they can improve performance, but other trials show no effect. And don’t believe claims that compression yoga pants or shirts will help you burn extra calories, though the material may be heavier and make you sweat more.
Sage Rountree wrote in “The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery.” (Here's my recent Q & A with Sage on 'athletic rest.')
New Zealand researchers, for example, showed that athletes wearing knee-high compression socks while running experienced less soreness than the control group, which did not wear the socks during the workout. Another study conducted on basketball players measured the effects of compression tights 48 hours after plyometric exercises; those wearing the tights reported less pain.
Compression socks are all the rage among endurance athletes, who offer plenty of anecdotal supporting evidence.
Sarah Bowen Shea, who reviewed compression socks for Runner’s World magazine, has raced in the socks and said she didn’t notice a big difference in her performance. But she is a big believer in them for recovery.
Some of her Runner’s World testers said the socks helped reduce the pain of shin splints.
“They seem to reduce post-workout soreness, which means you can tackle another hard workout sooner,” said Bowen Shea, who co-authored “Run Like a Mother" with Dimity McDowell. “I suffer from chronic tightness and pain in my left Achilles tendon, and I find they diminish that pain.”
Though there’s no agreement on how long to wear the socks, some suggest wearing them for twice as long as the workout you’re recovering from. “Thus a 90-minute run could be followed by a three-hour stint in the socks, and you might sleep in your recovery socks or tights following a four- or five-hour ride,” Rountree wrote.
The bottom line for Rountree is that socks are useful for recovery and travel. So if you enjoy wearing them, do. “During the workout, they might help reduce vibration and thus trauma in the muscles of the lower legs,” she said. “After (the race), they discourage swelling,” said Rountree, who took two pairs of the socks to this weekend’s Big Sur marathon, one for after the race and one for the flight home.
“Reconsider, however, whether they are worth wearing in a race,” Rountree said. “The socks, which are tight on the bottom but looser at the top, are tough to put on when your skin is dry and even tougher with wet hands. In a triathlon, the amount of time it takes to don them after the swim might not be worth any potential speed gained by wearing them,” she said.