Compression gear has been used in the medical field to treat symptoms relating to vein disorders, edema (swelling) and diabetes, for over 50 years. Now, like many other products, compression socks have made the transition to the running world.
The theory behind these knee-high calf-hugging garments looks something like this; the improvement of oxygen delivery to the muscles, results in stabilizing the lower leg for greater muscle efficiency due to the increased speed of lactic acid removal. In other words, because the muscles are kept more compact, the use of these socks may enhance venous return to the heart, resulting in minimized fatigue during a brutal race. However, a recent study has shown that the use of compression socks during a race provides little benefit to the runner. Nonetheless, compression gear has shown to accelerate the critical phase of recovery.
Ryan Heal, manager of a Portland Running Company and current distance runner, says the compression socks notably expedite the repair process. “I have had some shin problems and found it helpful in my recovery from them.” Heal said. “When I was just getting back into running after a layoff due to a stress reaction in my left shin last winter, I felt more comfortable with a sock or sleeve around my left calf, during and between runs.”
Studies this year have shown that full leg compression sleeves are effective in reducing muscles soreness following sprints and plyometric training. The fact that accelerated recovery is directly linked to better performance, should be considered when deciding whether or not to wear the sock or sleeve during a race.
Although compression gear shows little physiological benefits, the psychology of compression is something to think about. Research has shown that athletes’ psychological reactions differ while wearing the gear. Individuals with favorable perceptions experienced a slight drop in oxygen intake, resulting in an improvement in running economy. Heal, a 7-time marathon finisher, believes there is a psychological benefit behind this snug fitting garments. “I think having a tight fitting garment on enhances proprioception. You're more aware of where that compressed body part is and what it is doing.” Heal went on to say that the athlete’s improved awareness may get them thinking about form and less about an injured shin or calf.
Along with most, Heal believes recovery is crucial in a runner’s routine and discussed how compression gear can contribute psychologically. “Wearing a compression sleeve or sock is a little like having a bandage on. It makes you think that the bandaged limb or place on your body is healing. Whether it's actually healing faster, I don't know. But you feel like it is.” Heal said. “And when it comes time to take that next run, maybe it feels recovered to you.”
Psychological or physiological benefits aside, the use of compression gear causes no harm and if an athlete believes in it, why not use it?
Compression socks range from $40 to $86 and can be purchased at any specialty running store including the Portland Running Company where we reviewed the product. Located in SE Portland on Grand, Beaverton on Scholls Ferry Road, and West Linn on Willamette Drive.