Compression Socks for Athletes: When to Wear Them and How Can They Help?

Compression Socks for Athletes: When to Wear Them and How Can They Help?

In recent years, compression technology has been gaining traction throughout the world of professional sports. As more and more competitors hope to gain an edge, medical journals have published compelling studies that outline the health benefits of compression gear. Having seen professional athletes wearing compression garments, you may want to know more about what kinds of compression clothing exist and how compression actually works. In this article, we'll review some of the most interesting scientific research on athletic compression. We'll also look at how compression socks compare to other athletic compression garments, such as arm sleeves and shorts. Lastly, we'll discuss the optimal compression level for athletic performance. 

Scientific Research About Compression in Sports 

Many studies have shown that high blood lactate levels correspond to poor athletic performance. Lactic acid and other waste materials can build up in the blood after a strenuous workout, causing discomfort and reduced athletic capacity. Anything that lowers blood lactate levels should therefore enhance subsequent athletic performance. In a 1987 study published in the American Journal of Physical Medicine, M. J. Berry and R.G. McMurray set out to learn whether wearing compression garments after a workout could lower blood lactate levels. Their experiment showed significant differences in blood lactate levels for the group that wore compression stockings during treadmill and bicycle exercise and recovery, compared to groups without any compression or compression during exercise only. The authors explain, "Results of both experiments [treadmill and cycling] showed recovery lactate values to be lower with the use of GCS [graduated compression stockings]" (Abstract). This study suggests that wearing compression socks and stockings may help clear lactic acid after a workout.

In addition to clearing lactic acid, compression garments may help aid injury prevention. Specifically, compression socks have been anecdotally reported as a good way to reduce blisters and shin splints. In 2013, a team of doctors in the Netherlands set out to learn more about the impact of compression stockings on runners. In a study in the Journal of Athletic Training, they reported that the use of graduated compression socks significantly reduced lower leg volume in participants after running exercise. Although a questionnaire that asked about blisters and shin splints did not yield any conclusive results, the reduction in leg swelling may help explain why runners who wear compression socks have claimed that they're less prone to injury. One can imagine that, as the foot swells, the running shoe may rub against the skin, causing blisters. Similarly, the added water weight in a swollen lower leg may cause a runner to misstep or experience poor running form, leading to shin splints. In a 2010 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers reported that athletes felt more comfortable when wearing graduated compression garments while running (Ali Abstract). A review of the existing literature, published in Sports Medicine, also showed small positive effects on running economy with the use of compression gear (Engel Abstract). This evidence reinforces the idea that compression socks prevent heavy, swollen legs, possibly leading to better form and fewer injuries.

There is strong scientific data to show that compression garments reduce muscle soreness after a workout, resulting in faster recovery times. In a 2001 study of healthy, non-strength-trained men who wore compression sleeves immediately after arm exercise, researchers concluded that compression "prevented loss of elbow extension, decreased subjects’ perception of soreness, reduced swelling, and promoted recovery of force production." (Kraemer Results) A study of lower limb compression for young, active females yielded similar results. (Jakeman) In 2015, The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research published a report by a group of researchers from New Zealand and Australia. They set up an experiment to test the functional recovery of athletes who wore compression socks after a marathon. Before a marathon, and then fourteen days after a marathon, they gave participants a timed treadmill test to exhaustion. The researchers increased the speed and incline at regular intervals. The results showed a significant improvement in the group that wore compression socks during the 48 hours after the marathon. The compression sock group increased their original time by 2.6%, but the placebo group reached exhaustion 3.4% earlier than they had before the marathon. (Armstrong) Together, these studies reinforce the idea that athletes are less sore and recover functional strength faster when they wear compression garments. 

Beyond reducing blood lactate levels, edema, and muscle soreness, compression garments have many other proven health effects. Compression socks and stockings have been shown to prevent blood clots and deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in a variety of settings, including on long-haul flights (Clarke) and after surgery (Sachdeva). They work by reducing the circumference of the veins, which increases the velocity of blood flow. By improving venous return to the heart, compression socks eliminate stagnant blood. Good blood circulation prevents varicose veins and blood clots from forming. An article from Harvard Health Publishing explains that doctors often prescribe compression socks to boost vascular health: "They're used to treat venous disease, heart failure, even deep-vein thrombosis." While you might assume that working out protects you from circulatory problems, doctors Kevin Tao and Moira Davenport provide evidence to the contrary. In a case report of a young, female athlete, they explain, "Demanding athletic events can contribute multiple risk factors to the development of deep venous thrombosis (DVT) in athletes." (Abstract) Since athletes can be vulnerable to circulatory health conditions, just like everyone else, compression can offer preventative health support.

With all the benefits of compression socks, it's no wonder they've caught on with professional athletes.

Types of Athletic Compression Gear 

There are many products on the market designed to offer compression for athletes. From sleeves to unitards, here's a brief explanation of the clothing you can find. 

Compression Sleeves 

Arm sleeves are generally used for the treatment of lymphedema; however, arm sleeves can also be used to reduce muscle soreness after an arm workout. (Kraemer Results) Leg sleeves look like compression socks without the foot. They are unlikely to prevent swelling in the foot and ankle, but they offer some of the same features as compression socks and stockings.

Check out this article from VeryWell Fit about the best compression sleeves on the market. 

Compression Tights 

Compression tights, also known as compression leggings, are sold in a variety of different lengths. They're often worn underneath regular workout shorts to improve recovery and reduce muscle soreness. 

If you’re looking for compression tights, Runner’s World listed their top picks for both men and women in this article

Compression Shorts 

Compression shorts are similar to tights, but they're designed to give athletes the option to wear them alone without an additional layer of shorts. 

Check out the top men’s compression shorts, according to Men’s Health.

Compression Shirts and Unitards 

Shirts and unitards manufacturers claim they improve athletic posture. Few studies have examined the use of chest and abdominal compression to improve athletic performance. That said, many athletes have described qualitative benefits from exercising with compression shirts and unitards. 

Here are the top compression shirts for men, recommended by Men’s Health.

Graduated Compression Socks 

Graduated compression knee-high socks and stockings offer variable pressure, with less pressure at the calf and more pressure at the ankle. Compression stockings, socks, and sleeves can all be manufactured in graduated styles, with more pressure at the lower leg and less pressure at the top of the leg. Since they're tightest at the ankle and loosest at the calf muscle, they push deoxygenated blood and waste fluid up the leg. By assisting the veins as they work against gravity, graduated compression garments do more to improve blood flow and limit stagnation than uniform compression garments. Graduated compression styles can be worn for a variety of sporting events, and our best-selling Companions make great running socks. 

Tools of Men shares their picks for the top men’s compression socks here, but women can also benefit from these unisex socks.

Targeted Compression Socks 

Sports compression socks come in many shapes and sizes. If you prefer a crew sock or ankle-length style, targeted compression can keep your feet from swelling. When your feet don't retain fluid, your running shoes always fit well, and you may experience fewer blisters and shin splints as a result. When designing our ankle socks, we included high-tech, antimicrobial materials and comfortable features. You'll love the thin, moisture wicking fabric and the hand-linked, seamless toe cap. Give Allies a try, especially if you're looking for a compression sock with a lower profile. 

Check out this list from Golf Digest, which includes their favorite athletic compression socks of varying lengths. 

Size and Compression Levels

The studies cited in this article cover a large range of compression levels, ranging from 12 mmHg at the lowest to 40 mmHg at the highest. Our most popular pair of compression socks offers mild-to-medium compression, measuring 15-25 millimeters of mercury (mmHg). That's a great strength to give you both medical benefits and optimal comfort. When selecting a compression level for your workout, we suggest you consider the fabric and the compression level. You'll need to balance the health benefits of stronger compression with the ideal comfort level to allow you freedom of movement for your favorite workout. With our risk-free 30 day return policy, you can try Companions, which give you 15-25 mmHg. 

For more information about sizing, take a look at our handy size chart. When you pick out a knee-length sock, you'll need to know your shoe size and calf width. For an ankle sock, you only need to provide your shoe size. Athletes can also try a mixed 4-pack with ankle-length Allies and knee-length Companions. 

With a variety of compression socks in your drawer, you'll always be prepared for your next workout. 

Sources: 

Ali, A., Creasy, R.H. & Edge, J.A. "Physiological effects of wearing graduated compression stockings during running." Eur J Appl Physiol, vol. 109, 2010, pp. 1017–1025, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00421-010-1447-1.

Armstrong, Stuart A., Till, Eloise S., Maloney, Stephen, & Harris, Gregory A. "Compression Socks and Functional Recovery Following Marathon Running," The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, Vol. 29, Iss. 2, 2015, pp. 528-533, https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2015/02000/Compression_Socks_and_Functional_Recovery.30.aspx.

Berry M.J., McMurray R.G. "Effects of graduated compression stockings on blood lactate following an exhaustive bout of exercise." American Journal of Physical Medicine, Vol. 66, Iss. 3, 1987, pp. 121-132, https://europepmc.org/article/med/3605315.

“Boosting circulation with compression stockings.” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, Nov 2013, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/boosting-circulation-with-compression-stockings.

Clarke  MJ, Broderick  C, Hopewell  S, Juszczak  E, Eisinga  A. "Compression stockings for preventing deep vein thrombosis in airline passengers." Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Iss. 9, 2016, https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD004002.pub3/abstract.

Engel F.A., Holmberg H.C., Sperlich B. "Is There Evidence that Runners can Benefit from Wearing Compression Clothing?" Sports Med, vol. 46, iss. 12, 2016, pp. 939-952, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301581402_Is_There_Evidence_that_Runners_can_Benefit_from_Wearing_Compression_Clothing.

Jakeman, J.R., Byrne, C. & Eston, R.G. "Lower limb compression garment improves recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage in young, active females." Eur J Appl Physiol,  Vol. 109, 2010, pp. 1137–1144, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-010-1464-0.

Kraemer, W.J., et al. "Continuous compression as an effective therapeutic intervention in treating eccentric-exercise-induced muscle soreness." Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, vol. 10, no. 1, 2001, pp. 11-23, https://doi.org/10.1123/jsr.10.1.11.

Sachdeva, Ashwin. “Graduated compression stockings for prevention of deep vein thrombosis during a hospital stay,” Cochrane Vascular Group, Nov 3, 2018, https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD001484.pub4/abstract.

Tao, Kevin, and Moira Davenport. “Deep venous thromboembolism in a triathlete.” The Journal of Emergency Medicine, Vol. 38, Iss. 3, 2010, pp. 351-353, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19128915/.