Compression socks and other gear can improve circulation and boost performance.

Compression Gear for Runners: Get the Edge

Compression stockings have been used for many years in medicine to control swelling, improve circulation, and prevent blood clots. But today there is a new use for compression socks and sleeves – they have become very popular in running. Many athletes claim that compression gear improves performance while reducing soreness from activity. But is there science behind these claims? Let’s look at the evidence.

Compression Gear 101

Compression socks are made of elastic fabric constructed to exert gentle pressure on the legs to promote circulation. True compression gear for runners applies pressure that gradually decreases from the foot and ankle to the calf, theoretically improving blood circulation back to the heart. There are also compression tights and pants that compress from foot to hip. For runners, compression stockings are designed to improve circulation, claiming improved performance and recovery.

How to Choose Compression Gear

Compression wear varies by fit, levels of compression, and design, from simple sleeves that cover the calf to socks that cover the foot and extend to the knee or higher. There are many brands of compression gear, varying in quality and consistency of compression. The best gear will have pressure ranges that approximate medical-grade products. Sleeves vary by size, length, material, fit, comfort, and level of compression. Start with low-compression stockings. Gather information from reviews and testimonials from fellow runners, and discuss with a sports medicine specialist or your physical therapist.

The Benefits of Compression Gear

Studies have shown that compression gear can improve oxygen delivery to muscles, and theoretically may improve circulation. This could lead to more efficient removal of soreness-inducing waste products like lactic acid. When stockings are used during and after exercise, they have been shown to improve recovery. Compression gear helps raise the temperature where they are worn, which can assist in the warm-up process and protect your legs in cold weather. Research also suggests that compression gear gives some runners a psychological edge. However, compression gear will not improve your running form, and has not been shown to significantly improve run economy, efficiency, or overall performance.

The Downsides of Compression Gear

Since compression gear is designed to increase pressure in the legs, people with leg pains like shin splints may find that symptoms worsen. Also, the quality of compression gear varies, and some brands may improperly compress legs in a way that causes swelling in the feet and ankles.

Who Should Try Compression Gear

If you are looking for an edge to help your performance and/or recovery, you can consider trying compression stockings and see if you notice improvement. Make sure to try your new gear on short runs first for a few weeks and see how your body responds. It’s best to ask your doctor whether you have medical issues that should prevent you from using compression gear.

Melanie Haiken writes about health, wellness and fitness for national magazines and websites. She specializes in discovering and reporting the latest research on diet, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and other health-related topics. Her award-winning stories have appeared in Fitness, Shape, Health, Forbes, and other respected magazines. She also contributes health stories to numerous Kaiser Permanente newsletters and other publications.