Benefits of compression socks for runners

You’ve been running for years, but lately your legs feel heavier. The veins in your calves suddenly burst and your legs contract after each run. If your legs are constantly cramping or you’re looking for a more efficient way to recover from long runs, the answer to your prayers might be compression socks. Runners often rely on them to get them across a long distance, and nurses and others rely on them to get through a long shift standing at work.

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Some compression socks are designed specifically to be worn for long runs, while others help speed up the recovery process after covering a substantial number of miles.

Running for long periods of time causes swelling. This swelling is natural and is not a cause for concern in most cases. If the swelling becomes uncomfortable, a few ways to deal with the problem include cold showers, ice packs, Epsom salt baths, or wearing compression socks after long runs.

What are compression socks used for?

Some runners and athletes swear by compression socks, but how reliable are they? Are these socks scientifically proven to improve your running recovery game, or is it just a placebo effect?

Compression socks are designed to do exactly what they describe: compressing the blood vessels in your lower legs so that your blood and other fluids don’t pool in the lower half of your body. Compression socks apply pressure to your lower legs, which helps maintain blood circulation and reduce discomfort and swelling. The compression is tightest around your ankle, and then it eases as the socks move higher on your leg.

Compression socks put constant pressure on the legs to prevent fluid build-up. Compression helps blood flow, allowing more oxygen to reach your tissues. Socks create positive pressure that forces your blood to move away from your legs and up to your heart.

Another benefit of compression socks is the production of lactic acid after long or short runs. Every time you exercise, the body produces lactic acid. Lactic acid is waste, and the longer it stays in the muscles, the greater the risk of pain the next day. Wearing compression socks during and after the race can reduce or avoid muscle soreness.

Finding the right size of compression socks

Lower section of a man wearing running shorts and compression socks.
Triitalian’s “Compression Socks Everywhere This Year” is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Before you buy the best compression socks to aid in recovery, remember that size is crucial. To ensure a good fit, try on several pairs in store. Trying on socks is difficult if you’re ordering online, so check out a size chart and buy a few different sizes.

To find the right size compression sock, measure the circumference of the fullest part of your calf and the smallest part of your ankle. Measure your feet to get an accurate shoe size, and if you’re in between sizes, opt for larger size compression socks.

Make sure you pay special attention to the compression ratios. Compression levels are measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and occur in the following levels.

  • Less than 15 mmHg: These lightweight compression socks are designed to provide relief from running or standing for long periods of time. These socks should be enough for most runners.
  • 15 to 20 mmHg: These socks provide a bit more pressure and will benefit runners after marathons or ultrarunners.
  • 20 to 30 mmHg and more: Usually prescribed by a doctor, these medical grade compression socks are used for varicose veins problems or worn after surgery to help increase circulation.

Do runner compression socks work?

For runners, compression socks provide relief from muscle aches and sore feet. Studies show that compression socks can help reduce muscle damage and inflammation, especially after marathons and ultramarathons.

A 2015 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that wearing compression socks for 48 hours after a marathon improved performance by 2.6% two weeks after the race.

A few other reasons a runner might adopt compression socks as part of their regular running routine:

  • Compression socks keep your legs warm on cold running days. Socks are beneficial for runners who forgo pants and prefer to wear shorts in all seasons.
  • Compression socks add a layer of protection during test runs and protect your legs from cuts, scratches, dirt and poison ivy on the trails.

While studies show that compression socks are helpful for recovery, there are currently no studies that conclude that wearing compression socks while running is beneficial for performance.

Wearing compression socks during a run or run can help a runner feel better and make them believe they are running better. If so, wear compression socks during the activity. Just make sure you’re wearing the right kind of compression socks.

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Richard V. Johnson