Should you wear compression socks while running?

Lately I’ve been getting tons of questions about running and compression socks from my clients. So instead of writing my answer time and time again I’ve decided to write a blog post about it. And the most common one is:

Should I wear compression socks while running? You should wear compression socks while running. Studies shows that compression socks only slightly improve running performance, however they significantly improves the post-recovery time and muscle oscillation while decrease muscle fatigue and soreness.

Many runners decide to use compression socks on a regular basis because of the mentioned benefits. There’s actually a lot to consider when choosing your compression socks depending on many factors like your training type, time and volume.

Why should I use compression socks while running?

20-years ago you wounding hear that anybody is using any sort of compression gadgets. But time have changed. Wearing compression gear in many amateur and professional sports has become more and more popular. Back in a day they were developed mainly to treat deep-vein thrombosis and other lower leg circulation problems.

Today, they are commonly used by runners, soccer players, triathletes and cyclists. They are also used for travel and prolonged standing jobs. Naturally, with high demand, there was also a large spike in scientific research done around compression garments and their impact on performance and recovery.

So let’s see why you should wear compression socks.

There are several reasons why to use compression socks while running.

  • Improved venous return, which means your muscles are recovering faster by eliminating the metabolic waste (done from exercise) more effective.

Think about it thins way. Pressure (from compression) and resistance (from exercise) determine blood flow rate. So by wearing compression socks you improve flow of blood from the periphery (outside of the heart) back to the right atrium (inside of your heart). It doesn’t mean more is better!

  • Prevent from DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), which is the discomfort and pain that you have after doing abnormal (new or prolonged) exercise.

Ugh. Everybody hates DOMS. They can last even for few days. Typical signs and/or symptoms begin between 6 to 12 hours after initial exercise, then increase gradually until they reach a peak “pain”, which is around 48 to 72 hours. After peak, they slowly reduce and start to disappear, which takes around 5 to 7 days. So regular use of properly fitted compression socks can help you reduce this problem.

  • Below-knee compression socks improve proprioception of the knee.

In other words, it helps to stabilise your knee joint in motion (during running). Compression socks creates intra muscular pressure. Which is what gives you thats stability and support. On the other hand, people with poor proprioception (aka knee stability) are in high risk of ACL injury. 

  • Improves oxygenation of the muscles.

Wearing compression socks during and after exercise increases tissue oxygen “saturation” or “congestion” by increase of pressure, which means better delivery of oxygen to the muscles. With more oxygen you have less lactic acid build up in your legs.

  • Improves muscular endurance.

Wearing compression socks during running time improve muscular endurance, that’s because of better running economy, muscle temperature and reduced muscle inflammation. Think about compression stocking as of burrito wrap. So apart from creating compression, it also provides extra layer of “clothing” which leads to increased muscle temperature, which then leads to improved endurance.

  • Improves lymphatic drainage.

Think about your drainage system in your house. It is there to eliminate all the waste. Well, in your body you have something similar. It’s called lymphatic system. Graduated compression socks improves lymphatic system, blood circulation and eliminate build-up of fluid and swelling from the limbs area.

Related article: How Do Compression Socks Work For Swelling?

How to choose compression socks for running?

Today there are over a hundred different types of compression socks that are currently commercially available and they all vary in some shape or form. However, when it comes to choosing best one for running, there are three most common ones:

  • Ankle socks

From the surface, these just look like a regular socks, but they have much better compression, especially around the ankle joint. The are more designed to stabilise, support and stimulate pressure around your foot and ankle. They are light, easy to use, but they don’t necessary provide you will all the benefits as they don’t cover the calf.

  • Knee-high (below-knee)

This are full length compression socks. They give you pressure around you calf as well as with your ankle. Therefore you can use them during and after exercise for extended period of time. Personally I find those great for traveling swell. They are a bit more complicated to put on.

  • Calf sleeve

Calf sleeve compression socks cover you from above the ankle up to knee level. They are easy to put on and provide pressure only around your calf area. They are great for running but they don’t give you compression around ankle, therefore you shouldn’t wear them after exercise(not to be worn while travel either).

How to choose the size of compression socks?

There are couple steps to properly size your compression socks.

First let’s start from describing different levels of pressure. This is very important because it will impact your comfort. Here you may find main 4 levels that are currently available.

Compression GradeCompression Level
Less than 15 mmHg:Light compression.
15 to 20 mmHgMedium compression.
20 to 30 mmHgModerate compression.
30+ mmHgHighest pressure.

Please remember that the overall pressure is affected by things like elasticity, stiffness of fabric and the size and shape of the legs (we will cover that next).

Another aspect is pressure level at different parts of the leg. Full length knee-high compression socks, that are available for commercial use (e.g. running shops) have pressure grade at the ankle of 30–40 mmHg and at the calf of 21–28 mmHg.

Second step is the actual size. Just to let you know there is no one size fits all. Each company or manufacturer have their own sizing methods and systems.

Here is the example from one company for knee-high and calf sleeves compression socks. Depending on your gender and calf circumference there is a number (level) that reflect size.

Calf circumference INCH
12.5 – 15

Fitting process is relatively simple. All you need is a tape to measure your calf circumference. You want to make sure that you can fit your compression socks so that they do not cause you any discomfort.

For example, if your calf circumference is 15-inches and you choose compression that fits to 12-inch (which is too small), then you may feel that your legs feel heavy and cause you some pain. On the other side, if your calf circumference is 12-inch, and you put on 16-inch socks, then you won’t get enough pressure.

Remember that higher compression doesn’t always mean better results (at least for running). In one study, they compare runners wearing compression socks from middle grade (middle pressure) to high grade (high pressure).

Interestingly enough, there was no difference in performance between two, but athletes with middle pressure resulted with better leg power after exercise and rated them as most comfortable garments to wear during exercise.

In other words, when you choosing compression socks for running, it’s more about your comfort that anything else here.

On the other hand, study made on individuals who where sitting for all day showed that not only higher compression was better (20–30 mmHg) but it also improved as the days go by.

In other words, the more often you use it, the better the results. Cool.

Related questions

What are medical compression socks used for?

Medical compression socks (stockings) have different use comparing to commercial stockings. Medical socks are designed to treat or prevent from medical issues and they usually must be prescribed by doctor. They also are manufactured under strict conditions and technical specifications.

What are commercial compression socks used for?

Commercial socks are used to provide pain relief for tired and heavy legs, for sports and for travel. Plus, they do not need to meet so strict technical requirements.

Are there any contraindications for compression socks?

The compression socks are usually safe to use. Poorly fitted stocks can create discomfort. However, if you have some serious circulation problems it’s better to consult that with your doctor. Also if you have an allergy to socks material.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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