November 21, 2017
Do Compression Socks Help Athletes?
Ask the Experts

Do Compression Socks Help Athletes?

by Jeanine Barone  

Q: Can wearing compression socks boost my running performance?

A: Not likely. Many runners, basketball players, and other athletes wear them, hoping the socks will boost their performance and reduce the risk of muscle soreness and injuries. These ultra-strong elastic socks, worn typically below the knee, are often recommended by doctors for people who have circulatory problems.

It has been proposed that compression socks could benefit athletes by pressing on muscles and veins in the ankles and legs, thus improving blood flow back to the heart and allowing it to pump more efficiently. The socks might also reduce side-to-side movement of calf muscles when, for example, runners’ feet hit the ground, thus reducing the risk of muscle damage.

However, this use of compression socks is supported primarily by anecdotes—for instance, by athletes who report that their legs feel less sore after wearing the socks. Studies on the subject have mostly been small and poorly designed (no control group, for instance). Few, if any, good studies have found significant benefits for exercise.

One study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2011, had 12 competitive runners do 10K runs wearing socks with low, medium, high, or no compression. The amount of compression did not affect performance times or heart rate, but the low- and medium-compression socks allowed for greater maintenance of maximum leg muscle power, compared to high or no compression. It’s unclear how this would help athletes.

Another study, in the Journal of Athletic Training in 2013, found that when recreational runners wore a compression sock on only one leg while running, that leg had less swelling after the run than the other leg. However, there were no differences in muscle fatigue or soreness, so the practical significance of this is also unclear.

Bottom line: There’s no reason to wear compression socks while exercising, unless you like the way they feel. If you do try them, avoid ones with high compression or those going above the knee. Anyone with leg swelling, circulatory problems, or a condition that decreases skin sensation, such as peripheral neuropathy, should talk with a health care provider before wearing compression socks.