Training Tips

Compression Socks

Trends come and go with running just like many other sports. It is always difficult to know which are trends and which truly offer a great benefit. One such trend in running is compression socks or sleeves. For a while, you wouldn’t see a runner running in any race without them. Recently it is a little less prominent, but it is still a staple for many runners. As you start training and trying to figure out what things to try or not to help you get that extra little boost. You start to wonder if you should try some of those long compression socks you see that fast runner on the path running in. 

How do you know if you should be running with compression socks or not? First start by figuring out what are compression socks supposed to help with. They are designed to improve the circulation in your lower legs. Your feet are the farthest body part from your heart. For that reason, it is the hardest area for your body to circulate blood. You need fresh oxygenated blood to reenergize your tired sore calf muscles and help the blood to return from those tired muscles with the waste created during your muscle contractions. Add to the difficulty of the quick exchange, keeping your legs down to work against gravity while you are running. Compression will help your legs to improve the blood flow to and from your calves and feet. This in turn helps the exchange of the new helpers like oxygen for the waste like lactic acid. If you stop there, compression socks are great for runners as it can only help the muscles to get the things they need while on a long run while helping to prevent swelling.  Why isn’t everyone running in compression socks then? 

Well, don’t stop there. Your lower leg is broken into 4 compartments. Each of these compartments are composed of muscles with arteries, nerves and veins coursing through them. The outside of these compartments is lined with fascia. I like to think of this like plastic wrap wrapped around a steak that has a straw down the middle of it. As you run, your muscles will swell because of the increased blood flow to the muscles. Some runners have smaller compartments in their lower legs. As they run and their muscles swell, these compartments can become tight and not giving muscle more room for the muscle to swell. If your muscle can’t push out, it will start to push on other things in the compartment like that straw (your nerves, arteries and veins.)  

Now think about putting on those compression socks. While they will help initially improving your blood supply, you will start to notice some problems as more blood while more flow to your legs while you run. You may notice that your legs start to cramp, or your feet may even feel numb. Why is that? It is because your muscles are starting to swell. Once they can’t push out anymore, they have to push in on the nerves. Think of it like wearing pants that are too tight after a holiday dinner. That is what your calves are experiencing. 

So am I saying that no one should ever wear compression socks? Not at all. I am saying is that like many other things for runners, it depends on the runner. It depends on what you are trying to help or prevent. Do you notice that your legs swell easily with a long run? Maybe you notice that your legs are feeling more fatigued with a long run than you would expect. Maybe you are noticing your legs are cramping in the latter half of your run. If that is the case, it would be worth trying compression socks or sleeves.  

If you have numbness in your feet with running on long runs, I would not recommend trying compression socks. If you give them a try and you feel worsening cramping or your legs start to feel cold or numb with your runs, you should stop using your compression socks. It is likely that you have enough compression in your compartments while you are running that you don’t need extra help from compression socks.  

If you find that you are having the symptoms mentioned above but you would still like to use those socks you just bought, try using them after a long run. Put them on during your recovery time to help get rid of the “trash” left over in the swelling after your long run. You can use them if your are traveling to Denver for Colfax Marathon. It will help keep the blood flow while you are stuck sitting on your flight. Even wearing them the first day after travel can help to get rid of the post travel swelling in your legs and help to get you charged ready for your run.  

Compression socks can be great for some runners and can exacerbate symptoms for other runners. If you want to give them a try, know what you are trying to help with your run and be willing to switch it up if those symptoms worsen.

Dr. Jennell Kopp
– Medical Director of Athletics and Head Team Physician, University of Denver
– Sports Medicine Physician at Common Spirit
– Colfax Marathon Medical Director