Not long ago, I was at a 5-kilometer run when my friend Steve hit me with a stumper. As we were catching our breath following the race, he said, “The guys in the local running store are always telling me to buy a pair of compression socks. They say it will help me run faster. What do you think?”
I looked down at my legs — which were not clad in the knee-high socks that you'll increasingly spot at road races these days — and shrugged. Then I told Steve I'd ask you.
So what, if anything, does the research say about compression socks? Are they a worthwhile investment?
Dr. Prescott prescribes
With their over-the-calf fit, they may look like some nod to the 1970s retro style. But compression socks find their roots in medicine, where physicians use them to treat conditions such as swelling in the ankles and legs (especially after surgery), varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis.
The primary theory that snug-fitting socks might improve athletic performance seems to be that by compressing the veins, they will enhance the return of blood to the heart through a more efficient calf muscle pump. Others have hypothesized that keeping the leg muscles compact improves balance and diminishes leg fatigue.
Despite these theories, controlled experiments on compression socks have proved a mixed bag. A study presented at the 2007 American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting revealed no statistically significant differences in maximal oxygen consumption, heart rate or ventilation between treadmill runners who wore the socks and those who didn't. Similarly, a 2012 study from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found a slight — but, again, statistically insignificant — advantage for runners who wore compression tights during one set of sprints and similar but noncompressive tights during a second set of the same sprints.