As the men’s 5K approaches at the U.S.A. National Track and Field Championships, it is very likely that the fastest American to ever run the 10K, Chris Solinsky, will toe the line in compression socks. When Solinksy shocked his competition to become the first American to break the 27 minute barrier in the 10K in the spring of 2010, he blazed around the track in a pair of white compression socks. And so, the debate of the compression socks began.
At the Payton Jordan Invitational, where Solinsky ran his remarkable American record, Solinsky was not the only competitor wearing compression socks. He was joined by fifth place finisher, and Canadian national record-holder, Simon Bairu. So, with two athletes wearing compression socks while achieving their respective national records, the question lingers – Do compression socks help athletes run faster?
The science behind compression socks as a recovery tool is quite simple. When the sock applies pressure to the calf, it prevents blood from pooling in the feet and lower legs. The socks utilize graduated compression, so the sock pressure increases as it gets further from the heart. The increased blood flow that results helps to reduce muscular swelling, to remove lactic acid and cellular waste from muscles and to reduce muscle fatigue.
During athletic activity, compression socks have a different function. First, they help to act as a “calf muscle pump.” The socks, as the calf flexes and relaxes, add an additional pressure that speeds up both the flow of oxygen rich blood to the muscles and the flow of oxygen deficient blood back to the lungs and heart. Also, the sock pressure helps to support the calf during running. The added stability ensures that the muscles work more efficiently for a longer period of time than they would if they were not supported by the compression socks. The increase in efficiency comes from a reduction of muscular oscillations in the calf when the foot strikes the ground. As a result, fewer micro-tears occur during activity which helps to speed up the post-run recovery process.
Various research groups have conducted studies on compression socks and running performance. Researchers at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand concluded that, although the socks did not benefit middle distance runners, they did help to maintain leg power for athletes running longer distances. However, this leg power has never been proven to translate into increased athletic production as demonstrated by two complimentary studies carried out by The Journal of Strength and Conditioning and the Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. The Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance’s study of twelve athletes showed an increase in oxygen distribution over the course of a one hour workout when the athletes used compression gear. However, the athletes saw no change in performance between the two situations. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning’s study showed an increase in performance by runners wearing calf sleeves, but did not show a change in the athletes’ muscle-oxygen levels.
The strongest conclusion that can be drawn from these studies is that there is no clear correlation between compression socks and performance. Although a great deal of scientific backing suggests that the socks should increase performance, the only sure data is that which shows the effectiveness of recovery by people who wear compression socks, based on lower blood-lactate levels. Ultimately, much like with athletes and their preferences for in-race hydration patterns and shoe choices, an athlete should only wear compression socks at a race if s/he has practiced performing in them.
So, when Chris Solinsky toes the starting-line on Friday night, odds are that he will be wearing compression socks. Whether the socks will physically help Solinsky during the race in his quest to become the National Champion is up for debate, but two things are likely true: Solinsky will spend most of Friday morning in his compression socks and, if he races in the socks, it is because whether the socks make a physical difference or not, they have a positive mental effect on his performance.
The most popular brand of compression socks for runners is CEP.
They average between $50-60 per pair.
Purchase CEP compression socks.
About the author: Jake Shoemaker is currently a senior at Dartmouth College where he competes for the Cross Country and Track and Field teams. Jake competed in a variety of sports as a kid, but settled on running, following in the footsteps of his brother – USA Triathlon Olympian Jarrod Shoemaker. Following graduation Jake hopes to pursue a career in education or journalism. He enjoys teaching swim and spin classes, cooking and watching his Boston Bruins.