At last month’s USA Triathlon National Championships, the hot look—literally, given the near 100-degree temperatures in Tuscaloosa, Alabama—was compression socks. White ones, black ones, and pink ones. I had traveled there to speak to coaches and athletes on ways to enhance their recovery, and found a good third of athletes sporting knee-highs with their shorts. The scene in Kona was similar, where a few even dared to sweat it out in the full tights now on the market.
We’ve established that they’re popular, but are compression socks and garments really worth your time, and if so, what should you look for?
The short answer is yes. While studies show mixed results on whether wearing the socks during a race will aid your actual performance, it’s evident that wearing them in a race probably does reduce muscle trauma. This will help shorten your post-exercise soreness and your recovery time. Donning the socks after your training session or race will aid your recovery by helping to recirculate blood, lymph, and interstitial fluid away from your extremities (where they lead to swelling) and back to the center where they can be reprocessed.
Here’s what to look for in your compression garments. For recovery, you want a footed sock, not a sleeve (though sleeves are fine during exercise if you like them). The compression should be stronger in the foot and gradually lessen up the leg, so that the calf receives less support than the ankle. Something greater than 18 mmHg* of compression at the foot is necessary to improve venous return. Most commercial brands fall in the 20–55 mmHg range; anything over 50 mmHg would require a medical prescription. Some models are sculpted to provide different compressive zones and labeled left and right, whereas others are simpler. I suggest you go with your personal preference and budget.
Compression socks can be tough to get on, especially if you’re not trained in putting on leotard. Bunch them up, pulling the top cuff down toward the foot, slide your toes in, and wiggle the sock slowly up your leg. When you notice that your socks are getting looser, they’re starting to lose their elasticity and will need to be replaced. To increase their longevity, wash them in cold water and drip dry.
How long should you keep your compression socks on for? Chris Bohannon of Zoot Sports suggests this rule of thumb: wear the socks for double the time of the workout you’ve just finished. After a two-hour run, four hours in the socks should be sufficient. After a six-hour ride, go ahead and wear your socks to bed. Compression socks are also useful during travel, especially on long flights.
A single pair of socks—not matter how high-tech or fancy—won’t replace eating well, training wisely, and getting enough sleep. Make sure you’re looking at the big picture and not using compression garments as your sole recovery tool. But remembering to put your socks on after the workout is a good sign that you’re paying attention to recovery, and may encourage other positive habits.
*A unit of pressure equal to the amount of fluid pressure one millimeter deep in mercury at zero degrees centigrade on Earth.