Does wearing compression stockings actually improve recovery?
Compression socks have been around for quite some time as an aid to recovery after injury, but it’s only in the past few years that athletes have added the tight-fitting knee socks to their bag of performance and recovery tricks. But do they really help?
This type of garment, including stockings, socks, sleeves and wraps, was primarily designed to help improve blood flow in post-surgical patients, diabetics, those with circulatory problems or those prone to swelling (edema), phlebitis, varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis (DVT). For these inactive and bedridden patients, the tight-fitting leg wraps help return blood to the heart so it doesn’t sit in the lower extremities and cause swelling. The compression also reduces the risk of blood clots.
Athletes started using compression stockings in the hope of achieving the same benefits in terms of better blood flow. First, a small handful of runners wore the tights after training and then on longer endurance rides. The anecdotal reports of faster recoveries, improved running performance and reduced pain from using compression socks started to build, giving rise to a long list of potential compression socks benefits.
The potential for performance improvement
Wearing the support socks during exercise was believed to enhance performance, increase oxygen delivery and blood flow, reduce shock, vibration and stress to muscles, and prevent damage to soft tissue such as shin splints.
Some athletes felt that the extra compression around the calves and ankles also promoted proprioception and even improved balance. It was also hoped that improving venous blood flow and adding calf muscle compression would result in increased endurance, more efficient muscle loss and faster running times.
Some, but not all, of those theories have been worked out in various studies, and the majority have not yet found statistically significant differences in performance while wearing the compression stockings. A few have reported improved run times during ultra-endurance events in some athletes, but the bulk of research has found no dramatic benefits in using compression socks to improve athletic performance, race times or endurance. So far, the benefit of wearing compression stockings while exercising is unclear, but some athletes believe it works for them.
When it comes to wearing compression stockings for sports recovery, the research paints a different picture: A growing body of work suggests that using compression stockings could potentially speed recovery and reduce pain after strenuous exercise. Results vary, but the trend points to a decrease in reported muscle soreness and possibly less muscle damage and faster recovery when using the stockings after exercise. Some studies also support the theory that wearing these during intense endurance rides, plyometrics or sprint training may reduce the amount of post-exercise pain reported by athletes.
It’s important to keep in mind that accurately measuring pain is difficult and assessing the amount of discomfort an athlete experiences after training is subjective and difficult to quantify. There is also a very real placebo effect – the psychological boost and belief that the clothing can improve recovery, along with the sense of compression, may have an effect on the perception of pain. And as any athlete knows, what one believes can have a profound impact on performance.
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