Attend any local endurance event such as a running race or cycling event, you might just see someone wearing knee high socks during their race. Some of the socks are hard to miss as they can be bright in colour and consist of unique seaming and designs! They are actually wearing compression socks!

Compression stockings have been used in medical environment for over 50 years, starting in Europe and expanding into the United States. Technology has changed significantly since the advent of the product and the traditional stocking does not look like its contemporary counterpart.

Stockings apply external pressure to the vessels of the legs which in turn narrows these vessels and assists in movement of oxygen-rich blood to the working muscles and non-oxygenated blood away from the muscles back to the heart.

As the premise of using the stockings is related to circulation, particularly moving blood from the lower extremity back to the heart, it can be beneficial for those who sit or stand in one spot for prolonged periods of time. The leg vessels which return non-oxygenated blood to the heart feature one-way valves that only allow blood to travel towards the heart. When these valves fail, the risk includes blood pooling in the feet and legs. When blood does not traveling back to the heart, it can cause concerns such swelling, varicose veins and blood clots.

In the medical environment, research has shown the benefits of wearing these stockings particularly in those who are bed-ridden or physically inactive. Enter the physical activity, exercise and sporting world. What can compression socks do for the physically active population?

Endurance athletes, both amateur and professional, are sporting compression socks more and more believing they can act as an aid in performance and recovery. The sporting compression socks typically exert the most pressure at the ankle with an average of 22-32 mmHg of pressure; however, various brands and styles exist which may not necessarily provide consistent pressure.

But do they actually work?

In a 2011 review article in Sport Medicine Journal authors concluded that there is not enough evidence to support the ergogenic effects of compressions socks. The research is fragmented due to diverse types of studies, variability in exercise programs, training status of the participants, and how the garments are worn. Studies are not finding performance benefit but there is some mixed evidence on providing aid with recovery and subsequent performance.

The bottom line is that compression socks are another piece of equipment to add to your exercise routine but it is not yet clear if they will actually be making an impact on your exercise capacity.

Regardless, if competing in long duration events that require prolonged aerobic demand, compression socks may be a tool to try!

Lisa A. Workman M.A., B.P.E., CSEP-CEP, AFLCA Trainer