Running and compression gear go hand in hand. You’re bound to find multiple runners wearing all kinds of compression gear in almost any race you attend.
But are there actually any benefits of wearing compression socks and sleeves running?
Many runners love them for recovery. But wearing them while running can also have positive effects.
If you’ve been contemplating trying compression socks or calf sleeves, here’s everything you need to know about how they work, when to wear them, and how to get the right fit.
What are Compressions Socks and Sleeves?
Compression socks and sleeves are tight-fitting fabric garments designed to improve circulation in your lower legs. Compression socks look similar to normal socks that go high up your calf. Sleeves only cover your leg from ankle to mid-calf or knee.
They’re often worn during a run to improve performance (or warmth in cold weather) or post-run, to help with recovery.
Compression Calf sleeves and socks use graduated compression to increase circulation, reduce fluid accumulation and swelling, and help you perform better and heal faster.
Do Compression Socks and Sleeves Work?
Research on compression socks and sleeves is extremely varied. If you’re trying to find information, you’re likely to come across some studies suggesting very little evidence that they work, such as:
- This one, which concludes that they aren’t helpful for reducing muscle damage during exercise
- This study, which indicates that wearing compression sock doesn’t increase performance in triathletes
- And this research, which suggested that trail runners get no practical or psychological benefit from wearing compression gear
However, these studies have been introduced previously. Other, more recent research suggests otherwise, like these ones:
- This 2020 study indicates that compression sleeves can improve muscle soreness after exercise and reduce muscle fatigue in subsequent sessions
- This 2019 research that hints at compression gear reducing muscle oscillation
- A 2022 study which concluded that compression gear can increase skin temperature in the area, which ultimately leads to improved circulation and reduced pain in the hours and days after exercise
- And this 2019 study which showed that wearing compression garments improves running performance in subsequent runs
How Does Compression Work?
It’s worth noting that compression comes in two different types: graduated—or gradient—and constant—or controlled—compression.
Controlled compression socks are usually a little more comfortable, as they usually have a single, lower compression throughout the material and are easier to get on and off.
However, graduated compression gear is a little more difficult to get on and may feel a bit more uncomfortable. They have varying compression levels—tighter around the foot/ankle and looser as they go up the leg.
Whichever one you choose, compression gear works by putting gentle pressure on your muscles, which in turn, exert pressure on the outer walls of arteries and veins.
In response to this pressure, blood pressure rises, which causes an increase in blood flow. This gets more oxygenated blood back to the muscles and helps break down glucose faster, releasing adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for energy.
The compression also helps to remove lactic acid buildup faster and reduces vibration through the muscles by holding them in place more tightly than usual.
How Is Compression Measured?
Compression is measured in a strange unit known as millimeters of mercury, abbreviated to mmHg. You’ll usually see them labeled in ranges—15 to 20 mmHg, 20 to 30 mmHg, and so on.
This usually indicates a graduated compression sock or sleeve, with the minimum compression being the lower number and the maximum being the higher number. Compression socks and sleeves usually come in the following levels:
- Over-the-counter, low compression: 15 to 20 mmHg
- Medical Grade Class I, medium compression: 20 to 30 mmHg
- Medical Grade Class II, strong compression: 30 to 40 mmHg
- Medical Grade Class III, strongest compression: 40 to 50 mmHg
For runners, the first two types will be more than enough. Medical grade II and III are usually used as part of treatment for venous disorders and can be dangerous to run in. However, you most likely won’t be able to get them without a prescription anyway.
Benefits of Compression Sleeves or Socks
If you’re on the fence about trying compression sleeves or socks when running, here are some potential benefits from them.
As we mentioned earlier, there is research to both support this and disagree with it. So take that into consideration when reading…
Increases Blood Flow to Muscles
Better blood flow is always a good thing! The more easily blood flows to the muscles and back to the heart, the less fatigued your muscles will be, as the blood brings important nutrients and oxygen to the muscles.
This allows for energy production from the glycogen stored in your muscles, so you can produce more energy faster. The nutrients that come with the blood flow also nourish the muscles to keep them healthy and strong, helping lower the chance of injury and damage.
Filters Out Lactic Acid
Lactic acid plays a role in energy production. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t cause muscle soreness, but too much of it in your bloodstream can lead to feelings of nausea and abdominal pain.
Compression sleeves and socks can help to filter lactic acid out of the bloodstream, thanks to their circulation-enhancing properties.
Reduces Muscle Oscillation
Every time you run, the vibration of your foot landing on the ground travels up the foot, through the ankle, calf, knee, thigh, and even hip and lower back.
These vibrations can cause jarring to the joints and muscles, leading to pain and in some cases, worse injury.
Wearing compression socks and sleeves can help to alleviate that vibration. Their tightness helps to hold the muscle firmly in place, significantly reducing that jarring effect and lowering your chances of injury.
This can also notably reduce your level of fatigue. The more the muscle vibrates, the more tired it’s likely to get. But the more it’s held still in position, the more energy it retains for running.
Improves Subsequent Performance
Research indicates that wearing compression socks may not necessarily improve your performance on the day, but evidence shows that it improves your future performance.
This could be because the muscles need less time to recover between runs, but it’s an important benefit that runners definitely can’t ignore! Wear compression gear today; perform better next time.
Increased Muscle Awareness
The tightness of the compression socks and sleeves also help you become more aware of your muscles. Proprioception is the ability to sense your limbs in the space around you. It means that your coordination is good.
Wearing compression gear can enhance your awareness of your muscles and help you perform better.
Adds Warmth In Cold Weather
Compression socks and sleeves add extra warmth when running in cold weather. This helps to keep your muscles warm, especially if you warm up with your compression sleeves or socks on.
It also means you can wear shorts even in winter if you’re the runner who feels restricted by longer pants.
Extra Layer of Protection
If you’re running on trails, your legs are at risk of being scraped by low branches, brambles, and rocks. A pair of compression socks or sleeves can protect your lower legs from getting injured, even if the injuries are minor!
Which Is Better: Compressions Socks or Sleeves?
Compression socks and sleeves perform much the same function. But ultimately, it comes down to your own preference as to which one you choose.
Are Compression Sleeves or Socks Better for Running?
You can wear either a compression sock or a compression sleeve for running. In many cases, runners will choose sleeves over socks to prevent having an extra layer underneath their regular socks which could cause friction leading to blisters.
However, compression sleeves are usually more than adequate for wearing during exercise. As you’re exercising, your heart rate increases, and your blood pumps faster, so there’s no need for the foot to have extra compression to help increase circulation.
Are Compression Sleeves or Socks Better for Recovery Time?
For recovery, a full sock is recommended. As you won’t be actively exercising at this point, a sock will provide some compression to your foot and your leg, aiding in the circulation of nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood.
Using a sleeve for recovery has a chance of causing blood to pool in the foot, which can lead to swelling and discomfort.
When Should You Wear Compression Socks or Sleeves?
For runners, you can benefit from wearing compression socks and sleeves while running and later during your recovery.
You may want to buy more than one pair of socks or sleeves—one for running and one for recovery. This will allow you to use the best compression level for both activities.
What Level of Compression Is Best for Running?
Depending on your comfort level, compression sleeves or socks with a compression level up to 30 mmHg should be perfectly good for running. 20 to 30 mmHg is the most popular compression level for sports people.
If it feels too tight for you, 15 to 20 mmHg is decent too but may be too little for some people.
Best Level of Compression for Recovery
In most cases, 15 to 20 mmHg is good for recovery. If you’re using these and notice that your legs and feet are still swelling, you can upgrade to 20 to 30 mmHg.
How Do I Size My Compression Socks?
It’s extremely important to correctly size your compression socks or sleeves to take advantage of the compressive properties.
If you’re buying in-store, try on several pairs to see which one feels the best. If you’re buying online, you must accurately measure your feet and legs to find the right size.
Most will come with a sizing chart, so you must check the required measurements. Usually, you’ll need to measure the smallest part of your ankle—where the sleeve would end—and the widest part of your calf.
Match up with an appropriate size on the sizing chart, and you should be fine! It’s also good to read customer reviews to ensure the sizing is true.
Do Compression Socks or Sleeves Make You Run Faster?
There is no evidence wearing compression socks or sleeves can increase your running speed. However, the evidence suggests that they can reduce fatigue for longer, which may help you keep up your pace for a longer distance.
The evidence also suggests that wearing compression sleeves or socks in one race may impact the following race positively. This is possible because they assist with faster recovery, so you’ll start the subsequent race more recovered than if you hadn’t worn the socks.
So ultimately, no, compression socks and sleeves don’t make you run faster. But they can make you run at your desired pace for longer.
Are Compression Socks and Sleeves Safe for Everyday Use?
You should be okay to wear your compression socks daily as long as you aren’t wearing them too long.
Limit yourself to a few hours at a time—wearing them throughout your run should be fine, and then wearing them for an hour or two later during recovery.
You should avoid sleeping with your compression socks or sleeves on. It may be tempting to keep them on overnight to improve your recovery, but there’s a higher chance of you inadvertently lying in such a way that cuts off circulation and can cause damage without you even realizing it.