How to Pick the Best Compression Socks for Running

Buying Guide

Compression socks can help with circulation and decrease swelling. Here's how to pick the best compression socks for you.

Last updated: 29 December 2021
7 min read
How to Pick the Best Compression Socks for Running

Coming home from a long run can feel incredible. Some call it a "runner's high", and it's due to boosted endocannabinoid levels in your bloodstream that make you feel calm. But a long run can also cause swollen feet and legs and leave you with uncomfortable muscle soreness, from your toe to your calf. What's an athlete to do?

Knee-high compression socks have been shown to acutely reduce swelling and decrease athletes' perception of muscle soreness after exercise. They're also beneficial for preventing all sorts of venous problems in the legs. For example, research shows that wearing them on a flight prevents deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or blood clots in the leg from sitting for an extended period.

Are compression stockings or socks the solution for runners? We'll evaluate the evidence and help you decide if a pair of compression socks would be a positive addition to your running wardrobe.

Why Do Runners Get Swollen Feet and Legs?

When you run, the muscles in your feet expand because of increased blood flow, which is necessary to deliver the oxygen your muscles need to keep going. And gravity causes fluids to pool in your feet, ankles and legs. At the same time, the impact of your feet hitting the ground repeatedly causes trauma to your blood vessels, which leads your capillary beds to leak in your muscles. That leakage, paired with fluid retention and increased blood flow, causes swelling or edema.

Swelling is more common on long-distance runs than short sprints, and in most cases it is not cause for concern. Even after an arduous marathon, leg swelling should resolve itself within a few days. But if the swelling is uncomfortable, there are a few ways to treat it:

  • Cold showers or ice packs
  • Epsom salt baths
  • Compression stockings or socks

Staying sedentary will make the swelling problem worse—make sure you continue to move regularly so that the fluid returns to your heart.

Benefits of Compression Socks

Compression socks are designed to provide gradual pressure on your legs, which helps counteract gravity and funnel fluid back up to the heart. That improved blood circulation keeps swelling to a minimum.

The constriction of your veins also causes the velocity of your blood to increase, which means lactic acid also gets moved from your legs a lot faster. Lactic acid can cause cramping, soreness and fatigue, so wearing compression socks can reduce these symptoms. Compression socks may also help with shin splints, plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis.

In addition, compression socks can assist with lymphatic drainage, relieve pain associated with varicose veins, prevent venous ulcers and DVT and decrease orthostatic hypotension, which can cause light-headedness upon standing.

Do Compression Socks Improve Athletic Performance?

A 2020 systematic review of the literature found that only three of 21 studies published findings that showed wearing compression socks during exercise improved measures of athletic performance, such as reduced muscle fatigue, enhanced proprioception and better efficiency. And each of those studies failed to identify the underlying mechanism behind the beneficial outcomes.

Other studies could not reproduce these results—in other words, it's not likely that wearing compression socks will improve your speed or endurance, even if many runners swear by them. However, several studies did find that wearing compression socks resulted in reduced muscle fatigue and soreness after exercise. So if you tend to feel achy and tired after a run, you might bounce back quicker if you wear compression socks. And if compression socks help you get back on the treadmill or trail sooner, you can become a fitter athlete.

How to Choose a Pair of Compression Socks

  1. 1.Finding Your Size

    When purchasing a pair of compression socks, sizing is important. In medical compression stockings, improper fit can cause pain and bruising. That's not common with compression socks for runners, but you'll still be more comfortable if you get the right fit. The best way to ensure the right fit is to try on several pairs, but if you're ordering online, you may need to use a size chart.

    You'll need to measure the circumference of the largest part of your calf and the smallest part of your ankle. You'll also need to measure your feet to find your shoe size, unless you're ordering a compression sleeve. Use a size chart to find the right size—if you're between sizes, go with the larger size.

  2. 2.Compression Ratings (mmHg)

    Compression levels for compression stockings are measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg), with higher numbers indicating more pressure. You'll choose from the following levels:

    • Less than 15 mmHg: These light compression socks are designed to provide relief from standing for extended periods. Most runners will find mild compression sufficient to prevent swelling of the feet and ankles.
    • 15 to 20 mmHg: These moderate compression socks are useful for travelling by aeroplane. They reduce the risk of DVT from sitting for prolonged periods. Some runners may prefer these to light compression socks when it comes to preventing soreness.
    • 20 to 30 mmHg: These medical-grade compression socks are typically fitted by a doctor and are used to treat issues such as varicose veins.
    • Greater than 30 mmHg: These graduated pressure stockings are typically used post-surgery to increase circulation.
  3. 3.Key Features

    Aside from the many colours and styles available for compression socks, you'll also find a variety of different features to choose from. Here's what to look for.

    • Open Toe: You might choose a pair of open-toe compression socks if you're running in warm weather or have any toe problems that might cause discomfort. They're also a little easier to slip in and out of.
    • Compression Sleeves: Some runners who don't experience swelling in the feet prefer compression sleeves, which only provide pressure on the ankle and calf.
    • Moisture-Wicking: If you have sweaty feet, you'll want a pair of compression socks that are breathable and moisture-wicking to keep you cool and dry.
    • Anti-Odour: Some compression socks are made from antimicrobial, odour-reducing fabrics such as merino wool, which are helpful if your feet tend to stink.
    • No-Slip: Some compression socks have no-slip soles, which you might like if you're also planning to wear them around the house after your run.
    • Top-Band: Some over-the-calf compression socks have a band at the top of the sock designed to prevent the socks from slipping down the calf, which is useful for runners who don't want to slow down for adjustments.
    • Cushioned Foot: Like many basic running and hiking socks, some compression socks have cushioning underfoot to absorb impact.
    • Blister Prevention: Some compression socks feature multi-layer construction to keep you blister-free.
    • Quick-Drying: Depending on the weather when you run, you may need a pair of compression socks in a breathable, quick-drying fabric, or you may need a pair that is entirely waterproof. Keeping your feet dry helps prevent blisters.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Should You Wear Compression Socks?

You can wear them during your run, keep them on a few hours after, or leave them on all day, as long as you take them off before bed. Choose how long to keep them on based on the extent of the swelling and soreness you experience.

Do Compression Socks Help with Plantar Fasciitis?

Yes. Because compression socks improve blood flow, decrease swelling and reduce inflammation, they may provide relief from pain associated with plantar fasciitis.

What Are the Best Compression Socks for Running?

The best compression socks for running will provide light or moderate compression and be breathable. They should be quick-drying and moisture-wicking and have a cushioned footbed to provide extra arch support. Over-the-calf compression running socks can be ideal for running.

Are There Side Effects to Wearing Compression Socks?

If compression socks don't fit properly or aren't used properly, they can cause side effects, but this is mainly the case with medical-grade compression stockings. Still, if you notice skin irritation, chafing or bruising, you'll want to consult a doctor. You may need to be professionally fitted for compression socks.

How Long Do Compression Socks Last?

A general guideline is to replace your compression socks every three to six months, or when you start to notice that the material is losing its stretch.

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