Compression Socks: Panacea for Middle-Aged Muscle Fatigue?

Compression Socks: Panacea for Middle-Aged Muscle Fatigue?

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Compression Socks for Middle-Aged Athletes

Meb Keflezighi wears 'em. So does your elderly uncle. Should you?

What middle-aged athlete isn’t looking for a performance boost and a way to recover more quickly after exercise? Are compression socks an answer?

In a previous post, I lauded a model of CEP ankle-length compression socks, but I noted that any sense of performance boost they provided was merely an impression. Nothing scientific. I liked the socks very much. But I couldn’t say that they accounted for enhanced performance or recovery after exercise.

That’s the thing about compression garments of any length. Despite some passionate claims about their benefits (“supercharges the heart!”), science has yet to join the chorus of praise.

The idea is that wearing compression socks keeps blood from pooling, which results in better circulation. Some advocates claim that compression also reduces muscle vibration, which can be a cause of soreness. Other claims include decreased lactic acid, cramp prevention, and minimized muscle fatigue.

Muscle fatigue and soreness are pretty much a way of life for us middle-aged athletes, and certainly for anyone returning to a fitness regimen after a layoff. A simple way to mitigate them sounds mighty appealing.

The numbers bear that out. The compression concept has been so widely embraced by athletes that the compression-garment biz grew to $2.38 billion worldwide in 2014, and is projected to balloon to $3.23 billion in 2020.

But does compression work? The best answer we’ve found comes from a review of 23 studies on compression published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine titled “Compression Garments and Exercise: No Influence of Pressure Applied.”

Cutting to the chase: “…most studies failed to demonstrate a beneficial effect on immediate performance, performance recovery, or on DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness), regardless of the type of exercise performed (endurance or resistance).”

The review also failed to find any correlation between level of compression (which can vary considerably from sock to sock) and performance boost or recovery.

There’s one bright spot for fans of compression socks, and that’s a possible benefit from wearing them after exercise. Four out of six studies covered by the review indicated reduction in delayed-onset muscle soreness from wearing compression socks during recovery. Again, though, there was no consistent relationship between reduced muscle soreness and any particular level of compression. In three studies, it was very low; in three others, very high compression. And for how long should we don our knee-highs? The review failed to come up with any favored duration.

Still, scads of athletes swear by their compression socks. Is it wishful thinking? A placebo effect? One study from Australia on runners suggests that the answer might be yes to both questions. “Belief in the efficacy of compression socks appears to further enhance performance benefits,” that study concluded.

Our take: If you like them, wear them. And consider wearing a pair of compression socks for an hour or so after your workout. In public? That’s up to you.


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