Compression socks are commonly used by athletes to quickly recover from intense workouts and to further enhance their performance on the field.
Initially developed to treat swelling disorders like lymphedema, compression wear is also used to treat vascular issues such as managing varicose veins and to prevent blood clots in patients after surgery.
The science behind compressive wear enables it to act as a layer of muscle by gently squeezing the stretched vein walls together. This allows the valves to close, reducing the cavity of the vein which restores blood flow to a normal state.
Positive pressure is created across the various valves in the blood veins to prevent blood from pooling in the veins of immobile patients and reducing the risk of deep vein thrombosis.
This is the reason why travellers are advised to wear compression socks during a long-haul flight.
Research on its effects on athletic performance, however, remains inconclusive.
In 2011, Ajmol Ali et al. sought to examine the effect of wearing different grades (control, low, medium or high) of graduated compression socks on 10-km running performance.
A vertical leap test was performed on each runner both, before and after each 10k time trial, in order to measure their ability to generate explosive power.
Greater maintenance of leg power after exercise was attributed to the use of low and medium graduated compression socks at the end of the study.
No statistically significant improvement was found in heart rate or performance time.
The leap test indicated that runners wearing medium- and low-compression socks were able to increase their leaps, implying that the socks prevented the runners from losing maximal muscular power during the 10K time trial.
Another study conducted by Lovell et al., investigated the effectiveness of compression garments on the active recovery process after high-intensity running.
They were able to conclude that while wearing compression garments augments the recovery process by reducing the blood lactate concentration and the heart rate after exercise, it had absolutely no effect on the blood pH.
Based on this, it was hypothesised that compressive force could be of value during intermittent sports that consist of repeated bouts of high-intensity exercises.
The impact of compression socks on performance was clearly demonstrated in a study conducted by Kemmler et al.
21 moderately trained athletes, devoid of any lower-leg pathologies, were assigned to perform a stepwise treadmill test, both with and without compressive socks.
It was observed that with constant compression in the calf muscle region, running performance improved significantly at different metabolic thresholds.
However, the reason for this improvement was partially explained by a slightly higher aerobic capacity.
It is important to note that a major flaw with most of the studies conducted on the subject (except for the 2011 study by Ajmol et al.) is that they did not use a placebo or control.
This makes it difficult to determine whether the improvement in performance actually resulted from the compression or from the athlete’s perception of the compression.
With no significantly conclusive proof on the effects of compression socks on performance, specialised compressive wear seems to be more efficient in preventing excessive soreness and maintaining muscle strength during training sessions, with minimal improvements in performance.
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