If you watched races or triathlons recently, you may have noticed many athletes wearing knee high compression socks or calf sleeves. To understand why even amateur athletes are wearing these socks and sleeves, it’s helpful to review the circulatory system. Blood circulates through our bodies via a network of vein and arteries. It is a closed system so that blood pumped from the heart to the legs must be moved back up through the system to the heart. The calf muscle pumps venous blood against the force of gravity when we are walking or running.
It’s well known that medical grade compression stockings improve blood flow by helping the calf muscle pump more effectively, which helps keep blood from pooling in the legs. These stockings have been used for years with patients after surgery, to treat leg swelling and for varicose and spider veins.
Now, there is growing evidence that athletic compression stockings may reduce soreness after a race. Post-event muscle pain can occur for several reasons: lactic acid build-up, micro-trauma at the muscle fiber level, electrolyte depletion and a release of prostaglandins (inflammatory chemicals released during and after exercise). Compression is believed to reduce the muscle pain because the micro-trauma can be lessened and the calf muscle pump increased, which clears out lactic acid and prostaglandins more effectively.
What is less clear is the benefit of wearing them during a race. There are no definitive studies that show the benefit of use during the event. We do advise athletes with varicose vein disease to wear compression stockings during events to increase the calf muscle pump function while reducing ankle swelling and venous pooling. For athletes without varicose vein disease, there may be a benefit to wearing athletic compression stockings after an event to help with recovery.