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Compression socks for runners are important for recovery

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumCongratulations to the dedicated runners and organizers of yesterdays 22nd Annual Steamtown Marathon. The 26.2 mile event, beginning in Forest City and ending in downtown Scranton, is a spectacular event. By my view, the event represents everything that makes NEPA special: hardworking, unselfish organizers, appreciative and enthusiastic supporters, beautiful landscape and fall foliage. Many runners have local roots and return home to run with zealous love and support from family and friends along the trail.

This year at the race, whether running, working or cheering, you may have noticed many of the runners were sporting knee socks. You may wonder what this is all about…style, fad, or medical device. Well, after reading this column, it is my hope that runners will wear their compression socks today, as it has been found to be more important to use the socks while recovering from the event than during it. It can not only expedite recovery but may also prevent blood clots.

Runners competing at this level constantly try to improve performance through training, diet, nutrition, mental focus and equipment. And, to advance to the next level, it is critical to limit exercise-induced muscle soreness from excessive training. One product purported to control post-exercise soreness has become popular over the past few years among members of this elite group: compression socks.

While not a new product, its popularity continues to grow. In 2009, compression socks burst onto the running scene when people witnessed Paula Radcliffe, one of the top female marathon runners, wearing what appeared to be knee-high socks as she ran the Boston Marathon and other major events. In fact, so many people took notice that the sock she wore, 2XU Compression Racing Socks, became the 2009 Product of the Year! Today, the company offers two socks: one worn while running to improve performance, and the other worn after prolonged activities to reduce exercise-induced muscle soreness.

How Do Compression Socks Work?

Most people recognize compression socks as the tight knee-high support stockings worn to prevent blood clots after a surgical procedure such as a knee or hip replacement. They are made with a special fabric and weave design that provide graduated compression (stronger compression at foot and ankle and less at the top of the sock) to promote better circulation and movement of fluids from the foot, ankle and calf back to the upper leg and, ultimately, to the heart. The theory that compression socks help runners relies on the idea that they facilitate the movement of stagnant fluid filled with lactic acid and other byproducts of exercise away from the legs and toward the heart, thereby rushing fresh blood, nutrients and oxygen to the legs. This exchange fosters the healing of micro-damage to tissue and promotes more efficient use of the muscles. If the product holds up to scientific scrutiny, compression socks could significantly benefit long distance runners, cyclists, triathletes, soccer players and others who participate in endurance sports.

Will I Run Faster? Further?

In 2009, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published a study suggesting that wearing compression socks significantly improved running performance, but similar studies have failed to support this claim. However, one finding that literature supports is that compression socks can improve the rate and magnitude of recovery when worn by soccer players and runners. A study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine confirmed this finding, and reported that the benefits of compression socks are more obvious for long-duration activities or when running 10km or more.

Final Conclusion on Compression

Time will tell if the benefit of compression socks for runners is a fact supported by scientific research or a fad based on placebo effect. Current wisdom suggests that these socks may offer value and benefit for activities of long duration (more than 1 hour), long distance running (more than 10km), and when worn after prolonged activity to expedite recovery from exercise-induced muscle soreness. If you are an athlete who falls into one of these categories of activity, this product is worth a try. However, as with all new equipment, you should try the product during practice and only use it during competition if your training was successful. If you hesitate to use compression socks while running, consider wearing them after a prolonged training session or competition to reduce exercise-induced muscle soreness. If you are de-conditioned and attempting to begin a fitness program or if you are a novice weekend athlete, you may see the greatest benefit from compression socks, as the improvements recorded in well-trained athletes were minimal. Lastly, these socks may prevent the risk of exercise induced blood-clots, which occurs in endurance athletes from prolonged micro trauma to the musculoskeletal system and is worse for who travel more than two hours after the event.

Where to find compression socks:

Scranton Running Company
2XU Compression Racing Sock – www.2XU.com
Two socks are available – one for racing and one for recovery

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum” in the Scranton Times-Tribune.

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email: drpmackarey@msn.com

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine.