Compression: Does it Really Work?
You have probably seen people at races or running around the streets that have those compression socks or sleeves on. Maybe you have thought to yourself, “Do those really work?” or “I wonder if those would help my shin splints or calf cramps?”
During this time of year, with the start of cross country season and with Fall marathons and half marathons creeping up on us, I get a lot of questions about compression. Most commonly, people want to know how it works and if it’s appropriate for their condition. Today, I will explain the concept behind compression, how it can benefit you, and which conditions it’s appropriate for.
To really understand how compression socks and sleeves work, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how blood flows through the body. The heart pumps oxygen containing blood to our extremities and working muscles though arteries. Once the cells use the oxygen and other nutrients from the blood, the then deoxygenated blood, along with lactic acid and other waste products enter the veins to get taken back to the heart. Once the blood gets back to the heart, it’s oxygenated from the lungs and the process is repeated.
Keeping oxygenated blood flowing to muscles is important for performance. The more oxygen the cells have, the better they will function. During exercise, the body produces lactic acid as a waste product. If this lactic acid is not removed from the muscles, it can contribute to soreness and decreased ability to perform. Another factor in decreased performance is muscle fatigue. Muscular vibration during physical activity contributes to fatigue. Think about how much shock and vibration is going through your leg muscles as you pound pavement with 3-5 times your body weight while running. Over time, those little vibrations of the muscles add up and they become fatigued.
Now that we know what the blood and muscles are doing while we are running, let’s talk about what compression socks and sleeves do to help the body. Compression socks and sleeves provide graduated compression, meaning the compression is higher (tighter) at the foot and ankle and lower (looser) as it moves up the calf and lower leg. This type of compression helps to fight the effects of gravity and assist the body in venous return (deoxygenated blood flowing back up to the heart).
Recent studies show that with an optimal level of consistent compression, the walls of the arteries will dilate, increasing the blood flow through them. Arterial blood flow has been shown to increase up to 40% during activity and 30% during recovery. This means more oxygen and nutrients flowing through the body! On the other hand, the walls of the veins will constrict under compression, which helps to increase the velocity of blood flow through them. Increased velocity of blood flow through veins means that deoxygenated blood and lactic acid will get back to the heart quicker, which will help to increase the rate of recovery and decrease muscle soreness! Compression will also help to stabilize the muscle and decrease the amount of muscular vibration, resulting in decreased fatigue. To sum up the benefits of compression; enhanced performance through increased blood flow, quicker recovery and decreased muscle soreness, and less fatigue. All good things!
So are compression socks or sleeves good for shin splints, calf cramps / strains, and Achilles tendonitis? The answer is yes, however, they will not cure any condition if the only thing you are doing to help your injury is wear compression. All injuries should be assessed so that the real cause can be addressed. Wearing compression can help to make your injury feel better as you are recovering, help get you through that last long run before your marathon, or possibly prevent a new injury from coming on. Proper rest, massage, stretching / strengthening, footwear, and progression of training should all be considered when dealing with a lower leg injury.
What if you’re not injured, can you still benefit from compression? Absolutely! Increased blood flow is going to help improve your performance and decrease the rate of fatigue of your muscles. It will also help you to recover quicker, meaning that you will be ready for your next workout, so you can train harder.
Should I wear socks or sleeves? The answer to this question depends on a few things. If your injury involves your arch, ankle, or lower Achilles tendon, you are going to want to wear a sock to cover the injured area. If your injury is up higher, a sleeve should be fine. Another factor to take into consideration is what type of sock you like to wear. If you have a favorite pair of running socks that you can’t run without, you will probably like the sleeve better since you can wear your favorite socks with it.
If you are going to be using the compression product for recovery, you should wear the sock. Remember that graduated compression that we talked about and the effects of gravity? You don’t want to have a huge swollen foot and ankle because the blood couldn’t flow past the tightness of the lowest part of a compression sleeve. Wear the sock and the graduated compression will work in your favor of keeping the foot and ankle in good shape.
Don’t forget about wearing compression while you travel to and from your race or on a business trip. Sitting in a plane or car for an extended period of time can wreak havoc on the blood flow in our legs. Let compression assist your veins in getting that blood out of your legs and back to your heart!
Whether you are trying to ease the symptoms of shin splints or calf pain, or looking to get an edge on the competition through quicker recovery, compression can help!