Keeping it Classy in Compression Socks – A college girl’s ultimate guide
I am 21 years old, and about to start my senior year of college. Recently, I started taking better care of my muscles by wearing compression socks, and I have fallen. in. love. – hard. Last year I ran my first half marathon, and this fall I will be running my second (and third!). Every sport I have ever been involved with has been leg-focused (I definitely have “soccer legs”). I played soccer all through childhood and into high school, took horse back riding lessons, swam, ran track, and even gave cross country a try. I feel best when I am leading a healthy and active lifestyle, and I fully understand the need to keep my body strong and injury-free. Compression socks are helping me do just that.
My first experience with compression socks was during the summer of 2011. My family took a trip to Kenya and Tanzania, and in preparation for the horribly long flight, my mom and her best friend purchased compression socks. I laughed a little bit as they forced their legs into ugly, tan medical socks. Despite my teasing, however, they were instant converts. After a 17.5-hour flight, they each got off the plane with legs that felt fresh and energized. And, they had zero issues with swelling. At the time I didn’t think much of their experience, but five years later I totally get what the hype was about.
I wore a pair of compression socks last November when I ran my first half marathon, and I would not have been able to survive the race without them. The race was aptly titled “Marathon on the Mountain” because the course literally wove through the wooded trails of a ski resort in Pennsylvania. The three days after the race were brutal. My quads hurt, my abs hurt and I was pretty exhausted, but my calves and feet felt great. There was some residual soreness, sure, but I kept my socks on all day and night after the race and the recovery time was amazing.
I don’t only wear my compression socks when running, though. I have done a lot of traveling during the last year – taking flights to London, Stockholm, Tel Aviv, Istanbul, and back. Now I am equally as obsessed with donning a cute pair of compression socks while jet-setting across the globe as I am with throwing them on for a run around my neighborhood. Who cares if you can see the line of my socks through my leggings? Not I. I get the last laugh on every flight because I have no problem pulling on boots after a 10-hour flight, and unless I have to pee, I never have to get up and stretch my legs.
Because of the beating that my legs take on a regular basis I often go to bed with stiff, aching legs. Recently, I have started sleeping in my compression socks. I normally hate sleeping in socks, but the benefits of compression socks are immediate and I just can’t help myself. Within minutes of slipping on my compression socks, my legs start to feel better. I always wake up in the morning feeling ten times better than I did the night before. My compression socks give me hugs all night long – and, they don’t steal the covers (wink).
For all that I love about my compression socks, I didn’t know very much about them. I decided to explore a little bit about what compression is, how it started, and what it does. I’m pretty sure my friends thought I was crazy doing extra research during the summer, but I was intrigued! I focused on performance compression instead of medical compression because I, thankfully, don’t suffer from a medical condition. So here is what I found:
Compression began as a medical practice for vein health and vein-related ailments. It is still used to help prevent blood clots after surgery, during and after pregnancy, and in patients forced to remain immobile for long periods of time.
This was really interesting to me, but I’m not a pre-med major so I needed a quick refresher on the circulatory system in order to better understand what exactly compression does to prevent clotting.
Every second of every day, your heart pumps blood out to your extremities. This blood is circulated though arteries that deliver oxygenated blood from the heart to the rest of the body, and the veins bring blood back to the heart and lungs for more oxygen. There are two types of veins in your body. Superficial veins lie on top of your muscles, just below the skin. Deep veins lie within a protective and supportive layer of muscle; these are the veins that carry the most blood back to the heart. All veins have valves that help control the blood flow back to your heart. Normally, valves open and close to prevent blood from backing up as it goes against gravity to get back to your heart, but problems occur when valves don’t close or become misshapen. In deep veins, this leads to blood pooling which can cause blood clots to form. Compression helps veins maintain their natural shape, which keeps these valves working the way they should and reduces the risk of blood clots (Compression Stockings, 2013).
After finding all of this out, I was definitely way more appreciative of all the work my compression socks were doing for me. I was also glad that I, someone who has zero experience in scientific research, could understand everything I had read!
Medical compression is definitely interesting, but athletic and performance compression is most relevant to my life, so I spent a bit of time investigating that world. It turns out, compression comes in all forms. Athletic compression is not confined to socks. There are compression shirts, shorts, tights, and arm sleeves. All of these compression garments can deliver two types of compression. The first type is compartmental compression which is tighter in certain areas of the body and is used for specific activities and sports. For example, in baseball, arms take a beating. Maybe that’s why Derek Jeter wore one full sleeve when he played for the Yankees… I just thought it made him look cuter. The other type is graduated compression (my compression socks belong in this category) which starts tight and gradually loosens. In socks, the compression is tightest around the ankle and loosest below the knee. Graduated compression helps with blood flow and encourages the movement of blood back to the heart and core (The Compression Clothing Phenomenon, 2013).
Athletes will go to great lengths and spend mega bucks to stay free of injury and keep their bodies feeling strong. My college budget does not allow for personal trainers, physical therapists and fancy gym memberships…surprise, surprise. This is yet another reason why, as a 21 year old, I LOVE compression. Athletes (including me!) wear compression because of the increase in blood flow throughout the body. Compression applies force to muscles, which encourages blood flow without using extra energy. Increased muscular blood flow means increased oxygen levels which helps prevent the build-up of lactic acid. Lactic acid is the main source of post-performance pain, cramping and fatigue. When you say goodbye to lactic acid build-up, you say goodbye to feeling sore (The Compression Clothing, Phenomenon)!
(I’m starting to feel like I could teach a class on this stuff…. Maybe call it Compression 101.)
Compression has become increasingly popular among amateur and elite athletes alike. There has not yet been a comprehensive study on the effects of compression in sports, but there have been several smaller studies that assess compression in athletic performance and recovery. Scientific studies, like one conducted by Abigail Laymon at Indiana University (“Lower Leg Compression Sleeves: Influence on Running Mechanics and Economy in Highly Trained Distance Runners”), have found that there are few demonstrated effects of compression on athletic performance. However, the limited studies that have been conducted took place in labs (Lobby, 2010). Ask any runner wearing compression socks if they’ve noticed an increase in their performance and I bet they’ll not only say yes, but tell you all about their favorite brand (hyperlink to store) and why.
In 2013, professor Elmarie Terblanche, from Stellensboch University in South Africa, conducted a study on ultra-marathon runners as they hit the trail in South Africa. Those wearing compression ran an average of 12 minutes faster than those who didn’t (O’Mara, 2013). Is this a coincidence? Can it be attributed to a real-world placebo effect? The answer is still unclear, but it is clear that wearing compression doesn’t hurt. The consensus seems to be that you should wear compression if you think it’s right for you. If you think it helps, like I do, then there is absolutely no reason not to wear it during exercise!
What has been agreed upon, though, is that compression can aid in recovery. Studies like “Graduated compression stockings: physiological and perceptual responses during and after exercise,” conducted by Dr. Ali Ajmol and published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, have found that athletes wearing compression experienced less muscle fatigue and a faster recovery time (Lobby, 2010). Chris Solinsky, the first American (hottie) to run 10,000 meters (6.2 miles) in under 27 minutes, wears compression socks (O’Mara, 2013). That’s a good enough endorsement for me, what about you? Also, google him…he’s adorable and great motivation.
I’m certain my compression obsession is just beginning. But I do more than research this stuff (I’ve recently developed an interest in tattoos – sorry, Mom and Dad!) I have big plans for my last year as an undergraduate both on and off-campus and really all over the world. To learn more about my exciting adventures, training for my next big race, surviving final exams, and hopping on planes to far off places, follow along on Instagram @rachelhaskins or Snapchat @rachel-haskins.
The Compression Clothing Phenomenon. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.womenshealthand
Compression Stockings. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.uwhealth.org/healthfacts/pvs/5362.pdf
Lobby, Mackenzie. (2010). Compression Gear: Hype of Helpful? Runners World. http://www.
O'Mara, K. (2013). Do Compression Socks Really Work? Retrieved from http://running.
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