Sock vs. Sleeves: The Great Debate

September 25, 2018

Sock vs. Sleeves: The Great Debate

I have to admit that I was pretty excited when Lily Trotters announced the new addition of sleeves to their calf compression repertoire. I love the comforting squeezy feeling of compression on my legs during long runs, workouts and perhaps most of all during recovery as I am sitting and standing at work or curled up on the couch with that post-run long run smoothie and a good book. And, of course, I LOVE nerding out over all the potential physiologic benefits of compression to performance and recovery! 

Notably, compression garments can alter pressure within the muscles to help generate more forceful muscle contractions [1,2] and reduce muscle vibration that is associated with fatigue during high impact activities such as running [3]. Also one of my favorite benefits of compression socks, especially nowadays, is that they help to keep the cankles and swollen feet at bay, something that most runners (and pregnant people!) can appreciate for both running and recovery! 

Similar to compression socks, calf sleeves can offer performance benefits for lower leg muscles during workouts or races. But this begs the question- can calf sleeves still help with feet and ankle swelling even if they do not cover your feet? According to the laws of biophysics, yes they can! In addition to stabilizing your foot and ankle and generating forces to push off the ground when you run, your calf muscles also act as “muscle pumps” to push deoxygenated blood in your veins back up to your heart. The increased blood return to your heart during exercise helps your heart to pump out more blood with each beat, increasing what is called cardiac output. This greatly helps your working muscles to get more oxygenated blood back to them quickly. No cankles and more oxygen to the legs-win, win! Without the calf muscle pump, let’s just say that things would not be pretty in more ways than one! A light compression squeeze on the calf may help give the fatigued calf muscles an extra “umf” and assist in this muscle pump process. In this way calf sleeves may help to prevent foot and ankle swelling during exercise without actually touching your foot and ankle. 

I really love my compression socks for running and recovery alike but there are certain circumstances when I think compression sleeves are the way to go. Here are a few things that I consider when deciding whether to go for full compression socks or compression sleeves:

  1. Hot or cool weather? In warmer weather, I always go for sleeves over full socks. Your body can lose a considerable amount of body heat through the superficial blood vessels on the inside lower part of your ankle when they are exposed as they can be with compression sleeves paired with a lower cut ankle sock. The extra amount of skin breathability is small but the cooling effect is surprising!

    Likewise, when it's cooler outside and I want just a little extra warmth without full running tights, I love pulling on some compression socks with a pair of shorts or capris. My practically everyday winter running wardrobe here in Georgia consists of breathable LT compression socks and a pair of shorts!
  1. Terrain and distance? If I’m running a rugged trail 100 mile ultramarathon with 18 creek crossings that will take me about 20 hours, I know I will probably want to change into a clean dry pair of socks at some points. Calf sleeves can help to expedite this process and make it less cumbersome because they can just stay on while you swap socks. Easy peasy is how I like my aid station stops to go in races!
  1. Performance or recovery? If trying to optimize recovery post workout, I go for the full compression socks. While both socks and sleeves are good for prevention of foot swelling via the calf muscle pump during exercise, during recovery that gentle squeeze of the foot provided by the full sock can help push out some of the swelling in the foot that may have already started in the time since the race or workout.

Of course the most important things to consider can come down to comfort and personal preference.

Happy Trails!
Jackie Merritt

[1]  B. Maton, G. Thiney, A. Ouchène, P. Flaud, P. Barthelemy. Intramuscular pressure and surface EMG in voluntary ankle dorsal flexion: Influence of elastic compressive stockings.
J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2006 Jun; 16(3): 291–302. Published online 2005 Aug 26. doi: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2005.07.006
[2]  K. Søgaard, C. Orizio, G. Sjøgaard. Surface mechanomyogram amplitude is not attenuated by intramuscular pressure. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006 Jan; 96(2): 178–184. Published online 2004 Sep 15. doi: 10.1007/s00421-004-1211-5
[3]  Fu W, Wang X, Liu Y. Technol Health Care. 2015;23 Suppl 2:S179-87. doi: 10.3233/THC-150952. Impact-induced soft-tissue vibrations associate with muscle activation in human landing movements: An accelerometry and EMG evaluation.

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