Sweet Tube Socks!
I recall the first time I saw a runner wearing compression on his calves. He wasn’t the kind of guy who stands out – or wants to stand out – in a crowd of runners on race day. But there he was, quietly waiting for the starting pistol… with the goofiest looking socks I’ve seen since my gym teacher’s tube socks circa 1982. But this guy was on to something pretty cool, because compression over the calf muscles is known to help runners run faster and longer. Keep reading if you want to see what the scientific research says….
Several research papers published over the past several years have shown that compression provides benefits for runners. Compression improves venous blood flow, increases arterial perfusion pressure (the pressure pushing blood into a tissue), helps reduce lactic acid accumulation, and helps reduce muscle soreness. In short, compression helps muscles work more efficiently.
One fascinating example of compression affects running performance was recently published (Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23:101-105). The researchers recruited 21 recreational male runners aged 25-69. The group logged on average 40km (24miles) per week, and the average 10k time was 40:36. So these weren’t elite runners, but they were above average for sure.
The runners were tested on a treadmill until fatigue while the researchers monitored oxygen intake, carbon dioxide production, and lactic acid (lactate) concentrations in the blood. During the test, they gradually increased the speed of the treadmill to bring the runner to their anaerobic threshold – the point where muscles starts relying more on stored carbs for energy and less on oxygen. They wanted these runners to “redline.” Sounds like my last 5k….
Each runner ran the test with and without compression stockings. The results speak for themselves:
1. the runners ran longer with compression stockings
2. they ran further with compression stockings
3. they ran faster at the anaerobic threshold (“redline”) with compression stockings
4. they ran faster at submaximal levels (anaerobic threshold; endurance running pace)
So, the authors concluded that compression over the calf muscles can significantly improve running performance. They estimated an improved efficiency of 2.1 to 6.2% at the anaerobic threshold (ie. running too fast for a distance race) and 1.5-2.2% improvement at submaximal levels (the pace you can actually handle in a distance race).
So there you have it. If you want to cut a minute or two off your next 10k, maybe it’s time to get some compression gear. And you’ll have some sweet tube socks to flaunt when you set your next PR!
PS – The compression had no significant impact on VO2max (widely used to measure the body’s ability to use oxygen during maximal exercise), suggesting that most of the effects of compression alter something (blood flow, mechanical advantage, etc) in the calf muscles. I’ll address this over the next few posts. Follow my posts to learn why the calf muscles are THE most important muscles for a runner.
Run with Brains,
Scott Hadley PhD, DPT
Effects of compression stockings on running performance in men runners. 2009. Kemmler, vonStrengel, Kockritz, Mayhew, Wassermann, and Zapf. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23:101-105.