Do Compression Socks Work in Endurance Sport?


Whenever I watch an Ironman on TV, read a Triathlon magazine, or check out results online from major triathlons, I see elite Ironman triathletes wearing compression socks. Theoretically, I can understand why they might work, especially in the heat. When on your feet for a long time, especially in hot conditions, fluid and blood tend to pool in the lower limbs. It’s the reason your foot fills out a shoe when running or walking for a long time. The compression stockings may help return this fluid to the heart. But what does the research say when it comes to the compression stockings improving performance or preventing muscle soreness in the days after the event? Here is some Spanish research suggesting they don’t work!

The Research

Expereinced triathletes aged around 35 years of age were matched for age, height, weight, and training status (swim 5-6 hr/week; ride approx 170 km/week; run approx 35 km/week; best half ironman time of approx. 5 hrs) and placed into either an experimental group (N = 19; using ankle-to-knee graduated compression stockings) or control group (N = 17; using regular socks). Participants competed in a half-ironman triathlon in environmental conditions of 29 ± 3 °C and 73 ± 8 % of relative humidity. Race time was measured by means of chip timing. Pre- and post-race, maximal jump height and leg muscle power were measured along with blood myoglobin and creatine kinase concentrations (markers of muscle damage) were determined and the triathletes were asked for perceived exertion and muscle soreness scores using standard measurement scales.

The Results

Total race time was not statistically different between groups (315 ± 45 min for the control group and 310 ± 32 min for the experimental group). After the race, jump height (−8.5 ± 3.0 versus −9.2 ± 5.3 %) and leg muscle power reductions (−13 ± 10 versus −15 ± 10 %) were similar between groups. After-race myoglobin and creatine kinase concentrations, the measures of muscle damage, were not different between groups. Perceived muscle soreness  and the rating of perceived effort were not different between groups after the race.

So What?

The results strongly suggest that wearing compression stockings did not represent any advantage for maintaining performance or reducing blood markers of muscle damage during a triathlon event. While some previous laboratory-based research suggests may enhance recovery of muscle strength and power and possibly lessen muscle soreness after exercise done in labs, this study in the real world suggest that compression socks don’t provide any advantage in improving performance or recovery in endurance athletes. For recovery strategies that research has shown work, see Chapter 15 of our book The Masters Athlete.

Source: Del Coso, J. and others (2014) Compression stockings do not improve muscular performance during a half-ironman triathlon race. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 114: 587–595.