When you hear the word recovery, what do you think of?
- a day filled with no strenuous physical activity
- getting a few ‘junk miles’ in on the road or the bike
- popping anti-inflammatories and putting on a pair of compression socks
No doubt you’ve tried one, if not all three, of the statements above at one time or another to speed your recovery process. Or perhaps you used another recovery method such as an ice bath, massage, or foam roller.
But which techniques work? Does popularity equate with effectiveness? Is there data that says one method works significantly more than others? And just what the heck are compression socks?
So many questions… Today, we’ll investigate the curious relationship between compression socks and recovery.
The Need To Recover
We know integrating recovery days into our workout regimen is critical to avoid injuries and the dreaded effects of overtraining. Download any free training guide on the interwebs and you’re bound to trip across the word ‘REST’ on no fewer than one dedicated day of each week (most likely on Monday after you’ve killed yourself being a weekend warrior on Saturday and Sunday).
If you’ve ever unwisely decided in your magnanimous way to ignore this tenet of training, it’s a good bet you’ve shortly thereafter landed on your couch, spending some quality time with the seat cushions, laid up with an overtraining injury or illness. In case you were wondering, experiencing symptoms such as severe fatigue, decreased performance and appetite or trouble sleeping, even after several days off from working out, are strong indications that you may be a victim of overtraining.
So now that we’ve agreed that recovery days are a good thing, we can move on to another frequently asked question by staunch recreational athletes: what’s the best way to recover? Phrased a different way: how can I recover faster?
We live in a world where squeezing the most productivity out of every day is highly prized. It’s no surprise that athletes would want to do the same with their method of rest. Which brings us back to the topic of our discussion today, do compression socks aid in recovery?
If the answer is yes, should we really be pulling on compression socks after a weekend 5k? If the answer is no, then are they just another fancy addition to our workout wardrobe that lets everyone around us know we got some serious miles in?
So many questions… Let’s get a common baseline of what we mean when we use the word recovery in order to answer some of these questions.
Recovery and Swelling
Recovery, as we covered earlier, is an essential part of every athlete’s training program. In the field of exercise physiology the term recovery has several meanings, but the one we are examining today is described concisely by Meredith J. Luttrell, PhD and John R. Halliwill from the Department of Human Physiology at the University of Oregon as,
an end-point, e.g., having reached a state of recovery after a bout of exercise, or a starting-point, e.g., an athlete has recovered from prior training and is physiologically ready for additional training stress…
A major sign that the body has undergone intense physical exertion and requires recovery is swelling. Swelling occurs for a number of reasons, but in terms of exercise, it is the body’s response to tiny, microscopic tears in muscle that occur from intense use. If you’ve ever run a race or lifted heavy weights, you’ve probably experienced this.
It’s possible to also see this swelling in body composition results. For example, here are the Segmental Lean Body Mass results right and left legs for a 27-year-old individual:
And here are the results three days later:
Notice the slight increase in overall Lean Body Mass for both the right and left legs. Because an increase in Lean Body Mass reflects increase in water (as well as Skeletal Muscle), it’s safe to conclude that the roughly ¼ pound increase seen in both legs is the swelling due to exercise.
Recovery is about giving your body a chance to relax, recuperate, and recover from this swelling with the end goal of setting you up to resume physical activity. What this statement leaves out is the psychological benefits of recovery, but we’ll touch on that in a bit. Again, we circle back to the question, should compression socks play a role in getting you fit to tackle your next workout?
What are compression garments and socks?
Compression garments come in several different varieties: shirts, pants, sleeves and socks (some actually do cover your feet, but many simply go the length of your calf and are called socks), to name a few.
If you read the back of a box of compression socks you’ll likely see words and phrases like “quicker recovery” or “improves circulation and oxygen delivery to muscles” or “reduce lactic acid build up”. What was once a treatment reserved for the patients of medical professionals with circulatory complications has ended up on the racks inside our local running shoe stores and big box sporting outlets.
In fact, lower-limb compression garments, those colorful knee-high socks that cut off at the ankle, are no longer reserved for elite athletes or the ‘in it to win it’ marathoner’s toeing the starting line.
Do compression socks aid in recovery?
If we’re being honest, the answer is…inconclusive.
It’s worth noting that numerous studies that involve the analysis of the effectiveness of lower-limb compression garments on athlete’s recovery have very low subject numbers. In other words, the sample size is so small (or so specialized, as in the subjects are professional athletes, so their response to periodization training and recovery as a whole could very well be different than the desk jockey’s response) that it makes one pause and seriously question whether the results can be generalized to represent the majority of recreational athletes.
One review of studies on this topic will conclude that wearing compressions socks post-strenuous physical activity will promote recovery by aiding in the removal of blood lactate and reduce muscle swelling, while a different study will come out reporting that there is no evidence of any physiological benefit whatsoever.
So where does this leave us?
One thing that does stand out among the back and forth of compression socks effectiveness is the marker for the wearer’s perception of recovery. Several studies indicate that participants who wear lower-limb compression socks perceived themselves to be recovering better by wearing them versus not wearing them. In a small study consisting of 24 subjects, researchers concluded that perceived muscle soreness dropped for a group of endurance runners who wore lower-limb compression garments.
Mind Over Matter: All That Matters?
Before we donate our compression garments to the nearest thrift store or throw them out completely, we should not discount the value of perceived improved recovery. Recovery is indeed a tactic used to evade physical injury, illness and fatigue (really, take Mondays off), but it’s also helpful psychologically. Using mental strategies to improve your recovery time isn’t cheating. It’s smart.
When it comes to mind over matter, if wearing compression socks mentally makes you feel like you have less muscle soreness, then the positive psychological boost is worth the fashion statement.
If you’re still looking for a reason to purchase a pair of compression socks, or justify a past purchase now that you know the data doesn’t overwhelmingly support their recovery benefits, here are a few things to consider:
- Defense from the elements
They shield you from the sun, some forms of dirt and the lashing from weeds as you whistle by them.
- Improved Warmth
Compression garments can be used as one more layer between you and the bitter cold. They also can be useful for keeping your muscles and joints limber, thus reducing risks of injury.
- It’s not an ice bath
Unless freezing is your thing.
Do compression garments aid in recovery? The answer seems to be, we don’t know. But that doesn’t mean researchers won’t keep looking for more solid evidence one way or the other. And if you feel better if you use them, then maybe it doesn’t matter that much. It can’t hurt.
Researchers don’t seem to have lost interest in testing their effectiveness on both athlete’s performance and recovery, so don’t expect to stop hearing about the pros and cons of wearing compression garments anytime soon.
Now, how about those ice baths?
Hilary Fosdal is an ACE certified personal trainer. She also does a lot of heavy lifting at redphonestudio.com, a web design and digital marketing company that helps health practitioners improve their professional identity online.