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What's with this Compression Thing, Anyway?

By Jennifer Ward, 09/24/19, 2:30PM EDT


The flashy, colorful, knee-high socks are more than just a fashion statement.

We’ve all seen athletic fads come and go—just look at any race expo—but one trend has stood the test of time: compression. But the flashy, colorful, knee-high socks are more than just a fashion statement. You may have asked yourself “do those socks really do anything?” The short answer? Yes! Let’s hear what an industry expert has to say and why you should add compression socks to your running kit. 

"Everyone should be using compression—it has nothing to do with your level,” says Jena Gatses, a physical therapist and strength coach in California who works with Hollywood stars and NASCAR drivers. “Do you walk places?” Gatses adds, only half-joking. “Then gravity is pulling blood into your legs.”

Gatses goes on to explain that while running, the leg muscles demand blood and then have to pump that blood back to the heart for re-circulation. Compression provides an essential service for runners by speeding up and optimizing this process—one that needs to work optimally for a runner to run, recover, and get out again the next day.  

Simply stated, compression gets 30 percent more oxygen to a runner’s muscle tissue and helps their muscles recover faster, all of which leaves them with less fatigue overall. 

“There are a lot of fads out there,” Gatses says, who meticulously researches every tool she uses to help provide preventative care, not the kind that simply treats injury once it occurs. Compression has long been used for patients recovering from surgery to aid circulation. These socks are required to be “medical-grade,” which many compression brands claim to be.

When Gatses discovered the brand CEP, she knew she’d found a quality product that was backed by science. “We can’t control pollution and all these other variables that affect our health. Why not use these products that actually work?” she adds. 

More for your money

There’s value in investing in your body, but you want to be sure you are investing in the right tools. There are numerous benefits to compression, including increasing blood flow, speeding recovery, and preventing injury. Gatses explains further that reduced swelling, less pressure on the nerves (pain reduction), and a small improvement in strength is valuable for everyone.

Other benefits that have been associated with compression include faster removal of lactic acid, better muscle stability, and reduced muscle soreness following exercise. Now that’s getting your money’s worth. 

When do I use them?

While compression is highly effective before and during activity, it is also an important asset to an efficient recovery. Getting 30% more oxygen to your muscles before a run helps prep your legs for the work to come and keeps your legs fresh until the end.

During exercise, you may have heard that your muscles push blood back to your heart if you get them working hard enough. Gatses says few runners get to this intensity on a regular basis—and especially not during longer aerobic sessions or races. This is why compression is so valuable to runners and athletes alike. 

A compression shopping list

Compression comes in many forms; from socks incorrectly marketed as compression to hospital-grade full-leg boots that fill with air and gradually compress your entire leg.

“Socks are something you can use every day, and are affordable and portable,” says Gatses, who has experienced this firsthand with NASCAR drivers whose travel schedules demand easy, portable solutions to fight blood clots.

She has a few more requirements than being small enough to fit in an overhead compartment. “You want to look for 20-30 mmHg (millimeters of mercury) the amount of pressure needed to be the most viable. It also must be graduated compression, meaning it is tightest at the ankle and lessens through the calf to act as a natural pump, flushing out deoxygenated blood back to the heart—it can’t just be tight all over, otherwise it will trap the blood and have a negative effect on the body.” 

Gatses adds that it’s a major red flag when a company trying to sell you compression doesn’t tell you to measure for size. CEP’s size charts online walk you through appropriate measurements to guide you to the correct size. 

Our hearts and legs give us the gift of running, day in and day out. It’s time to reward them. Or, as CEP says, "You’ll Thank Us Later."