>6/4/13: Explaining the Compression Craze

If you’ve been following the world of running for the past year, you’ve likely seen those knee-high socks or “sleeves” that many striders now sport. Runners from Paula Radcliffe—the current women’s world record holder in the marathon—to many on the recreational end of the spectrum wear these compressive garments, and they seem to be one of those “now” items that every runner should invest in. Here at Marathon Sports, we carry three brands of compression—Zensah, CEP, and 2XU—with each manufacturer offering its own take on the technology. In this write-up, we’ll do an overview of compression: where it came from and the thinking behind applying it to running, and then we’ll look at the differences between each brand we carry. In the conclusion we’ll look at some personal anecdotes with compression usage, as well as some tips for care. All in all, the hope is to leave our readers a little more in the know concerning the world of compression.

Now interestingly—considering how popular they’ve become among runners—compression socks were first designed and used for those who had, for the most part, serious difficulties with any kind of movement. Indeed, for those whose blood didn’t flow well and thus were more prone to clots and other complications, compression was used to promote blood flow in the lower extremities. (Medi, the company that makes CEP socks, is a medical company that then branched out into athletics.) The basic idea is that there are two vein systems in the human body, deep and superficial, and that compression pushes blood flow into the deep system to the point that using the muscles in your legs, i.e. by walking, facilitates the movement of venous blood back to your heart. This was then applied to running from an efficiency standpoint—i.e. facilitated blood flow equals faster blood flow, and faster blood flow means that the by-products of metabolic activity, which can cause muscle fatigue, will be flushed out faster in what is known as venous return (the return of de-oxygenated blood to the heart). At the same time, arterial flow (the supply of freshly oxygenated blood to the body) will be increased, especially to the calf muscle. Or so the thinking goes.

Knowing this, we can now see that Zensah, CEP, and 2XU’s differences lie in how and to what extent they promote the flow of blood in the legs. Of the three, Zensah is the “loosest” fitting, and is especially popular among younger, middle-school- or high-school-aged runners (Zensah comes in argyle and has arguably the best color options). CEP and 2XU are “tighter” with the main difference being in how 2XU’s “performance” sock is designed; as opposed to CEP, which maintains a consistent amount of compression over the calf muscle, 2XU’s socks increase in compression as they go up the calf. (This difference in design causes no noteworthy distinction in arterial flow, although 2XU “feels” tighter.)  CEP and 2XU’s “recovery” socks, for comparison, feature the same compression profile in that they both have graduated compression, i.e. tight in the ankle and then looser as you go up the calf, which is designed to promote the venal return mentioned above. (And performance “sleeves” feature the same profile as the full socks just without the coverage of the foot.) Overall, though, when it comes to compression socks, the best advice is to try them on, which brings us to our anecdotal conclusion.

This writer’s first stab with compression socks began with CEP’s performance sock back in February. One of the beauties of the “performance” sock (from any brand) is that it covers all bases: because it is graduated to the base of the calf and then constantly compressive (or more in the case of 2XU) over the calf, runners still get the venal return from the tight compression in the ankle that then transitions to looser compression as you near the calf. And indeed, I actually wore these socks exclusively for recovery, with the one exception being the 2013 Vermont City Marathon on May 26. (After that race, I wore the 2XU recovery sock, which was noticeably looser over the calf muscle.) With the CEP pair, I’d say it is a noticeable difference between wearing the socks for recovery and not—in fact, they became a normal part of my training routine along with Endurox R4 and Honey Stinger energy gels, and my recovery felt better. And even when I wasn’t running but rather standing at work all day in one of our stores, my legs felt better if I had the socks on all day.

Vermont City, however, was an exception, and a game-time decision. I had planned to run in shorts and sans-compression socks per usual but with the nasty weather (30 degrees and rainy), I switched to long tights, thereby opening the door to wearing the socks underneath. In addition to promoting blood flow, the socks also naturally “hold muscles together” to minimize the contracting, pounding, and vibration that comes with running (which causes soreness), and although I have nothing to compare it to, I will say that I never felt tight for a long period of time during the marathon, and within three days felt completely back to normal.

And finally, care-wise, make sure to turn the socks inside out and wash them in cold water, and dry them on low for five to ten minutes, to ensure that they last you for many more recovery sessions or miles. If you have any more questions, please stop by one of our locations, and thanks for reading.