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How To Choose The Right Compression Gear

Don't choose any old piece of tight gear—there's actually a helpful science behind it.

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Brightly colored, knee-high socks and other form-fitting compression shorts and tops are all the rage among runners these days. In fact, with all of the hot pink, neon green and other bright-colored compression socks available to accessorize your wardrobe, these garments have become a glowing, as well as growing, trend in running.

But they’re much more than a fashion statement. As a runner, compression socks and other apparel can help prevent injuries, reduce muscle soreness after your runs and help you recover more quickly, enabling you to run the next day, even after a long or hard workout.

These tight-fitting tops, shorts, socks and calf sleeves keep your muscles warm and improve blood flow on cold days. In addition, the spandex-like fabrics efficiently wick sweat away from your body, preventing chafing and blisters when you’re hot and sticky.

If you’re considering a purchase, look first at buying a good pair of graduated, knee-high compression socks, where the compression is tightest at the ankle and gradually tapers off just below the knee. Originally developed to improve blood circulation and prevent blood clots in people with deep vein thrombosis and other problems, they offer numerous benefits for runners.

Not only can these socks provide an extra bit of stability for your ankles and calves when you’re running on an uneven trail, but numerous research studies have shown that they’ll help reduce soreness after your runs and allow you to recover more quickly. That means your legs won’t feel as heavy or tired after a long, hard day on the roads.

A good pair of compression socks increases circulation in your legs and accelerates muscle repair. By applying appropriate compression to the foot’s vascular system, you can reduce swelling and pooling of fluid that can occur during a long run or over extended periods of being stationary (such as on an airplane). Good compression will help move this fluid back toward the heart so it can be re-oxygenated and circulated back to the muscles.

To reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis from sitting for long periods of time, many people are advised by their physicians to wear compression socks on long airplane flights. For runners, they’re probably the most essential piece of clothing to wear after a marathon or a long, hard run.

A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by a group of Australian and New Zealand sports scientists found that a group of runners who wore below-knee compression socks for 48 hours after a marathon were able to run significantly longer on a graded treadmill test two weeks after their marathon than a control group that didn’t wear compression socks.

Whether compression socks will make you faster if you wear them in a race is still an open question among scientists. A 2009 study published by a group of German researchers in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that compression socks had a beneficial effect on running performance when worn by a group of 21 moderately trained male runners who performed two treadmill tests to exhaustion, one without tight-fitting compression socks and one without them. But most studies conducted since have found little or no benefit.

In any case, many elite runners—such as Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi, winner of the New York City and Boston Marathons, and Olympic bronze medalist Shalane Flanagan—wear them regularly in races.

However you decide to use them—whether for running or to recover more quickly from your hard runs or races—make sure your compression socks fit properly. The best manufacturers sell socks fitted specifically to your left and right feet and require you to measure the diameter of your calves to get a properly fitted pair. Also make sure the compression sock or calf sleeve you purchase is graduated—tighter at the ankle than at the top of the calf to promote venous blood return and has 20-30 mmHg of moderate compression, which is considered ideal for performance and recovery.