Compression stockings are the hottest thing to his the triathlon scene since the aerobar, and I couldn't be angrier about it. They 1) look stupid 2) feel uncomfortable and 3) are useless.

See the thing is, maybe I am prejudiced, because I am very familiar with compression stockings. Dedicated bird fans know that I have taken two Deep Vein Thromboses (DVT), one in each of my giant legs (check out this post if you need to catch up on my health history). After you get a DVT, doctors recommend that you wear medical grade compression stockings for a minimum of 6 months in order to prevent a painful scarring of the affect vein, called Post Thrombotic Syndrome. Compression stockings keep the blood from pooling in the area of the clot, as blood clots often damage the valves in the area of the clot. The stockings literally squeeze the leg, pushing blood up towards the heart. The stockings need to have a minimum compression rating of 35mm Hg (blame your high school science teacher if you aren't familiar with units of pressure). While post-thrombotic patients should be careful to wear compression stockings as much as possible, the most important time is when the patient is inactive. This is because, during activity, the muscles of the leg contract powerfully, pushing blood towards the heart. The stockings are needed during inactivity, when the muscles aren't contracting, as muscle contraction is the main force that drives blood in the legs back to the heart.

The take home point from this paragraph is this: compression stockings are medical equipment used for a specific therapeutic purpose.

I said I am prejudiced, because having had two DVTs and plenty of experience wearing medical grade compression stockings, I can tell you that wearing these kind of compression stockings sucks. It's hot (especially if your living in Southern Florida), it's uncomfortable, and you look about as stylish as a senior citizen wearing Bermuda shorts, going mall walking on Saturday morning. I wore these guys on and off for the better part of two years, and never once enjoyed it.

Medical grade compression stockings

Triathlon-type compression stockings

Compression equipment for triathletes comes in all different styles, for different body parts, and companies producing this compression gear make all kinds of (non-specific, unproven) claims about the gear's benefits. 2XU, the industry leader in sports-specific compression gear, claims their stuff "improves recovery, reduces fatigue, improves circulation, heightens agility, and reduces muscle damage." They produce short sleeved, sleeveless, and longsleeve tops, short and long compression pants, and compression socks. Some of their gear is designed for wearing during activity, and they market some of it to wear after activity, "to aid in recovery". Check out their website here if your are interested in smelling a big pile of crap.

I claimed that triathlon style compression gear is stupid for three reasons, it looks stupid, is uncomfortable, and is useless. Let's look at each in detail:

1) Looks Stupid

Honestly, the only counterargument I can imagine to this statement, is this, "Hey Frey, I don't care what I look like, I just want to perform well, recover quickly, and feel strong, and compression gear helps me do that."

Really? If that is true, why not go all out? According to medical research, the most effective compression gear is 35 mm Hg, thigh high compression stockings. If you want the best for your finely tuned triathlete's body, this is what you'd wear:

I win that argument.

2) It is Uncomfortable.

Knee high blacks socks on a hot summer day. While running a marathon. Enough said.

Personally, I think that fact that a company can manage to convince thousands of triathletes that wearing knee high blacks socks in the middle of summer while swimming, biking, and running hundreds of miles is an incredible indication of how powerfully advertising can brainwash people.

They're not comfortable.

3) They are useless

Remember: compression socks are most useful when a person is not active. Muscle contraction is the main force that drives blood up, against gravity, from the legs to the heart. When you are biking and running, your leg muscles are contracting powerfully, and blood is returning to your heart. You DO NOT need to wear compression socks while you are active. If you had blood pooling in your legs while you were riding a bike, you would have MUCH more significant circulatory disfunction than you could treat with a crappy pair of 2XU socks.

They do not increase performance. Go ahead and find a study that 'proves' the socks increase an athletes performance in some way. I guarantee it's been funded by a company that sells the socks.

What about all those elite level athletes wearing the socks? They are sponsered by the sock companies... they get paid to wear them.

Finally, check out this guy I saw at the Brandywine Bicycle Club's Taxing Metric group bike ride last weekend.

I want you to notice two people. The first is the guy on the far left. He's got himself a hot new pair of triathlete-style compression socks. Looking good, stud. The other person you need to see is the guy in the white t-shirt. If you can't tell, he's wearing sneakers, khaki short, and a white t-shirt.

For a solid 15 miles, the guy in the white t-shirt was ahead of the compression sock guy. If those compression socks can improve recovery, reduce fatigue, improve circulation, heighten agility, and reduce muscle damage, shouldn't the guy in the fancy socks be faster than the dude in the sneakers? The socks are useless.

If you feel otherwise, leave a comment telling me why I am wrong. Tell me why the compression socks are so great. I will be happy to leave a follow up comment explaining why you're an idiot.


Nathan said... @ December 16, 2010 at 12:14 PM
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan said... @ December 16, 2010 at 12:17 PM

I don't have an opinion one way or another but if you are going to attack the fact that there is lack of evidence proving the value of the socks then maybe you ought to use more scientifically sound evidence thant the two bikers at the end of your post. How do you know that the guy in sneakers is not a far superior athlete?

candita said... @ January 15, 2011 at 1:36 PM

A lot of what I've read says they're very useful for recovery after a long race... your post doesn't address that at all.

Frey Maxim said... @ January 15, 2011 at 1:50 PM

@candita ... my post doesn't address this, because the studies that show "they're very useful for recovery after a long race" don't exist. Just because some internet author thinks they may be helpful after a long race does not make it true.

Krushna Priya said... @ March 10, 2013 at 2:42 PM

Thank you for this post. I could definitely relate to the thigh high dilemma. Do you know if compression leggings are just as effective?

Anita Inglis said... @ July 4, 2013 at 3:44 AM

This was a very interesting post. I was diagnosed with post-thrombotic syndrome last Nov (12) following a DVT in April (12). My whole left leg and groin are affected. I've slowly regained my training but running is still difficult. I did 5k yesterday wearing my medical compression grade 2 (18-24 mhg) which I was prescribed. Do you think it would be better to run with a higher compression or less?

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