How effective are compression stockings during workouts?
Although compression stockings are widely used by runners, their actual scientific efficacy is debated. A study by the University of Gothenburg now concludes that they lead to a reduced supply of oxygen while running and don't reduce muscle damage.
At races, you’ll meet more and more participants wearing colourful knee-high socks. These compression stockings are designed to facilitate blood flow and create pressure on lower leg tissue. All with the goal of improving recovery and performance.
Research on compression stockings has become more important, especially in recent years. Many brands such as Rohner and Asics have already invested in compression stockings, offering them in various sizes and colours. In addition, manufacturers promise that compression stockings increase performance and improve recovery. There are differing opinions on how compression stockings affect muscle function during exercise regarding oxygenation and muscle health, and whether or not they can be beneficial for healthy individuals. Various studies show positive effects and promise less muscle soreness, less muscle damage or a better oxygen supply to the tissue [1-5]. However, there are also studies that have shown the negative effects of wearing compression stockings during exercise. Specifically, on oxygen uptake, heart rate, blood pressure, calf muscle tissue oxygenation, partial pressure, and muscle soreness assessments as well as muscle damage markers compared to regular socks [6-12]. Research hasn’t yet arrived at a consensus.
Study examines intramuscular pressure and oxygen supply
In a study , Rennerfelt et al. for the first time directly measured intramuscular pressure and continuous oxygen supply to the muscles before, during and after running. For this purpose, 20 experienced runners (10 healthy men and women each, aged 22-35) were asked to complete a distance of 10 kilometres on a treadmill at a speed of 10 to 12 km/h. The test was performed twice, once with and once without wearing compression stockings. Thus, the runners served as their own control group. During the run, intramuscular pressure in the anterior tibialis muscle (m. tibialis anterior) was recorded using a catheter and local oxygen supply in the muscle was recorded using sensors on the skin. The values were measured before, during and after the run.
No evidence of improved performance
As soon as the participants put on compression stockings, a significant increase in pressure was observed in the lower leg muscles. During the run with the stockings, average intramuscular pressure was 22 mmHg (medical unit for pressure of body fluids) higher, while oxygen supply to the muscles was 11 per cent lower than during the run without compression stockings. The study also measured myoglobin and creatine kinase (two markers of muscle damage) in the blood. Blood samples showed no reduction in muscle damage markers when runners wore compression stockings. This finding and reduced oxygen supply to the muscles indicate that compression stockings don’t reduce muscle damage in healthy individuals. Moreover, they also didn’t lead to any increase in performance.
On your feet – but with stockings?
Whether you wear compression stockings or regular sports socks when you go running is up to you. If you choose compression stockings, it’s important they’re the right size, especially in the ankle area, where pressure is the highest. Also, their tightness and size should be optimised to you.
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Molecular and Muscular Biologist. Researcher at ETH Zurich. Strength athlete.