What You Need to Know About Graduated Compression Socks

A decade ago, we weren’t talking about graduated compression socks for running – just for medical purposes. Today, they’re everywhere, and not just worn by runners. While graduated compression socks originated as medical products, they’re now being chosen by athletes in a range of sports, most commonly by triathletes and runners. If you’re new to running or want to know more about graduated compression and why it helps, read on.


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How Do Graduated Compression Socks Work?

Graduated compression socks or stockings are elastic garments worn around the leg, compressing the limb. The highest compression is found at the ankle, and the compression lessens as it moves up the leg (which is why it’s called graduated compression.) This reduces the diameter of distended veins and increases venous blood flow velocity and valve effectiveness. Compression therapy helps decrease venous pressure, prevents venous stasis and impairments of venous walls, and relieves heavy and aching legs. In plain English, it improves blood flow to combat conditions such as tired, achy feet, shin splints and calf cramps.

Compression therapy goes back to the cave drawings of Tassili in Sahara as early as 5000-2500 BC. However, modern graduated compression socks didn’t evolve until the 19th century. Doctors discovered that external pressure (compression) could be a more formal treatment for serious conditions such as deep vein thrombosis. In the early 2000s, we began to see more graduated compression socks and sleeves introduced into sports and everyday life.

Over the last 10 years, marathoners and triathletes have embraced graduated compression socks. If you look at Google Trends, searches have skyrocketed in the past few years.

Searches for graduated compression socks skyrocketed.
Searches for graduated compression skyrocketed.


How Should Graduated Compression Socks Fit?

If you get one thing right when you buy graduated compression socks, it has to be the size. Remember, this was a medical product first. You can’t just grab a pair and throw them on; they need to fit properly to provide the most benefit. Gather two measurements: your shoe size and calf circumference. The manufacturer should list both with a size chart to help you calculate the right size for you. If your sizing is off, it can affect the quality of the compression and diminish the benefits that you get from wearing them.

When Should I Wear Them?

If you’re wondering if you should wear graduated compression socks pre-, post-, or during a workout, the answer is yes to all of the above. Compression can provide benefits in all three instances. Increased blood flow means faster muscle warm-up pre-exercise. Muscle stabilization and circulation benefits help during a workout or game, alleviating calf cramps and shin splints. Lactic acid removal makes for faster recovery post-exercise. By choosing compression in all facets, pre-, during, and post-workout, you give your legs the best chance and being healthy for the long term.

What Is mmHg?

mmHg stands for millimeters of mercury, which is the measurement for how strong the graduated compression is. The bigger the number is, the tighter the graduated compression socks will hug your calves. For everyday use and exercise, 15-20mmHg is considered moderate compression and is recommended. Anything 20-30 mmHg and higher is considered medical grade and is recommended for treating venous insufficiencies or for use for short periods post-workout. So, the basic rule of thumb is, if you have a physical condition that warrants compression, 20-30 mmHg could be for you, but if you don’t, then stick with 15-20 mmHg for anything during exercise and mix in the 20-30 mmHg for short-term recovery wears.

Does Graduated Compression Improve Performance?

Will graduated compression socks make you run faster the first day you put them on? Probably not. Will you perform better over the course of a long season? You bet. Graduated compression helps extend the life of your legs by keeping them healthy and supported during training, competition, and everyday life. A great article on the physical and mental benefits of graduated compression can be found here.

Will I Look Like I’m Wearing Medical Devices?

Gone are the days when compression socks looked like sterile hospital-issue medical items. Today, you can buy graduated compression socks in a rainbow of colors and an assortment of styles. If you’re the type that likes to match your socks to your shorts, you’ll be able to find the perfect color socks.

Will Wearing Compression Socks Make My Legs Hot?

Valid question – this was my biggest concern since I live in Houston. I worried that graduated compression socks would trap in heat or make me sweat more. However, a recent study tested the application of compression during exercise in hot weather. The study found that, while compression doesn’t increase or reduce sweating in any way, wearing compression does increase blood flow when exercising in the eat. This is good news for those of us running in the summer (or in hot climates) who often aren’t fond of air-conditioned treadmills at the gym.

Compression is not just for athletes and individuals with adverse medical diagnoses; compression is everyone. Regardless of age or activity level, anyone can benefit from the circulatory benefits of compression. So you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to benefit from graduated compression. You can be a data entry specialist who spends most of your 8-hour workday sitting, or someone who enjoys the occasional pickup basketball game with your friends.

Poor blood circulation is a symptom of both low and high physical activity. The steady application of graduated compression throughout the day can make a huge difference in how you feel the next day and the day after that. In fact, compression can help extend the life of your legs.

Which Compression Socks Do You Wear?

I’m partial to the Legend Compression Leg Sleeves (affiliate link). They provide excellent graduated compression, and I can wear them with my Thorlo socks.