Compression Socks Explained – How They Work & Benefits
For those of us training for a big race (or anyone who just trains like an absolute animal on the roads, in the gym, or in the pool), compression socks can be a great addition to our wardrobe. But it’s not just athletes that can benefit from compression socks – it’s also a great product for people that travel on planes frequently, are on their feet all day, or have trouble with circulation.
HOW DO COMPRESSION SOCKS WORK?
TL; DR: Compression gear helps get more oxygen to your muscles, which makes it easier for your body to convert glucose into energy. This means you feel better for longer throughout your workout or recovery. It also keeps blood from pooling in your extremities and reduces swelling.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of it, there is one major concept you need to understand: our muscles use oxygen to function. Oxygen is delivered to our muscles through our bloodstream. The muscles use up the oxygen, and send the blood (now deoxygenated) back to the heart so it can clean up, resupply with oxygen, and begin the process all over again. <—This is a highly simplified explanation of an incredibly complex procedure in the body!
Your muscles like using oxygen to create energy. This is called aerobic respiration. But when oxygen isn’t available or is in short supply, the muscle switches to a different, less efficient process that does not use oxygen. This is called anaerobic respiration. During anaerobic respiration, your body creates more lactate than your body can convert back into energy, and you fatigue.
The longer your body can sustain aerobic respiration (with that nice oxygen-rich blood), the less muscle fatigue you’ll experience. And the more quickly your circulatory system can clear lactate and waste product out of your muscles, the better you’ll feel during your workout.
SOME KEY TERMS
Aerobic Respiration – the process by which your cells use oxygen to break down glucose and create energy. Aerobic respiration produces energy at a slow rate, but it can continue to supply energy to the muscle system for several hours or longer, so long as the fuel supply lasts.
Anaerobic Respiration – the process that takes over when your circulatory system cannot provide oxygen to your muscles fast enough to maintain aerobic respiration. Your cells break down glucose WITHOUT oxygen and produce lactate more quickly. Anaerobic respiration produces energy quickly, but yields significantly less energy than aerobic respiration
Lactic Acid/Lactate – a byproduct created when your body breaks down glucose for energy. Your body reconverts and recycles this back into energy.
Graduated Compression – compression socks, tights, or calf sleeves that are tighter at the bottom and loosen slightly as you go up the calf and lower leg to fight the effects of gravity on bloodflow.
FORCES ARTERIES TO DILATE, increasing blood flow through them. Arteries carry oxygen and nutrient-rich blood from the heart to your muscles.
FORCES VEINS TO CONSTRICT. This is a weird one. I won’t dive into a wormhole of anatomy and physiology, but forcing the walls of veins to constrict actually makes the blood flow through them more quickly. Veins take the deoxygenated blood which is full of waste product away from your muscles.
REDUCES MUSCLE VIBRATION. When you strike the ground, the impact sends small vibrations up through the muscles of your lower body, making them work a little bit harder to stabilize themselves. Compression gear helps to offset that.
REDUCES SWELLING. The compression forces bloodflow in a way that doesn’t happen naturally when you are in a seated position for a long time (for instance, on a long plane ride, or stuck at your desk for hours on end), so fluid doesn’t have a chance to pool in your lower legs.
So more good stuff coming in, and more bad stuff going out – great! The same idea carries over to your recovery phase as well – muscles also need that oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to repair themselves.