Secrets from the Training Room: Compression socks

Paula Radcliffe, one of the top marathoners in the world, is among the many runners who have found value in compression socks. Michael Sohn/AP

With all of the quick fixes and miracle products in the world of sports, it’s tough to tell the helpful techniques from the hurtful, or the ones that don’t make a difference either way. Which is why we’re ducking into training rooms and offices, talking to athletes and coaches, and getting the real deal on what’s worth your time.

This week we’re getting the download on compression socks.

What They Are: If you watched the New York City Marathon on Sunday, chances are you saw some runners wearing what appeared to be skin-tight knee-high socks. Compression socks, which were historically worn by anyone who was not able to get up and walk around for an extended period of time, are now showing up on athletes — runners in particular — everywhere. Many believe they can increase performance during races and help speed up recovery post-workout.

How They Work: Designed to be tightest around the ankle and approximately knee-high, the socks are designed help increase blood circulation. Because of the tightness, blood flow has a narrower path to work through and, as a result, pressure in the arteries is higher, causing more blood to return to the heart instead of going to the lower legs. Essentially, they help do the work that walking does normally for those who are stuck in the seated position.

So how does this translate to running and endurance sports? It turns out that some people believe this boost in blood circulation can also help runners feel a boost in speed — and benefit them post-performance with a speedier recovery and prevent lactate build-up.

When to Wear Them: Depending on the results you’re going for, before, after or during a workout are all options. Runners who don them for races say they benefit from increased speed and even point to improved mechanics, and those looking for a speedy turnaround with muscle recovery say they wear them after or even pre-performance.

Who Wears Them: Most notably, Paula Radcliffe, and other professional long-distance runners, but overall, runners everywhere — newbies and veterans alike — are giving them a go.

Do They Work? The definition of “working” depends on the wearer and what she’s looking to get out of them. Studies are mixed. But three-time Ironman Anthony Ewing (Chicago, Ill.) swears by them for several reasons, including the aforementioned increased blood circulation during performance and the recovery benefits.

But he also refers to the placebo effect, and the fact that runners are “creatures of habit” -- once a runner or athlete wears or does something that seems to benefit her performance, she tends to add it as a permanent step in her routine.

But for Ewing, compression socks are not necessarily the best fit for high school athletes.

“(High school athletes) tend to recover quicker and have less problems at that age with lactate build-up,” he said.

Instead, Ewing feels at high school level the priority should be placed on post-stretching, and some athletes may falsely consider the socks a replacement for this crucial step.

However, Paul Brettner, a coach of multiple sports at Vernon Hills ((Lake County, Ill.) isn’t so quick to dismiss the socks.

“If it gives them confidence during their performance, then I’d consider that working,” he said.