Compression Leg Sleeves & Socks Discussion

A discussion of compression socks and calf sleeves accompanies a review of Zensah Calf Sleeves.

By on September 20, 2010 | Comments

Contrived Contraptions or Decisive Devices? A Compression Leg Sleeves/ Socks Discussion and Zensah Compression Leg Sleeves Review

The medical community has long utilized compression socks for the treatment of an array of lower leg conditions caused by circulatory and/or lymphatic systems malfunction (e.g., lower leg swelling, blood clots, and varicose veins). The full story of how compression socks treat these conditions is fairly complex, but can be boiled down into two research-proven categories:

  1. A specific degree of graduated compression of the lower leg (compression that is a bit tighter around the ankles than the calves) helps to maintain static pressure, necessary for circulatory and lymphatic systems function, among all of the lower legs’ veins and cell walls.
  2. A specific degree of graduated compression of the lower leg enhances calf muscles’ contractions, which is one of the physical mechanisms that pushes blood and lymph out of the lower leg and back towards the body’s core.

If the medical community has documented the effectiveness of compression socks in treating lower leg ailments in sick people, then it makes logical sense that they might serve similar function in healthy people. I don’t know exactly when compression socks were co-opted by athletes, but Paula Radcliffe made a big splash among the running community when she world-recorded the marathon distance while wearing them during the 2003 London Marathon.

Since then, the compression leg sleeves/socks industry has blossomed, and we runners can acquire them in every color of the rainbow. Green compression socks? Check. Striped knee-highs with some compression? Oh yeah. Chicken wire-patterned calf sleeves? Got ‘em, too. … and this stuff ain’t cheap. Forking out $40 for a pair of sleeves or socks might be considered a miser’s purchase in this industry. The big question, though, for all of the funny-looking stuff with which we adorn our lower legs, and for all the hard-earned cash we spend, does this stuff really work?

The Science
Here’s brief snippet of what’s out there regarding the use of lower leg compression by healthy individuals. In no particular order:

Smith et al. [1] showed no statistically significant physiological (VO2 max and blood lactate level) or perceptual (rate of perceived exertion) differences between subjects who wore or did not wear compression socks after an anaerobic workout (30-second Wingate test).

In a 1997 study of Dutch factory workers [2], those that wore compression socks reported less leg pain and were measured to have less leg volume than their co-workers without compression socks. This study measured 114 workers on a daily basis for 3 months.

Layman et al. [3] measured running economy and mechanics in well-trained distance runners and found no statistically significant change in either variable by runners when wearing or not wearing Zensah Compression Leg Sleeves.

Ali et al. [4] observed that runners who wore graduated compression socks during and after a 10-kilometer run reported decreased muscle soreness 24 hours after the compression socks run. The subjects of this study were recreationally active men.

Kemmler et al. [5] showed that a group of moderately active male runners wearing compression socks with constant compression around the calf muscle experienced statistically significant improved running performance (measured in work performed) at different metabolic thresholds than when those same men ran without compression socks.

Research by Berry et al. [6] on 12 well-trained male runners indicated that blood lactate levels were lower after a maximal treadmill test while wearing graduated compression socks than by men not wearing the socks.

As I perused the scientific literature on compression leg sleeves/socks, I noticed several emergent trends:

  1. The verdict remains out within the sports science research community with regards to the effectiveness of using compression sleeves and socks among healthy human beings both during exercise of variable types and for recovery afterward.
  2. Subjects who were asked to report how they felt during and after exercise while wearing compression leg sleeves/socks largely reported feeling a bit better than subjects who weren’t wearing sleeves/socks.
  3. The studies vary widely in their independent variables. For example, in some research, the subjects are elite athletes, while, in others, they are self-described recreational athletes. For another example, the medical research community has learned that aiding circulatory and lymphatic systems malfunction requires a specific degree of compression. Very few sports science studies measured the amount of compression exerted upon subjects’ lower legs by the sleeves/socks.

My Zensah Compression Leg Sleeve Experience
Zensah Compression Leg SleevesFor this article, I tested the Zensah Compression Leg Sleeves in black. Zensah’s website says that, “The Calf/Shin Recovery Sleeves are made with gradient compression which provides wide ribbing in the front for shin support and tight ribbing in the back for calf support. The sleeves are made with Zensah Fabric which has silver helping to regulate skin temperature and fight bacteria.” The sleeves come in three sizes, but it’s not clear what the “calf size” categories denote, perhaps calf circumference or lower leg length? In any case, Zensah gave iRunFar a men’s medium to test, and, while a bit long, they created a fine degree of compressive pressure around my legs.

My lower legs swell after physical effort, and I have the same problem during air travel. I’ve experienced great success in minimizing swelling in both circumstances with the Zensah Compression Leg Sleeves. For example, in 2009, I took a three-flight, 24-hour, transcontinental and trans-Atlantic trip without compression socks, and I arrived with cankles and elephant-sized feet. This year, I made the same journey while wearing the Zensah sleeves, and I arrived with lower legs and feet of normal, happy size.

I previously wore $5, drug store bought, granny compression socks instead of the leg sleeves for recovery, because I reasoned that compression over my feet was also helpful. (Let’s face it, I also wear granny socks because they’re darn cheap!) Since I’ve started wearing the Zensah Compression Leg Sleeves for recovery, I haven’t noticed my feet swelling any more or less than with my granny socks.

The Zensah sleeves are fairly thick, and I’ve occasionally found them to be a bit warm while wearing them under a pair of pants. While I don’t doubt the moisture-wicking and heat-transferring properties of their material because I’ve experienced them on a hot day’s run, it’s simple a thick fabric to put underneath another fabric.

I’ve heavily tested the Zensah Compression Leg Sleeves during running, and I have no positive or negative feedback to share. If I experience an improvement or degradation of my running performance as a result of them, or if I recover from a running effort a bit better or worse because I wear them during the effort, I cannot detect these differences.

Zensah Compression Sleeves Meghan

The author training with Zensah Compression Sleeves.

The Conclusion Is That There Is No Conclusion
If you’re sick person at risk for a deep vein thrombosis, research has conclusively proven that compression socks, sleeves, and other compressive leg garments can help prevent this serious condition.

If you’re an active to really active person, we don’t yet conclusively know if compression sleeves and socks are going to help you perform or recover from your performance better.

My personal conclusion? I’ll continue to wear my Zensah Compression Leg Sleeves as a recovery tool and when I’m making long airplane or car journeys. For running, my experiment of one will continue, as well.

What Do You Think?
Calling all runners with good compression sleeves or socks anecdotes! Have you ever been either applauded or teased for your unique on-trail sense of style? Have you experienced personal success, or a lack thereof, with them?

[1] Smith, et al. (2009). The effect of compression socks on recovery after a 30-sec Wingate Test. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (41)5.

[2] University Academic Hospital in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (1997). Compression stockings help aching legs. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (31)9.

[3] Layman et al. (2010). Lower leg compression sleeves: influence on running mechanics and economy in highly trained distance runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (42)5.

[4] Ali et al. (2007). Graduated compression stockings: physiological and perceptual responses during and after exercise. Journal of Sports Science (25)4.

[5] Kemmler et al. (2009). Effects of compression stockings on running performance in men runners. Journal of Strength Conditioning and Research (23)1.

[6] Berry et al. (1987). Effects of graduated compression stockings on blood lactate following an exhaustive bout of exercise. American Journal of Physical Medicine 66(3).

Meghan Hicks

Meghan Hicks is the Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar. She’s been running since she was 13 years old, and writing and editing about the sport for around 15 years. She served as iRunFar’s Managing Editor from 2013 through mid-2023, when she stepped into the role of Editor-in-Chief. Aside from iRunFar, Meghan has worked in communications and education in several of America’s national parks, was a contributing editor for Trail Runner magazine, and served as a columnist at Marathon & Beyond. She’s the co-author of Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running with Bryon Powell. She won the 2013 Marathon des Sables, finished on the podium of the Hardrock 100 Mile in 2021, and has previously set fastest known times on the Nolan’s 14 mountain running route in 2016 and 2020. Based part-time in Moab, Utah and Silverton, Colorado, Meghan also enjoys reading, biking, backpacking, and watching sunsets.