The main reasons to wear compression garments, like compression socks, would be to: 1) improve athletic performance or 2) improve recovery. Is compression wear worth the hype in either of these cases?
A 2016 review on the effects of multiple types of compression garments (Engel et al.) examined 32 studies performed between 1987 and 2015. In eight of the studies they found no significant improvement in race completion time with compression for any distance from 400 meters to marathon. In seven studies, they did find a small improvement in time to exhaustion while wearing compression. Four studies reported improved running economy values. Sixteen of the studies were associated with improvements in psychological variables.
Despite being financially supported by a garment manufacturer, a 2015 study by Areces et al. found no benefit of compression socks in post-marathon exercise performance or race times.
In a 2015 literature review of four studies by Stanek, compression socks were reported to have no effect on several physiological measures like heart rate, perceived exertion, and lactate levels. Although one of the four studies noted an improvement in maximal running speed.
Performance improvements are often based on perception of effectiveness. In a 2016 study by Brophy-Williams et al. the participants were asked about their perceptions on the usefulness of compression socks in enhancing exercise recovery. This article is ahead of print, but according to the abstract (yes, I know that’s bad science) the participants performed better if they believed the compression was going to be helpful in recovery. Thank you placebo effect.
The 2016 Engel review of 32 studies found nine articles reporting large positive changes in exercise or post-exercise muscle soreness.
A 2013 meta-analysis by Hill et al. revealed some benefit in reducing the pain of delayed onset muscle soreness. They also found that muscle strength and muscle power measures recovered more quickly with compression usage.
A 2016 meta-analysis by Marqués-Jiménez et al. identified several studies indicating multiple biochemical markers were improved following exercise if compression garments were worn. In five studies, muscle swelling was also improved. Another eight studies indicated improvements in exercise recovery in muscle strength and five studies in muscle power.
Anecdotally, I don’t find compression to change anything about my personal running performance. Maybe I would notice a change if I used it more often. But I definitely do like the way compression feels for a day or so after a hard workout or race. I really love the way compression feels at super high levels with a compressive device - above 80 mm Hg, which isn’t what these studies and reviews analyzed. Even if compression garments aren’t changing recovery on a physiological level, they are all capable of decreasing the sensation of soreness.
It appears that the most recent research evidence supports the use of compression in decreasing the intensity of delayed onset muscle soreness. The helpfulness of these garments may be event greater in an individual that must spend more time on their legs during the post-exercise period of soreness. Let’s say in a multi-day event or going back to work on Monday.
Could you make arguments for using compression using the latest literature? Sure. Would I use it in every race or workout? Nope. The reality is that if you think it helps you, then keep using it.