The Tech Team encourages those who need a bike worked on before a big race to get it in asap — we fill up fast prior to big events!
If you go to an Ironman event these days, you will see more people wearing knee-high socks than at my daughter’s Catholic school. Compression socks are the latest products to hit the market, aimed at further improving performance and decreasing recovery time. Like various other successful products, it has been quickly embraced by triathletes. And like many other products I’ve reviewed, it was first spotted in triathlons many years ago. In 2001, I saw Olivier Bernard (I think) finish third at IM Florida wearing knee-high compression socks. At the time, people didn’t notice them, didn’t fully look into the potential benefits, or simply saw them as a quirky European fashion statement. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that apparel manufacturers started dedicating development and marketing dollars to a full line of compression fabrics and apparel pieces, which quickly extended to socks.
The concept of compression to improve blood circulation in the legs has actually been around for quite some time. Doctors have long prescribed clinical compression socks for patients who experience poor circulation or who have had blood clots. These socks though, which can still be purchased at drug stores and medical product stores were never really meant to be used during intense exercise or to provide the compression to benefit endurance athletes. The athletic compression socks available now are specifically designed to improve performance and reduce recovery time. Made of light-weight, moisture wicking material, they can be worn before, during and after exercise. They benefit the athlete by providing support to the calf and shin area and by decreasing the risk of shin splints. These socks then help decrease the athlete’s recovery time by improving oxygen blood flow throughout the muscles.
Note that another benefit of compression socks is that they protects against “DVT”, like I mentioned in previous reviews of other compression pieces of apparel. Deep Vain Thrombosis is the pooling of blood at the extremities that occurs when an individual stays in a static position for prolonged periods of time, such as in cars or airplanes. DVT can also be magnified at higher altitudes.
Compression socks are available in two basic styles: full socks, which include the foot part and the ones that do not include the foot part, often called compression calf sleeves or simply leg sleeves. There are several manufacturers that make compression socks, including some familiar ones to triathletes, like 2XU and Sugoi. I tried products from two new manufacturers, the SLS3 Compression Socks and the Zensah Compression Leg Sleeves, primarily because they seemed to be in the forefront of this technology. For recovery, I liked both kinds right away. Training for an Ironman and working retail, my legs are constantly tired, and the compression on the lower leg was a welcome feeling right off the bat. After having them on for sometime, I eventually stopped noticing them all together. Since then, I have used them post-exercise regularly and I do seem to think that my legs are not as tired for the next workout. I also feel that if I wear them during long work days or during expos when I’m on my feet all the time, at the end of the day my legs are not as beat up.
During exercise, I now think they can improve performance, although I was not as convinced at first. The first couple of times I used them during runs it was during one of those 100 degree and very humid weeks, and each run was only about 1 hour long. They felt a little on the clammy side and a somewhat weird, and I didn’t really feel like they made that big a difference. However, in the following weeks when I started to increase my running mileage and my legs became increasingly fatigued, their benefits became more apparent. Besides the fatigue, I started to experience some pain in the lower part of my leg, between the calf and Achilles tendon but when I wore the compression socks the workouts were noticeably better, even in the heat. Perhaps it was psychological, but that is still good enough for me.
This past weekend at Ironman Louisville I saw 5 out of the first 6 pros go out of T2 wearing compression socks. With the weather hot and humid these pros apparently did not feel the compression socks would trap that much heat. I spoke with a pro friend of mine who wears them regularly and he said that when the going gets tough and he wants to keep a fast pace, the support provided by these socks is crucial. He swears that they help him hold his form and run harder longer, and he is not sponsored by any of these manufacturers. I will probably use them at Kona.
My favorite aspect of Zensah Sleeve was the fact that I could wear my favorite socks for running while still getting the compression benefits. I also liked the fact that it had special directional ribbing (different on the shins and calves), that provided the unique support specific to each area. In this sense they resembled athletic taping, as is often used by trainers to increase blood flow and provide directional support in the Achilles and shin areas. With the SLS3, I liked the fact that they felt light-weight and still provided ample support in the lower leg area. When wearing them I was restricted to wearing their foot sock; which worked fine for me but may be a little thin for those who prefer thicker socks. According to SLS3, full socks provide better compression since it fully encompasses the ankle, while Zensah works with the concept that the compression for performance athletes can focus from the ankle up.
The Zensah Compression Sleeves retail for $40.00 while the SLS3 Compression Socks retail for $58.00. If you think them as just socks, then it would be insane to purchase them at these prices. However, if you are willing to give them a chance and try them out, I bet that you will be convinced that they are a valuable piece of apparel.