Welcome back to my [apparently] fortnightly column, Tuesday’s Things I Like. I figured out the gloriousness of compression socks long ago, when I bought a pair to deal with the fact that I was driving from Chicago to New Hampshire the day after I ran the Chicago Marathon in 2009. Those were the days before you would walk into a running store and see racks on racks on racks of compression gear. In fact, at Runner’s Edge, I had exactly one option: Euros Ski Elite.
And they were life changing. Calves killing you after a hard track work out? Throw these babies on, you not only re-gain your ability to walk, but you’re also improving your recovery (scientifically proven). Hopping in an airplane? Put the socks on and your legs feel fresh when you land.** The best part of compression socks is when you forget they exist. You’re in post-workout pain and can’t think clearly. You’ve been sitting around for an hour, maybe 90 minutes, wondering why everything hurts so much. Then the light bulb goes off that you forgot to use that compression magic. It’s not unlike drinking unicorn tears.
So I found a product I love and wear all the time. But then my severe shopping OCD kicks in. What if there were even better compression socks out there?!? I must find the best. So I tried a handful of companies. Recovery Sock, who you see at all the expos? Terrible. Awful. Like wearing a tube sock. 2XU? Not bad, but too tall for my short, stubby legs. SKINS? This material creeps me out. Yargh, at $50 a pop, I’m starting to spend a small fortune and my old Euros are still the best. I gave up and kept my Euros close at hand.
Then in August, I had to buy a birthday present for a certain runner, who, get this, SOMEHOW DOESN’T OWN COMPRESSION SOCKS! Well that must change. But the compression industry exploded since I last shopped and there were so many options. Four full hours of internet research later, I went with electric pink CEP Running Compression Socks. More importantly though, I had read through the more recent science and was intrigued by something.
Compression socks work for recovery because the graduated compression promotes blood flow away from the lower leg, taking any exercise by-products with it. But working on intuition, this same compression acts as a constriction to your lower leg muscles for incoming blood. So using compression socks during exercise seemed like a break even situation at best. What interested me was the other theory on compression socks: compression inhibits muscle vibration, which can be a significant cause of muscle fatigue in endurance-length races. Pistons in engines are inside metal cylinders for a reason, right? You have to focus the firing in the direction we want. Yeah, this all makes sense. Sold. Let’s try it.
From the get-go, CEP’s socks just made the most sense. Size is based on calf diameter, not foot size. Well, duh! How else do you guarantee there’s the right amount of graduated compression up the leg, where it really counts? Men’s and women’s are exactly the same except in sock length? Perfect for my short, stubby legs! And they come in electric green. CEP, it’s like you know me.
Thanks to Amazon Prime, my socks were here in time for an upcoming 18 mile training run. I noticed two things immediately upon unboxing: (1) Unlike my million other pairs of compression socks, these were clearly meant to run in, with slightly thicker material on the sole and up around the achilles. (2) Left and right socks (though annoying) make infinite sense for compression socks. Another “duh” moment for me.
Luck would have it that my first run would deal with probably my biggest hesitation of racing in compression socks: heat. I hate wearing anything more than the minimum and thinnest necessary while running. Especially when it’s hot. And guess what? My 18-miler fell on the hottest day in coastal San Diego of the last 5 years. [97F in La Jolla Shores is no joke.] A hard 18 miles in near triple digit heat and 1000 feet of climbing should be a good test.
And it was better than I could have imagined. First off, the socks are straight up comfortable. Whatever magic fabric they use should be the material for all clothes. It’s like a cocoon for your legs. But more importantly, they make your legs feel… snappier. It’s not necessarily fresher. It’s like your calf muscle is firing more confidently. I’ll readily admit that this could be mental (which doesn’t particularly matter since 90% of marathon running is mental). Whatever it was, I found myself running better and maintaining my efficiency through the later miles. And having hot feet or hot ankles was never an problem. 2 hours and 2 minutes later, I made the easy decision to race my fall marathon in the socks.
How did my the socks treat me in my race? They rocked. Did they improve my performance? It’s hard to definitively say yes (and hard to prove in the lab, which is why you’ll hear all kinds of scientific conclusions about the effectiveness of racing in compression). I do think my legs felt more ready to attack in the last 10km of the marathon. I also got an inordinate amount of “GO GREEN SOCKS!” cheers which definitely improved my performance. Am I going to keep racing in my CEP socks? Absolutely. The only issue I had was that at 7AM before a marathon, I apparently don’t know my left from right and need a friend to tell me I put my socks on backward.
In fact, I like the socks so much, I also bought CEP calf sleeves (yes women’s) for racing triathlons, where putting on compression socks in transition is too time consuming. And I found out at the Twin Cities Marathon expo that CEP makes a pretty nifty active knee brace that I have someone trying out in the near future.
**A friend of mine decided to test this use by wearing only one compression sock on one foot and a normal sock on the other. A lot of stumbling through an airport later, hypothesis proved.