Cyclists are always looking for products that will give them a competitive edge, and many turn to compression socks and other compression wear in an effort to give them a boost. Do compression socks work for cycling performance and comfort? The jury may still be out scientifically, but plenty of cyclists swear by them and make compression socks a regular part of their cycling attire.
According to a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, wearing compression socks during repeated sprint cycling with short intervals of rest resulted in improved performance, blood flow, and heart rate. A 2013 study published in the same journal studied 12 highly-trained cyclists and found that lower-body compression garments can provide a slight improvement in cycling performance.
According to WebMD, the evidence to support increased performance for the average cyclist due to the use of compression socks is limited, but with compression socks remaining popular with athletes of all types, anecdotal evidence indicates that they likely have some impact on performance, whether it be true physical effects or simply the “placebo” effect.
Because athletic performance is based on mental factors in addition to your physical performance, anything that makes an athlete feel more comfortable and puts them in a winning mindset is likely to have some impact on their performance. Still, just because of the way compression socks are designed to work, it is sound reasoning to assume they likely have some benefits for cyclists.
Even though the science may not be clear, athletes may want to consider the use of compression socks when cycling to improve performance and comfort for a variety of reasons.
How Can Compression Socks Work To Improve Cycling Performance and Comfort?
Compression socks are used to increase blood flow in the legs and can help prevent circulatory complications in people who are at risk of blood clots due to medical or lifestyle factors. They have become increasingly popular with athletes, who also benefit from increased blood flow and the associated quicker recovery time for muscles following physical activity. The fact that you are cycling and exercising already does great things for your circulation, as exercise causes blood vessels to dilate and increases your blood flow. Wearing compression socks when cycling can further improve this system and help blood return from your lower limbs to your heart efficiently.
According to WebMD, some athletes theorize that the increased blood flow will improve oxygen to muscles, which can prevent tissue damage and decrease the likelihood of cramping and soreness. Increased blood flow during cycling can leave your legs feeling like you have had a great workout instead of feeling tired and achy.
Mueller Sports Medicine reports that one benefit of compression socks for cycling is a reduction in the buildup of lactic acid. It is the buildup of lactic acid that causes that post- workout cramping and soreness, and the use of compression socks during cycling can improve oxygenation and reduce this buildup and the resulting discomfort. When fluid is encouraged to move through your system instead of settling in one place, the result is less lactic acid buildup and muscles that feel refreshed instead of achy.
Compression socks also offer extra support during cycling and can act as a brace to support areas that are prone to injury. While they will not treat existing injuries and should not be used for that purpose, they can offer extra support to keep your feet, ankles and legs in proper alignment.
Swelling and fluid build up are also noticeably reduced by the use of compression socks. In fact, this is the reason many people use them in the first place. Individuals who have problems with fluid retention due to jobs that require standing all day can boost their circulation with compression socks, leaving legs and feet less swollen and achy at the end of the day.
Another benefit for many cyclists is the sheer comfort of compression socks. Athletic compression socks often have extra padding to go along with their snug fit, and many brands are great at wicking away sweat and keeping you cool. When compared to a regular sock that may get sweaty or slide down, compression socks are considered the best choice by many cyclists based on comfort alone.
How Should You Correctly Wear Compression Socks To Improve Cycling Performance?
If compression socks are not worn correctly when cycling, they can cause more harm than good. Remember that compression socks are more of a medical device than fashionable attire, and a cyclist must wear them exactly as intended to help, and not harm, their performance.
It is important that a cyclist never roll down the top of compression socks that are too long. Purchase socks that fit correctly. Because the purpose of compression socks is to compress your legs and improve circulation, rolling them down can create too much compression and actually impede your circulation. Pull compression socks flat against your skin before cycling and make sure they do not bunch up and act as a tourniquet in any area of your leg, which would defeat their purpose and put you at risk of complications.
Wear compression socks on the correct feet when cycling. Because compression socks fit so snugly, they are specifically designed to be worn on either the left or right foot.
What Type Of Compression Socks Can Improve Cycling Performance?
Compression socks can be found in ankle-length or knee-high length. Mueller Sports Medicine says that the knee-high length is the right choice for cyclists looking to improve performance through the use of compression socks. This length will provide the maximum support for muscles during cycling.
Also note that compression socks are available in a variety of pressure levels, which are measured in mmHG. This unit of measurement stands for “millimeters of mercury.” The compression can also vary between each portion of the compression sock, as some are designed to provide more compression toward the foot and fit slightly looser further up the leg.
These mmHG levels are generally recommended for the following situations:
- 15 mmHG and below – Light compression for healthy people who spend a lot of time on their feet and would like to decrease swelling and soreness
- 15-20 mmHG – Moderate compression that can help reduce the risk of blood clots in situations like a long airplane flight
- 20-30 mmHG – Medical grade compression used to treat varicose veins, swelling and mitigate blood clot risks
- 30 mmHG and over – Post-surgical grade compression to prevent blood clots in high-risk scenarios
So where does the cyclist fit into this list? Most compression socks designed to increase performance for cycling and other athletic activities fall into the 15-30 mmHG range. Note that the snugness of a compression sock and how it feels on your foot and leg may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. So always choose a compression sock that provides comfortable support. Your compression sock should feel snug but not painful if you want to improve your cycling performance.
Will Compression Socks Past Their Prime Work For Cycling?
No! When your compression socks no longer fit snugly, they are not performing their job. Remember, the whole point of compression socks is to “squeeze” your feet and legs to improve circulation and provide all the benefits that go along with improved circulation. Once your compression socks have become more like regular socks, it is definitely time to purchase a new pair to continue reaping the benefits for cycling.
What Else Should You Consider When Selecting Compression Socks For Cycling?
While most cyclists are fairly healthy, and most athletic compression socks are not in the upper tier of medical grade compression, it is still important to make sure you do not have any conditions that make compression socks a bad choice for cycling. If you have any issues with numbness or reduced skin sensation that would make it difficult for you to gauge the compression level of your socks, talk to your doctor before wearing them for cycling. If you have thin skin that is prone to injury, peripheral artery disease, major leg swelling, pulmonary edema, or skin infections in the area that will be covered by the compression sock, always discuss the issue with your doctor.
What Is The Final Word On Whether Compression Socks Work For Cycling?
That depends entirely upon who you ask. A review of cycling blogs and websites will reveal that many athletes swear by their use, yet the scientific evidence is mixed. One thing that most people agree on is that if you believe that compression socks help you improve cycling performance, there is no harm in using them as long as you keep the precautions mentioned above in mind. Just the fact that they can help you feel better and move more comfortably during cycling is enough to increase performance for many cyclists, so feel free to pick the right pair for you and reap the benefits, whether those benefits are physical or mental.