Compression socks have become some of the hottest fitness products on the market today. You have undoubtedly seen marathoners, triathletes, and weekend athletes sporting compression socks. There is perhaps no better example of the growth in the popularity of compression gear than in the market for compression socks. Socks of all construction types, makes, and price points have created a relatively mature market for the athletic wear.
If you haven’t shopped for compression socks before, you will encounter some lingo and terminology that might be new. Before we talk about our recommendations for each price point (below), here are a few of the things you should look for in a good pair of compression socks, and out attempt to translate the industry jargon into English. For more detail on the terminology of compression wear, check out our glossary of compression gear terms.
What to Look for in Compression Socks
Compression Levels: Compression levels in any compression garment are measured in Millimeters of Mercury, abbreviated as mmHg. If it looks familiar, it is the same way that your blood pressure is measured. Once a sock is made, a good manufacturer will physically test the compression that the sock creates. The reason it is always a range is because there are different levels of compression on different levels of the sock. Our table below outlines what compression you should look for, but most compression socks for athletic use range from about 15 to 30 mmHg.
Gradient Compression: Gradient compression is key in compression socks. It means that your socks will have varying levels of compression throughout the ankle and up the calf. In addition to being far more comfortable, proper gradient compression provides the most blood flow and recovery benefits. A sock with the right level of compression throughout will provide compression where you need it (ankle) but not where you don’t (foot). If you are only looking for compression in your shin and calf, consider compression sleeves as well — although a good pair of compression socks should do the same thing.
Smooth Seam Structure: This goes for almost any garment – cycling shorts, compression shorts, triathlon wetsuits, you name it. One of the most important features is that the seams don’t irritate or chafe your skin. There are two ways to help accomplish that. First, a good pair of compression socks will have as few seams as are absolutely necessary. Second, the stitching that is there will be as flat, smooth, and generally unnoticeable as possible. As with nearly anything athletic-related — cycling shorts, wetsuits, running tights — as you spend more money, you should expect seams on the garment to be less noticeable. The same goes for compression socks.
Breathable. You want your compression socks to be breathable, or you will find yourself not even wanting to wear them for 20 minutes. More sock makers are experimenting with various materials that can boost the breathability more and more. While you want as breathable a sock as possible, it is especially important that the toe, foot, and heel turn are very breathable. This is the part that will get warm inside a shoe, and even without a shoe your foot will create heat if the fabric cannot breathe. The combination of a breathable sock, along with one that is moisture-wicking (the next point, below) is what often drives the price up, among other things.
Moisture-Wicking. In the simplest terms, a compression sock that does not allow moisture to escape will become itchy, and over time it will develop an odor. Having material that can wick away moisture, or let moisture escape from the sock, will allow you to use the socks on runs, during workouts, or wear the socks for hours during recovery. Look for socks made of synthetic materials, heavy on polyester and elastine, blends which also might be seen as brand names such as Coolmax or Lycra. How wicking works is not by the material acting as a waterproof agent, but rather by allowing the fabric to pull in the moisture but then quickly allow it to evaporate, instead of getting bogged down with water. It basically encourages rapid evaporation. It is called capillary action, but that is probably more science than we need for this post.
Length. You want your compression socks to be long enough to cover your entire shin and calf, ending just below the knee joint. Too high, and the seam will irritate the back of your knee when running. Too short, and the socks will not provide the necessary compression benefits to the area most prone to shin splints.
Compression Levels in Socks
As you look at different compression socks, you will see compression levels posted for most products. Here is a quick reference guide on what the different compression levels mean, and how much you need for various activities.
- Lowest: 5-15 mmHg. Socks at this level are similar to or only slightly tighter than a typical sock. They are comfortable for long periods of time and during travel, but usually do not offer enough compression to make significant recovery gains in active athletes. Still, many lower-priced socks have this level of compression and are worth owning. Good for travel, work.
- Moderate (Most Common in Athletic Compression): 16-25 mmHg. These socks offer good compression and are noticeably tighter than the average athletic sock. To achieve this level of compression, the sock typically has more sophisticated construction that provides the right compression gradient level. Good for running, recovery.
- Heaviest: 26-35 mmHg. The firmest athletic compression socks in the market get into this range. These socks have enough paneling to provide firm compression in multiple directions, and to pay for that they typically are going to be priced higher than other socks. May be more than some weekend athletes need. Good for high-performance recovery.
- Medical: Above 35 mmHg. Typically reserved for medical uses. While some athletes might benefit from this level of compression, we are not comfortable directing anyone to use them unless under medical supervision.
Best Compression Socks: Our Reviews
We have tested many compression socks of all price ranges, and compared them against the needs of the typical athlete. Here are our thoughts regarding the best compression socks that we see on the market today.
- Zensah Tech+ ($50). Zensah has been doing a nice job with their compression socks, and moving into other areas of compression gear as well. The Tech+ socks offer a nice combination of graduated compression and a nice, breathable foot cradle that allows for
comfort during and after a run. Our reviews suggest that these are a good choice for runners, especially those who battle with shin splits. Zensah’s line of compression gear is always expanding, so check in with them often to see what additional socks are rolled out from quarter to quarter. Until then, we think you would be happy with the Tech+. Find here.
- 2XU Elite Compression Sock ($60). 2XU creates some of the most advanced compression wear that we see, and if it fits your budget you would likely be pleased with what the Elite Sock offers. The fabric is thin yet provides ample graduated compression, and the toe and heel beds are design to really be comfortable on the foot. The seamless technology is a big plus, and we like that 2XU makes an alpine version specifically for skiers and ski boots. With a brand like 2XU, you can be confident you are getting the latest in compression technology. This is a company that always advances from model to model. Find here.
- CEP Progressive+ Run 2.0 ($60). CEP is an offshoot of a medical compression company, and has been making sport-focused socks since about 2007. Their German-made Progressive 2.0 socks provide even and quality compression, and excel for cold-weather runners. This is due to their construction which, unlike many other compression socks, includes just under 20% wool. That is just enough wool to add some welcome warmth without compromising on moisture-wicking abilities. We like the extra flat toe seam, as that can often be a seam that causes discomfort given the way socks are constructed. Others from our reviewer group raved about the number of color choices — we counted 15! Find here.
Mid-Range and Entry-Level ($20 – $45)
- CW-X Compression Support Socks ($40). CW-X has been making good compression gear for several years, and their socks are a good all-around choice for many types of uses. Webbing built in to the sock allows the calves, ankles, and arches to get the right level of support. These socks devote more attention to the arches than many others, so might be a good choice for those dealing with arch issues. The CW-X socks are nice and thin, allowing for a more form-fitting factor than some of the others in the lower price range. At $40, they aren’t the least expensive but are a decent value compared to some of the high-end socks. Find here.
- Sockwell Circulator Socks ($25). Sockwell makes a good pair of compression socks with moderate compression, in the 15-20 mmHg range. The socks, available in black and gray, are not terribly high on the leg, but provide good graduated compression that
is tightest at the ankles. We like their overall comfort and performance for the reasonble price, as they tend to not retain any moisture or odor. The fits tends to be best on smaller feet, and because they are not very long they might be a better option for people with a shorter build, not those with longer limbs. Find here.
- Nike Elite OTC Compression Socks ($30). Nike is a mammoth company with thousands of various products. They entered the compression sock market a few years ago but have not gone “all-in” to the extent of some other makers. Still, their Elite OTC socks are a good value and offer a nice fit. The Poly/Nylon/Elastane blend resembles the make of the C+D, with similar breathability and moisture control. We like the specific left/right fitting on the socks, and the Nike name is obviously trusted in the world of fitness. Given Nike’s success with compression shorts, namely the Pro Core shorts model, we know that they know what they are doing when it comes to compression and we like how it has been translating to their socks, too. Find here.
There are low-end socks out there, but we don’t recommend that you buy them for athletic purposes. Why? Because they are really no different than just a plain old long pair of socks. They don’t offer enough compression to provide the benefits you need from a good pair of compression socks, which is the whole reason for investing in them in the first place. If you like wearing lower-end socks because they are comfortable, great. Just know they are not compression socks even if a manufacturer slaps that word on the packaging.
Do Compression Socks Work?
Yes, but the benefits might vary by person, and by activity.
Compression socks have long been used as a medical therapy for health issues like deep vein thrombosis, but are a relatively new development in the sports and fitness world. Compression socks are used by athletes for many different purposes. Some use them while working out, others only when injured, and many for recovery in-between workouts. Recent studies support the notion that compression socks are most effective in accelerate recovery between workouts. The improved blood flow and pressure afforded by compression socks results in a measured shorter recovery time.
A study done by the Journal of Sports Medicine found that those who wore compression socks after a marathon reduced their time to exhaustion on subsequent workouts, while the group who did not use compression socks for recovery actually increased theirs. The difference was about 5%, which might not sound like much but for an athlete trying to get every efficiency possible, it can be a difference-maker. A French study took it several steps further, suggesting that compression socks reduced Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) by over 25%.
How do the compression socks do this? By constricting your calf and leg, your blood is now moving through a smaller tube than it would have otherwise. It moves with more velocity, and doesn’t pool in your feet and ankles like it might have otherwise. The same effect of helping to keep fluids moving appears to apply to lactic acid as well. Still, as much as many runners swear by compression socks during their workouts, the scientific evidence points more to post-workout recovery benefits.
The only other thing that seems to get as consistently strong endorsements from the running community when it comes to muscle soreness is good, old-fashioned foam rolling, a treatment that has studies backing it up. If you are finding your recovery to be in need of some more horsepower, the combination of compression socks, foam rolling, and stretching would be a good place to start.
Anecdotally, many of our readers and community members enthusiastically note that using compression socks during and after workouts helps avoid, aggravate, and prevent certain injuries, most notably Achilles tendon strains and shin splits. Invariably, shin splits come up time and time again as a condition that appears by be improved by the use of compression socks, especially those with pressure above 20 mmHg.
Regardless of the studies that suggest the beneficial effects of compression on recovery, we have this attitude: Anything that you feel helps you be more productive, perform better, or feel better is a good thing. To many people, using a product – a type of shoe, compression gear, a certain bike fit, etc., is largely a matter of personal preference.
To wrap this article up, here is an animation on how compression socks work, courtesy of our friends at the Muscle and Joint Center.