Last week, I talked about shoes and how increasing the size of your running shoes (compared to the size of your dress shoes) can help reduce discomfort when your feet inevitably swell from continued pounding against the pavement or trail. This week, I am going to talk more about that swelling, why it happens, and what can be done about it.
How the swelling actually occurs:
For people who are active, “inflammation” is common. Although “inflammation” has some negative connotations, this process is also the body’s natural response to the stress caused by intense exercise.
To grow stronger, athletes rely on the tear/repair cycle. After a hard training session, muscles develop harmless microtears. After this damage has been detected by the body, the body’s immune system works to repair these microtears, resulting in overall stronger muscles. White blood cells as well as mediators, such as cytokines, are sent to the damaged muscles to help with the repair process. This normal (and necessary) immune response results in temporary swelling and soreness. The entire repair process lasts 24–72 hours, depending on the relative severity of the muscular damage. After the repair cycle, muscles are stronger than before.
However, when training at higher intensities (for example, longer durations or increased speed), chronic inflammation can occur. This happens because the immune system is continually triggered at a faster rate than repair can occur. Chronic inflammation can lead to the feeling of tired, heavy legs as well as chronic soreness, weight gain, and decreased athletic performance. Many runners wear compression socks to during their runs to reduce the rate at which chronic inflammation occurs. They also frequently wear compression socks after their runs to help speed the recovery process.
How compression socks work:
The heart pumps oxygen-rich blood throughout your body through your arteries. Cells in your body use this oxygen in order to function properly. Deoxygenated blood is then pumped from the cells through your veins back to the lungs to be re-oxygenated. The better your circulation, the more oxygen your legs get. The more oxygen available to be utilized, the better your muscles are going to function.
Graduated compression socks have varying levels of compression throughout the sock. The highest compression level is usually at the ankle and it gradually decreases to the lowest level at the top cuff. When worn properly, they work to reduce the diameter of veins in the lower legs. This reduction causes the speed of the blood flow to increase. In addition, the reduction of vein diameter improves the effectiveness of the valves in both veins and arteries. The overall effect is reduced venous pressure, enhanced circulation, and greater venous wall support. Overall, when veins, muscles, and arteries are compressed and circulating blood is forced through these small channels, the flow of blood back to the heart is significantly improved.
In other words, when you wear compression socks, you are forcing your blood to start flowing faster, making each oxygenation cycle easier. The faster the circulation of metabolic waste products away from the muscles and toward the heart can occur, the faster fresh, oxygenated blood can reach the cells leading to quicker recovery. Poor circulation results in swelling which causes discomfort, hinders performance, and decreases muscle recovery following a hard workout.
In addition to increasing the circulation of blood through the legs, compression socks provide calf support. This essential support helps to stabilize the muscles and guard against muscular oscillations, which makes your muscle movements more efficient.
By improving circulation and reducing muscular oscillations, compression socks not only help you feel better quicker, they can reduce the potential for injury. For example, plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, shin splints, and calf strains are all injuries where unsupported muscles, chronic inflammation, and lack of circulation are risk factors.
People who are on their feet all day, such as flight attendants, waitresses, teachers, and nurses, among others, can also benefit from the use of compression socks to alleviate tired legs. And even when you are not active, poor circulation can be dangerous. Numerous studies have shown that sitting still for long periods of time, especially during air travel, can potentially lead to conditions such as blood clots, deep vein thrombosis, and pulmonary embolism. Compression socks help reduce these risks.
How to find the right fit:
While compression socks come in a variety of styles, knee-high versions are the most popular because they cover the entire calf. To choose the correct size of knee-high socks, you should first record the circumference of your calf by measuring the widest part of your lower leg. This measurement, in addition to your shoe size, is used to determine which sock size is best for you. Note that the top of the sock should feel snug, yet still comfortable below the knee. If it is too tight, it may cut off your circulation rather than increasing it and have an effect opposite of what you are seeking.