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Do Compression Socks Work for Cycling?

April 7, 2019


Do Compression Socks Work for Cycling?

You have thousands of different compression socks, stockings, and sleeves available from hundreds of manufacturers. What kinds of benefits can you expect? Are they worth the money? We’ll quickly explore it all in this article.

Compression garments, including stockings, have been used by the medical community for decades.

More recently, though, they’ve moved into the consumer realm, often promising improved comfort and performance. Today, you have thousands of options available in every imaginable design and color, whether at local stores or online retailers.

But, do compression stockings improve overall performance or any other aspect of the cycling experience? What about when it comes to recovery? And in the end, are they worth the money?

Based on the available clinical evidence, we’ll quickly take a step-by-step look at what kinds of real-world results you might expect, as well as the overall return on investment you could anticipate.

How Do Compression Socks Work?

Available in different sizes and strengths, WebMD explains that compression socks—commonly referred to as ‘stockings’—“are specially made, snug-fitting, stretchy socks that gently squeeze your leg. Graduated compression or pressure stockings are tighter around your ankle and get looser as they move up your leg.”

Common materials found in compression socks and stockings include Lycra (spandex), nylon and other synthetic fabrics, latex, and microfiber cotton, to name just a few.

Graduated or otherwise, WebMD reports pressure delivered by compression socks helps improve blood flow in your legs’ arteries and blood vessels and makes it easier for them to push blood back to your heart where it can re-oxygenate and start the process all over again.

Under Pressure: Can Compression Socks Deliver Real-World Benefits?

Manufacturers measure the pressure provided by compression stockings in mmHg (millimeters of mercury). While there’s no worldwide standard, Chung Sim Lim, MBBS Ph.D., and Alun H. Davies, DM, of the Department of Surgery and Cancer, Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London and Charing Cross Hospital, London, outline that you’ll commonly encounter the following general levels:

Category Pressure Ideal For
Class 1: Mild< 20 mm Hg Keeping comfortable on your feet, reducing mild swelling
Class 2: Moderate 20–30 mm Hg Pregnant women, those with movement difficulties, athletes
Class 3: Firm > 30 mm Hg Wound healing, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), other medical concerns

Because of the inconsistency between manufacturers, though, Lim and Davies point out that the pressure provided can vary based on “factors such as the elasticity and stiffness of stocking material, the size and shape of the wearer’s legs, and the movements and activities of the wearer,” they say.

Returning to the WebMD article cited earlier, they indicate that many athletes “including runners, basketball players, and triathletes, wear compression socks and sleeves [of different pressures] on their legs and arms” to help improve muscle oxygenation, reduce the chances of cramping during physical activity, and to promote recovery afterward.

But, is there clinical evidence supporting these claims?

Can Compression Socks Improve Cycling Performance?

“Studies show [compression] gear has little to no effect on athletic performance, but some people swear by it. Maybe thinking they have an edge gives them one. The evidence for faster recovery is better, but not enough to make a difference for weekend warriors,” WebMD reports.

As an example of this, we searched the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed for the term “cycling compression,” which returned more than 230 results at the time of our research. Here were the most relevant results out of the top 20, sorted by best match:

  1. A 2017 Australian study of 20 participants indicating that lower limb compression garments improved cycling performance, vastus lateralis mBF (muscle blood flow), and heart rate.
  2. A 2017 meta-analysis of 23 peer-reviewed studies, which concluded that compression garments are most useful for strength recovery 24 hours or more following resistance exercise (including cycling).
  3. A 2015 French study indicating that wearing calf compression sleeves, before, during and after a cycling exercise increased tissue oxygen saturation (StO2) at rest and at low intensities, but not at higher intensities.
  4. A 2013 study conducted by the Australian Institute of Sport that found, “Wearing compression garments during cycling may result in trivial performance improvements of ~1% and may enhance oxygen delivery to the exercising muscles.”
  5. A study from 2012 conducted by School of Human Sciences at St. Mary’s University College in the UK, which found, “Despite widespread use in sport, neither ionized nor nonionized compression tights had any significant effect on sprint or endurance cycling performance.”

Granted, this is by no means an exhaustive review of the available clinical support related to compression socks and their cycling benefits. However, it underscores WebMD’s statement that the evidence is limited, and that what positive evidence exists primarily points to improved muscle recovery for trained athletes (forget about weekend warriors) following running.

What’s the meaningful difference between these sports? In a nutshell, running is a weight-bearing, higher-impact activity because your legs continually strike the ground. 

Comparatively, pedaling involves smooth, circular motions that don’t strain the leg muscles—or even the bones—as much. Therefore, cycling damages muscles less than running, and requires much less recovery afterward.

Pulling all of these details together, what’s your next step?

Bottom Line: Should You By a Pair of Compression Socks for Cycling?

Despite the lack of clinical support that compression socks can meaningfully benefit the average cyclist’s performance, as reported by sites like WebMD and the NIH’s PubMed, they remain extraordinarily popular. Why?

Reading online rider feedback, you’ll find many who’ve reported improved feel, support, and comfort while wearing compression socks and stockings, even if they’re willing to admit it’s a placebo effect.

Cycling is just as much mental as it is physical, though, so it seems reasonable that making your body more comfortable could potentially improve your overall cycling performance—not to mention the pure enjoyment of being on a bike.

Furthermore, many professional cycling squads outfit their riders with compression socks and stockings, including Team Novo Nordisk, Skins, and CompresSport.

Given all of these details, compression socks, stockings, and sleeves might represent a solid value—as long as you maintain realistic expectations and understand that you’ll likely only improve your comfort.

Also, keep in mind that whichever brand, height, style, or compression level you choose, your compression stockings will eventually lose their elasticity and will have to be replaced.

Keep rolling: How to Choose Your Best Pair of Cycling Socks

Derek has more than two decades of experience as a cyclist, and is the founder of TreadBikely. He currently travels full-time with his family via RV, enjoying the country's best biking destinations. A secular Buddhist, Derek frequently explores the intersection of cycling, mindfulness, and compassion in his writing. #rolloutblissout
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