Compression socks don’t just look pro as heck—they can also boast post-race performance and recovery benefits. Aside from the sensation of your legs being drawn into a cozy, supportive hug—almost like a weighted blanket for your active muscles—the compression can actually improve blood flow, which might even give your legs an energized sensation.
Some socks are designed to be worn during running, others are for the hours and even days after your big event, and still others are for medical uses beyond sport, like battling edema, varicose veins, and Deep Vein Thrombosis (we recommend sticking to the running-specific models, unless you’ve been diagnosed with these). Beyond that, there’s a world of choice between different socks and how much compression they offer, what kind of performance fabrics are used, antimicrobial and wicking properties, breathability, and cushioning. Here are a few other things to keep in mind when you’re shopping for compression socks.
How Do Compression Socks Work—And Do They, Really?
In the medical world, compression socks have proven function when it comes to aching and swelling in the legs. That’s because they can “help augment venous and lymphatic return in the legs,” which are “the primary vascular systems that return fluid and blood from the lower legs,” says vascular surgeon and runner Dr. Britt Tonnessen. Tonnessen says this flow is normal for most healthy adults. “However, prolonged standing or sitting may evoke mild dysfunction in venous return” and disrupt the process. For those with more serious circulation problems, aching and swelling is common, and varicose veins can form. This is why you’ll find medical-grade compression socks with very firm gradient compression, which work to keep fluid and blood circulating from the legs.
Over the years, a number of clinical studies have been conducted to determine whether compression socks and clothing have an effect on running performance and recovery, as sock-makers have claimed. A 2020 scientific review of the sports-related effects of wearing compression socks found that wearing them “during exercise improved performance in a small number of studies.” However, that research was limited in size and survey group; for the most part, studies have concluded that the socks don’t have a significant influence on run performance, though there might be some placebo-effect improvements. In other words, if you think they’ll improve your running, they might, in fact, actually improve your running.
Where compression gear does show significant exercise benefits is with regard to recovery. One study from 2015 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that wearing compression socks for 48 hours after a marathon improved performance by 2.6 percent on a treadmill test two weeks later—indicating that the runners wearing the socks had recovered faster. Other studies agree compression socks can reduce muscle pain, damage, and inflammation by improving your blood flow. Of course, pregnant women, nurses, and other people who stand all day could have told you that—many wear compression socks to ease the swelling in their feet and keep their legs from getting tired and achy.
How Does Gradient Compression Work?
Compression socks that boast “gradient compression” qualities apply a controlled amount of pressure at the ankle that gradually decreases up the leg, as opposed to a steady level of compression throughout. This has the effect of pushing blood flow and circulation up the leg and preventing swelling at the ankle. Not all sports socks have gradient compression—many of them apply a more even level of pressure around the lower leg. And most aren’t designed to be as firm as with medical-grade models. If your compression socks are so tight they’re digging into your skin and causing discomfort, size up—the feeling should be one of having your legs supported, not constricted. “You will not run well if the stockings are uncomfortable,” says Dr. Tonnesson.
How Is Compression Measured?
Because compression socks are considered medical-grade devices, standardized pressure levels can be measured on an mmHg scale, or “millimeters of Mercury.” The scale is as follows: Mild (8–15 mmHg), Medium (15–20 mmHg), Firm (20–30 mmHg), Extra Firm (30–40 mmHg), and RX (40–50 mmHg). Most running compression socks fall into the mild to firm range; the RX range is reserved for serious medical problems, like blood clots. Some compression sock brands don’t share their mmHg numbers, as outside factors like how the sock fits can cause the number to vary a bit. Some studies have shown 20 mmHg to be the ideal amount of pressure for at-rest recovery, though you might want to experiment to find out what’s most comfortable for you. The numbers listed should give you a rough idea.
When Do I Wear Compression Socks?
While many runners wear their socks or sleeves for post-workout recovery, you can reap the benefits from compression gear at any time. Some athletes train and even race in compression socks to help encourage blood flow through the lower leg and calves. (However, most will opt for a lighter grade of compression if they are using the sleeves during exercising.) And if you’re traveling for your next big race, shimmying into a pair of squeeze-y socks can alleviate leg cramps during long cars rides and flights.
If you plan to wear compression socks while running, just be realistic with your expectations. While Dr. Tonnessen says she doesn’t wear them herself—she prefers a more minimalist approach to her run gear as she trains for her next race, the Bolder Boulder 10K—she doesn’t oppose them either. “My feeling is that if your legs feel better wearing compression socks, go for it!” she says. “On the other hand, don’t expect that it will give you a new PR. Running performance depends on many factors.”
How We Selected
As a 14x marathoner and occasional dabbler in ultrarunning, I’ve experimented with every recovery technique under the sun—including racing and recovering in compression socks. I’m also married to an ICU nurse who wears compression socks just to prevent swelling after long days on her feet. To make this list of best compression socks, I relied on our personal experiences running (and working) in several of these models, as well as input from the Runner’s World test team. I scoured studies on the effectiveness of compression in general, and also interviewed vascular surgeon and runner Britt H. Tonnessen, MD, on the subject. For the sake of thoroughness, I also sifted through online reviews for brands and models I had previously missed, with an eye toward each pair’s combination of value, technical fabrics, comfort, aesthetics, and ability to wick away sweat and improve recovery. Not all runners choose to run or recover in compression socks, but for those who do, here are the 12 best options I recommend.
—BEST LEG SLEEVES—
Zensah Compression Leg Sleeves
Material: 90% nylon, 10% spandex | Compression Level: Not listed | Sizes: XS to XL
These leg sleeves give you all the benefits of compression socks without the strain of wrangling your foot in and out of them—or robbing you of the chance to race in your lucky socks. Designed to imitate leg-taping methods used to combat shin splints, Zensah’s leg sleeves hug your calves and help your muscles recover more quickly. And for those of us who spend half of our long runs fantasizing about what to eat for the rest of the day, the sleeves come in fun food prints, like Donut and Watermelon.
—GRADUATED COMPRESSION SLEEVES—
Sigvaris Performance Compression Running Sleeve
Material: 75% nylon, 25% spandex | Compression Level: 20 to 30 mmHG | Sizes: S to XL
Covering only your calf, these nylon-spandex sleeves are a little easier to pull on than full socks despite a snug 20 to 30 mmHG compression level. They’ll work for any sport, but triathletes (and water polo players) will appreciate the compression sleeves’ ability to take a dunk in chlorine or salt water without deteriorating.
—SUPER-SOFT AND COMFORTABLE—
Feetures Graduated Compression Socks
Material: 79% nylon, 13% polyester, 8% Lycra spandex | Compression Level: 15 to 20 mmHg | Sizes: S to XL
The good: Feetures makes its socks from a soft, moisture-wicking fabric that perfectly conforms to your foot, thanks to an anatomical design with a designated “right” and “left” sock. The bad: Somehow my dryer has developed a taste for only “right” Feetures. Aside from that small complaint, we love that these socks have 15 to 20 mmHg of compression to help your circulation, while keeping your feet all-day cozy and blister-free.
—GOOD VALUE AND LARGER SIZING—
Run Forever Sports Calf Compression Sleeves
Material: 75% nylon, 25% spandex | Compression Level: 20 to 25 mmHg | Sizes: S to XXXL
A solid budget option, Run Forever compression sleeves strike a nice balance between performance and cost. Made of a stretchy and breathable nylon-spandex blend, the calf sleeves have a firm 20 to 25 mmHg graduated compression rating and a stay-up cuff to hold them in place, so they won’t start rolling down while you run. The sleeves are available in six sizes (including an XXL and XXXL), so you can get a snug fit that doesn’t feel oppressively tight, plus lots of color and pattern options.
—LOTS OF HEIGHT OPTIONS—
Swiftwick Aspire Twelve
Material: Mesh knit | Compression Level: 20 to 30 mmHG | Sizes: S to XL
Swiftwick’s Aspire socks come in five heights, all of which pull off the rare hat trick of being lightweight, ultra-durable, and all-day comfortable. The 12 is the tallest of the line, with a calf-length fit that hugs your lower legs in smooth, breathable olefin-nylon-spandex fabric. A “firm” level of gradient compression (20 to 30 mmHG) provides a snug feel to support your muscles without throttling them.
—BEST POST-RACE RECOVERY SOCK—
2XU Recovery Compression Socks
Material: 80% microfiber nylon, 20% elastane | Compression Level: 28 to 33 mmHg | Sizes: XS to XL
Designed to be worn after a hard workout or your next marathon, these lightweight compression socks are finely woven yet breathable, thanks to added venting panels that also prevent your foot from overheating. The sock is padded with arch support for all-day comfort when the foot is at rest; for a 2xU compression sock padded for motion, check out the brand’s Performance Run Sock.
Physix Gear Sport Compression Socks
Material: 70% nylon, 30% spandex | Compression Level: 20 to 30 mmHg | Sizes: S/M, L/XL, XXL
For the money, it’s hard to find a better-performing pair of compression socks than these smooth Lycra numbers. Built with a 20 to 30mmHG gradient compression, they squeeze your calves snugly enough to wear under pants on those days when you’re constantly on your feet. But they’re also light and breathable enough to wear on summer runs, and won’t slip down or budge while you’re in motion.
—COZIEST RECOVERY SOCKS—
Sockwell Circulator Compression Socks
Material: 32% merino wool, 32% stretch nylon, 31% rayon from bamboo, 5% spandex | Compression Level: 15 to 20 mmHg | Sizes: M/L, L/XL
If you’re looking for a cozier pair of winter compression socks for running, cycling, hiking, or just lounging around by a fire in full recovery mode, these Sockwell socks are a merino wool–blend dream. Despite passing easily as any other pair of casual socks, Sockwell’s Circulators have a 15 to 20 mmHg moderate graduated compression level for a supportive squeeze that’s never pinching. Added cushion through the arch and soles gives your feet a little love and support.
—COOL AND LIGHTWEIGHT—
2XU Vectr Compression Socks
Material: Nylon | Compression Level: 20 to 30 mmHG | Sizes: S to XL
There are a lot of size options for these 20 to 30 mmHG compression socks, which gives you a better chance of getting a super-snug fit you can still wrestle off your foot. Made of a lightweight but durable nylon blend, the Vectr is destined to replace your lucky race-day socks, sheerly through the power of its compressive comfort. Added cushion in just the right places protects your feet without bunching, creating blisters, or overcrowding your shoe.
—BEST RACE SOCKS—
CEP Ultralight Socks
Material: 60% polyamide (nylon), 25% elastane, 15% polypropylene | Compression Level: 20 to 30 mmHg | Sizes: II, III, IV, V
Ideal for the summer heat, these socks have 20 to 30 mmHg graduated compression packed into a lightweight nylon-spandex design that resists moisture. The socks have a seamless, reinforced toe and heel for protection from blisters; a combination of vents and sweat-wicking materials helps allow for a little airflow.
Lily Trotters Signature Compression Sock
Material: 93% nylon, 7% spandex | Compression Level: 15 to 20 mmHG | Sizes: S/M, L/XL
With 15 to 20 mmHG of graduated compression, Lily Trotters provide just enough support and squeeze to encourage blood flow, along with a cozy, knee-length fit. The overall effect of the sock is snug—but its thinly woven nylon-spandex fabric doesn’t feel restrictive like a sausage casing, nor does it feel bulky inside the toes of your running shoes or under added layers in the winter. We liked them so much we gave them a 2020 Gear of the Year award, largely due to those performance and comfort traits, plus versatility—they come in cute patterns like polka dots and holiday prints that work perfectly for a themed 5K, or solid colors for wearing casually under work clothes.
Pro Compression Socks
Material: 92% nylon, 8% Lycra spandex | Compression Level: 20 to 30 mmHg | Sizes: XS to XL
Although these snug compression socks are rated as “firm,” with a graduated compression level of 20 to 30 mmHG, they have a wide, welcoming cuff at the opening so you’re far less likely to dislocate a shoulder trying to tug them on and off. That said, the socks stay put and don’t pinch around the band. The socks are designed for use on the run, and it shows—they’re made from a lightweight nylon blend that’s breathable and wicks moisture well through the calves, with enough added cushion at the toe to stave off blisters. They come in a stealthy black or blue and a few more eye-catching colorways, including hi-viz yellow and pink stripes.
—FOR EVERYDAY COMPRESSION WEARERS—
Crucial Compression Socks
Material: 80% nylon, 20% spandex | Compression Level: Reported 20 to 30 mmHg, feels like less | Sizes: S to XXL
These sleek compression socks give your calves a nice, supportive squeeze—at prices conducive to amassing enough for the full week. The nylon-spandex blend feels light, breathable, and high-quality enough to hold up through many washes. Our only complaint is that the socks don’t feel quite as firm as reported, though they still stay in place well and have enough compression to relieve most swelling. The socks are available in more than 10 different colors.