Photo from Mount Royal, Frisco, Colorado.

"That is happiness; to be disolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep." - Willa Cather

Thursday 24 June 2010

Fredism and Compression Socks

To mark my officially making it a 1/3 of the way 93, I am writing perhaps my oddest blog post ever...

When I see a runner in compression socks, I think "what a Fred". But should I?

And what exactly is a Fred?

Well, it's a cycling term for an amateur who pretends to know what they are doing. Freds typically have the newest, most fashionable clothing and equipment without knowing why, if or how it helps. Fred A. Birchmore Jr., the first guy to cycle around the world in th 1930's, is apparently the man behind the term Fred. Legend has it that on his world tour, he hopped in front of a bunch of cyclists in a race in Italy, pretending to win. Someone in California thought this was pretty funny and started calling all wannabe cyclists "Freds". Fred is from Athens, GA (a really magical town, if you've never been there). Here he is with his bike, Bucephalus, around 1935.

Fred is now 99 and is rumored to still run around 10 miles a day. Dare I say the term "Fred" should be one of respect?

So, what about compression socks? Should I continue to laugh on the inside when I see them?

I mean Paula Radcliffe doesn't wear them anymore.

Er, I mean, whoah, closer look reveals she DOES - just skin-toned.

But did she wear them when she set the world record? Take a close look!

(yes, she did)

Lots of people who wear them do look like they know what they're doing. Take note of the woman in green who finished in the top 5 females in the half marathon of the Naturmaraton on Sunday.

And then there are pictures like the first (see above): compression socks that go down to the ankle without socks! And ugly shoes that haven't seen a speck of dust. Give me a break, Fred! (Fred in the old sense of the term)

But I guess it's not so important what people look like if they work. But what is it these socks supposedly help with? 1. venous return 2. injury prevention 3. performance enhancement

First of all, it seems weird that they do three things, but let's consider these. (Can I really find any information out there that has nothing to do with a company trying to sell them or some woman exclaiming that she prefers them in pink?)

The thing that got me started on this train of thought was: if they help with venous return, why not wear stockings that go up over the knee and increase venous return even more? But honestly, I can't understand why any healthy person would not have a normal venous return while running. I just don't believe these stupid socks will improve something that already functions so well (the muscle in the calves, that is).

Well, let's just answer the question. Do they increase venous return? Well, maybe. A small study showed decreased blood lactate concentrarion in runnning and cycling while wearing compression socks. 4. Am J Physical Med 1987; 66:121-132

Number 2. Do they prevent injury? Again, this seems preposterous to me. I mean can anyone explain to me why having something halfway tight around a muscle will prevent an injury? I mean it's not like you prevent the muscles from moving, otherwise you couldn't run. Right? Well, I have found a couple studies saying I am partially wrong. While I don't know if they prevent injury per se, they do seem to decrease soreness.

1. They significantly decrease muscle soreness after a 10k race in men.

Ali, A., M.P. Caine, B.G. Snow. 2007. Graduated Compression Stockings: Physiological and Perceptual Responses During and After Exercise. J Sports Sci 25(4): 413-419.9.

2. Decreased perceived muscle soreness after arm curls in women.

J Sports Rehab 2001; 10:11-23

What about number 3: Do they improve performance? The most interesting study in my mind comes from 2009 and was done by a group of Germans. They found statistically increased running performance at both the anaerobic and aerobic thresholds with stocking that give "constant" rather than "graded" compression over the calf. We're talking 1.5-2% improvement.There was no difference in VO2 max between stocking group and control group.

Kemmler, W., S. von Stengel, C. Kockritz, J. Mayhew, A. Wassermann, J. Zapf. 2009. Effect of Compression Stockings on Running Performance in Men Runners. J Strength Cond Res 23(1): 101-105.

So, turns out I may have been too quick to judge. Maybe compression socks do provide benefit. At least the "constant" compression type. And I have to admit that when I was in high school and I got second woman in the mile, I was wearing my tight soccer socks to just below the knee (you know, just because I loved 1970's basketball). Maybe it helped, a little.

The moral of this tale: a runner with compression socks isn't necessarily a Fred and neither was Fred.

Running Songs of the Day: So Human by Lady Sovereign and Bulletproof by La Roux (I have a real soft spot for lead vocalists with androgynous voices, as in La Roux. What is more, I have purposely avoided learning whether or ot the lead singer is a man or a woman... dont' tell me!)


Danni said...

I have compression sleeves for my calves and if I wear them after an ultra I feel like I recover faster. I've worn them in the latter part of 100 miler, primarily because I was in a skirt and it dropped to 32 degrees F, but I wasn't very sore the next day. Was it the sleeves? Who knows.

I can't imagine wearing them in a marathon.

SteveQ said...

The problem with those studies is that there's no way to do a blind study - you know if you're wearing socks - it can all be placebo effect.

I get terrible swelling in my fingers (and hands past 30 miles, and arms and feet past 60). I've thought about compression to relieve the problem, but I've come to use the swelling as a form of biofeedback to tell me how I'm faring.

What gets me are the ultrarunners pushing $30 socks to prevent blisters (you know who). Their no longer having blisters and wearing those socks is coincidental - their feet toughened. I used to have blister problems and lubed my feet and still had problems and took further steps... and then one day forgot all my stuff at home and did without - and no blisters.

SteveQ said...

btw, love Fred and his sombrero.

amy said...

I like them. And what's to say that people don't laugh at you when they see you in whatever you've chosen as appropriate? And who really cares? I don't wear them all the time, but as I've had some ankle tendon issues of late, they do provide some level of support, and sometimes a mental boost is all one needs. The tape jobs they were giving me weren't too supportive, and the socks didn't seem far off from that. Plus, they were guaranteed not to fall off (unlike the tape job).

But, I don't wear them when it's warm, bc they drive me nuts. I like to wear skirts, so when it's cold if I can wear the compression socks with my short skirt, I'm most happy.

I especially like them for air travel (not running related at all, except that my feet and ankles aren't swollen when I get off a plane so I might be able to run right away). I wore them traveling to Kenya this spring, and would never fly internationally without them again.... And if they work that well to prevent swelling during a flight, what's to say that they wouldn't help during a 100 miler?

mmmonyka said...

I am one of the most unFred persons on the planet. I buy running sneakers at Kohls for $29.99, have only 2 pairs of running shorts, 2 running tops, no technical T-shirts, only cotton ones but I do have compression socks:) I bought them because I had store credit and was having problems with calves tightening and figured that keeping calf muscles warm might help. I think that it did help, although I am not sure whether it was placebo effect or not and probably any kind of knee-high socks would do the trick. And not sure about the faster recovery or blood flow though because I do not wear them very often (I actually wore them only like 3 times) because then I feel like Fred:)

mmmonyka said...

Wait... is it your B-day today? Did I get it right? If it is so, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, if no, ignore my stupidity and don't tell anyone.

sea legs girl said...

Danni, what you describe with faster recovery has also been described in numerous studies, which I actually didn't mention (SLG has only so much time). So why wouldn't you wear them in a marathon?

Steve, you are exactly right. Though the decreased blood lactate levels is a little hard to explain by just the fact that they feel more confident with the sleeve/sock on, but I see what you mean. I actually don't know who is buying the $30 socks, but I'm just glad I'm not paying for them! The saying "do whatever it takes to feel confident" has to have a limit somewhere.

Amy, yeah, you are right. I know people think lots of crazy things about what I have on (for example Danni, who makes fun of my 1980's sweat pants for running) and yeah, it doesn't matter. People just have to run in what they have a desire to run in. And in all honesty, I'm not that harsh, but one can't help thinking a lot of people use them because everyone else is. But that is just how we are as humans. If I end up buying some, I will definitely try them on our frequent trans-Atlantic flights. Great thought!

He he. Cool mmmonyka. Well, at least don't let me make you think they don't work. And yeah, it was just my 31st birthday. :)

Lisa said...

I wore them after I ended up in the hospital with postpartum hemorrhage and incredibly swollen legs (poor venous return) ... and they just felt so good that I still wear them! But the pair I got at the hospital is definitely too ugly to wear running.

sea legs girl said...

Lisa! Enthused, Lisa! Good thing I just clicked on your profile. I'm so glad you are back commenting. I had no idea you had had a post-partum hemorrhage. Wow. Seems a bit loserish of me to start asking you about your socks when you just mentioned that! I will just mention taht Paul Radcliffes sure resemble the skin-toned type on gets in the hospital, so I'm sure if you WANTED to wear them running, you could get away with it.

Jakob Lind Tolborg said...

I fully share you skepticism.

Whenever someone argues that it should improve restitution I ask if anyone has ever tried with only one sock and felt a difference from one leg to the other. Generally they agree with me that it would be the logic study design but no one tried it yet has according to my knowledge :-)

sea legs girl said...


While I very much enjoy your train of thought, I'm just having trouble imagining the actual study: "does your right leg feel better than your left?" "well, yes it does". Wow, the leg with the sock feels better... the socks work! Or maybe you had a slightly different protocol in mind? :)

Jakob Lind Tolborg said...

That could work for a study protocol using a high number of participants of course :-)
Perhaps muscle biopsies could be added or other tests.

It is slightly more difficult to use the same method for testing improvement in speed. Perhaps you could blind fold runners to see if they run in circles, which would be the result of one leg running faster than the other :-)

sea legs girl said...


Ok. Allow me to stop laughing from your second suggestion. That was great! Um, but what would you look at in the muscle biopsy?