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The inexact science of compression socks

Members of the Buffalo Triathlon Club were perched in their typical spot on the Ironman Lake Placid course -- one one of the final hills leading toward the Olympic Oval. It was there a friend and I decided we could construct an Ironman drinking game -- take a swig every time you see someone wearing compression socks.

Never before had I seen so many runners wearing the high socks created to help improve circulation.

And this year, they came with some controversy.

Apparently, there was talk of banning compression socks. The "official" word was said to be that compression socks -- or knee socks or medical tape -- that covered the calf and hence the body marking of your age group, would be deemed illegal by the World Triathlon Corporation -- the company which runs the Ironman race series and next month's Kona World Championships.

However, last week, the WTC reversed its ban on compression socks and instead will eliminate body marking on the calf.

According to an article on slowtwitch.com, about 25 percent of the Kona field last year (416 athletes) wore compression socks during the bike and/or run. (The count in 2007 was 82 and in 2006 was 16).

Which leads to the debate about compression socks -- are they just a fad?

The answer seems to be mixed.

Search for articles in Runners World and you find competing evidence:

In December 2008, there is a link to a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning which concluded that "stockings with constant compression in the area of the calf muscle significantly improved running performance."

Ah, but in January 2009 came a study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports which said that the "socks seemed to have no effect on the athletes performance or recovery, though the sock-wearing athletes reported less muscle soreness."

The conclusion from John Smith, an assistant professor kinesiology at Texas A&M as quoted in a piece on AOL Health, is that compression socks won't hurt you, but they may not help you.

Perhaps compression socks are something to play around with in the offseason. For sure, my calf muscles are often tight, particularly after biking. Then again, if I concentrated on my form and didn't point my toe when I pedaled as much as I do, or if I was more faithful to my yoga program, perhaps I wouldn't need the fancy socks.

Or, perhaps the fancy socks combined with better technique and flexibility training would make my recovery time faster and more productive.

More likely, whatever I believe will happen by wearing compression socks (or not) probably will. One thing that as come clearer through training and racing is that life is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

--- Amy Moritz
Follow Journey to the Finish Line on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amymoritz

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