Von Collins is an accomplished triathlete and endurance cyclist, and the author of four fitness and training books: Smarter Running, Your First Triathlon Guide, Fit Foods, and 30 Rut-Busting Workouts. He has been cited as a triathlon, cycling, and fitness expert by Healthline, CNET, Forbes, Eat This, Not That and other major outlets.
Compression socks have become some of the hottest products on the fitness market today. You have undoubtedly seen marathoners, triathletes, weekend athletes, and even travelers sporting compression socks. The growth in compression socks’ popularity follows major growth in the overall compression wear industry, with some reports suggesting it will continue growing at almost a 10% clip for several years. Socks of all construction types, makes, and price points have created a relatively mature market for the athletic wear.
If you haven’t shopped for compression socks before, you will encounter some lingo and terminology that might be new. Before we talk about our recommendations for each price point (below), here are a few of the things you should look for in a good pair of compression socks, and out attempt to translate the industry jargon into English.
Best Compression Socks
Let’s cut right to the chase on our favorite compression socks. We have tested many compression socks of all price ranges, and compared them against the needs of the typical athlete. Here are our thoughts regarding the best compression socks that we see on the market today.
High-End Compression Socks
Zensah Tech+ Compression Socks
We are fans of Zensah, and think they have struck a nice combination of a good sock with a simple design. How complicated can a sock be, you ask? It is about little things, like knowing which sock is right and left, and designing the sock so it is easier to pull on. Zensah has been doing a nice job with their compression socks, and moving into other areas of compression gear as well. The Tech+ socks offer a nice combination of graduated compression and a nice, breathable foot cradle that allows for comfort during and after a run.
Made in Italy with 200+ needle count construction, these will feel a cut above as soon as you put them on. Our reviews suggest that these are a good choice for runners, especially those who battle with shin splits. Zensah’s line of compression gear is always expanding, so check in with them often to see what additional socks are rolled out from quarter to quarter. Until then, we think you would be happy with the Tech+. Find here on Amazon.
2XU Elite Compression Sock
We love these socks. If you have spent any time reading other articles on our site, you known that we are big fans of 2XU. They make some great triathlon wetsuits in addition to really good compression gear. 2XU creates some of the most advanced compression wear that we see, and if it fits your budget you would likely be pleased with what the 2XU sock offers. The fabric is thin yet provides ample graduated compression, and the toe and heel beds are design to really be comfortable on the foot.
2XU has done a better job than most others at making the foot part feel like a sock with a real foot shape through the sole and good toe basket, and the calf part feel like a compression sleeve — except all in one garment! The seamless technology is a big plus, and we like that 2XU makes an alpine version specifically for skiers and ski boots. With a brand like 2XU, you can be confident you are getting the latest in compression technology. This is a company that always advances from model to model. Our only complaint is that they can be a little confusing to purchase, because there are so many models (from socks intended for flying, to compression ski socks). You just want the Elites. Find here on Amazon.
CEP Progressive+ Compression Socks
CEP is an offshoot of a medical compression company, and has been making sport-focused socks since about 2007. Having their start in medical-grade clothing, you know that CEP knows a thing or two about the engineering of compression wear. When it comes to athletic socks, their German-made Progressive 2.0 socks provide even and quality compression, and excel for cold-weather runners. This is due to their construction which, unlike many other compression socks, includes just under 20% wool. That is just enough wool to add some welcome warmth without compromising on moisture-wicking abilities.
We like the extra flat toe seam, as that can often be a seam that causes discomfort given the way socks are constructed. They might not be bargain priced, but you are going to get a quality sock when you buy the CEPs. Others from our reviewer group raved about the number of color choices — we counted 15! Find here on Amazon.
Mid-Range and Entry-Level Compression Socks
CW-X Compression Ventilator Support Socks
CW-X has been making good compression gear for several years, and their socks are a good all-around choice for many types of uses. Webbing built in to the sock allows the calves, ankles, and arches to get the right level of support. These socks devote more attention to the arches than many others, so might be a good choice for those dealing with arch issues.
The CW-X socks are nice and thin, allowing for a more form-fitting factor than some of the others in the lower price range, a big selling point for many. Every time we use the socks, we are impressed by the comfort. Note that CW-X appears to be getting out of the socks business, focusing more on compression shorts and tights. We are sorry to see that, but for the time being there are still enough of these socks on the market so that they make our list! They aren’t the least expensive but are a decent value compared to some of the high-end socks. Find here on Amazon.
Vim n Vigr 15-20 mmHg Socks
We are big fans of Vim n Vigr, and consider them pioneers in the compression sock industry. Why? They were the first to bring true style to the compression sock market. Compression socks don’t have to be bland and look like medical wear.
They are high-quality socks with an excellent following. Note that in our minds, these socks are really not intended for working out the same way that the Zensahs, Nikes, or 2XUs are. Rather, they are an excellent compression sock that is made to be stylish and comfortable and used for recovery or general compression use. Vim n Vigr makes a good pair of compression socks with moderate compression, in the 15-20 mmHg range. The socks, available in several fun and stylish designs and provide good graduated compression that is tightest at the ankles and nicely work their way up the calf wit progressively less pressure. The US-based company has its gear made in Taiwan with excellent quality control, as the reliability of the socks appears to be outstanding. While these might not be our top choice to wear during your hardcore workouts, they are excellent for general recovery use, or for nurses or others who might be on their feet all day. Find here on Amazon.
Low-End Compression Socks
There are low-end socks out there, but we don’t recommend that you buy them for athletic purposes. Why? Because they are really no different than just a plain old long pair of socks. They don’t offer enough compression to provide the benefits you need from a good pair of compression socks, which is the whole reason for investing in them in the first place.
If you like wearing lower-end socks because they are comfortable, great. Just know they are not compression socks even if a manufacturer slaps that word on the packaging.
Low-end compression socks are often made by people looking to make a quick buck or two on Amazon, designed on paper by people who have no real experience making garments and apparel. There might be exceptions, but we say stay away from them. For only a few bucks more, you can catch one of the recommended pairs of compression socks on sale, and you will get a superior product that will likely perform better and last longer.
What to Look for in Compression Socks / Our Review Criteria
Compression Levels: Compression levels in any compression garment are measured in Millimeters of Mercury, abbreviated as mmHg. If it looks familiar, it is the same way that your blood pressure is measured. Once a sock is made, a good manufacturer will physically test the compression that the sock creates. The reason it is always a range is because there are different levels of compression on different levels of the sock. Our table below outlines what compression you should look for, but most compression socks for athletic use range from about 15 to 30 mmHg.
Gradient Compression: Gradient compression is key in compression socks. It means that your socks will have varying levels of compression throughout the ankle and up the calf. In addition to being far more comfortable, proper gradient compression provides the most blood flow and recovery benefits. A sock with the right level of compression throughout will provide compression where you need it (ankle) but not where you don’t (foot). If you are only looking for compression in your shin and calf, consider compression sleeves as well — although a good pair of compression socks should do the same thing.
Smooth Seam Structure: This goes for almost any garment – cycling shorts, compression shorts, triathlon wetsuits, you name it. One of the most important features is that the seams don’t irritate or chafe your skin. There are two ways to help accomplish that. First, a good pair of compression socks will have as few seams as are absolutely necessary. Second, the stitching that is there will be as flat, smooth, and generally unnoticeable as possible. As with nearly anything athletic-related — cycling shorts, wetsuits, running tights — as you spend more money, you should expect seams on the garment to be less noticeable. The same goes for compression socks.
Breathable. You want your compression socks to be breathable, or you will find yourself not even wanting to wear them for 20 minutes. More sock makers are experimenting with various materials that can boost the breathability more and more. While you want as breathable a sock as possible, it is especially important that the toe, foot, and heel turn are very breathable. This is the part that will get warm inside a shoe, and even without a shoe your foot will create heat if the fabric cannot breathe. The combination of a breathable sock, along with one that is moisture-wicking (the next point, below) is what often drives the price up, among other things.
Moisture-Wicking. In the simplest terms, a compression sock that does not allow moisture to escape will become itchy, and over time it will develop an odor. Having material that can wick away moisture, or let moisture escape from the sock, will allow you to use the socks on runs, during workouts, or wear the socks for hours during recovery. Look for socks made of synthetic materials, heavy on polyester and elastine, blends which also might be seen as brand names such as Coolmax or Lycra. How wicking works is not by the material acting as a waterproof agent, but rather by allowing the fabric to pull in the moisture but then quickly allow it to evaporate, instead of getting bogged down with water. It basically encourages rapid evaporation. It is called capillary action, but that is probably more science than we need for this post.
Length. You want your compression socks to be long enough to cover your entire shin and calf, ending just below the knee joint. Too high, and the seam will irritate the back of your knee when running. Too short, and the socks will not provide the necessary compression benefits to the area most prone to shin splints.
Thickness. Finding a pair of compression socks that fit well is one thing, but how do they perform inside a shoe, or when doing whatever activity you might use them for? We like socks that are not terribly thick, and the ones we recommended above all tend to be thin enough to be comfortable inside a shoe or boot and not bunch-up. This is part of the reason that a good compression sock is not a cheap as regular socks. It takes some engineering and design to make a sock that has strong compression while also not being too thick and bulky.
Compression Levels in Socks
As you look at different compression socks, you will see compression levels posted for most products. Here is a quick reference guide on what the different compression levels mean, and how much you need for various activities.
- Lowest: 5-15 mmHg. Socks at this level are similar to or only slightly tighter than a typical sock. They are comfortable for long periods of time and during travel, but usually do not offer enough compression to make significant recovery gains in active athletes. Still, many lower-priced socks have this level of compression and are worth owning. Good for travel, work.
- Moderate (Most Common in Athletic Compression): 16-25 mmHg. These socks offer good compression and are noticeably tighter than the average athletic sock. To achieve this level of compression, the sock typically has more sophisticated construction that provides the right compression gradient level. Good for running, recovery.
- Heaviest: 26-35 mmHg. The firmest athletic compression socks in the market get into this range. These socks have enough paneling to provide firm compression in multiple directions, and to pay for that they typically are going to be priced higher than other socks. May be more than some weekend athletes need. Good for high-performance recovery.
- Medical: Above 35 mmHg. Typically reserved for medical uses. While some athletes might benefit from this level of compression, we are not comfortable directing anyone to use them unless under medical supervision.
Do Compression Socks Work?
Yes, but the benefits might vary by person, and by activity.
Compression socks have long been used as a medical therapy for health issues like deep vein thrombosis, but are a relatively new development in the sports and fitness world. Compression socks are used by athletes for many different purposes. Some use them while working out, others only when injured, and many for recovery in-between workouts. Recent studies support the notion that compression socks are most effective in accelerate recovery between workouts. The improved blood flow and pressure afforded by compression socks results in a measured shorter recovery time.
I have found that the combination of cold plunges and compression socks provides a nice 1-2 recovery punch, but my experience should be viewed as anecdotal.
We also see the same benefits in ankle sleeves and calf sleeves, but the compression sock appears to be the most complete and the safest way to get compression to your lower leg.
A study done by the Journal of Sports Medicine found that those who wore compression socks after a marathon reduced their time to exhaustion on subsequent workouts, while the group who did not use compression socks for recovery actually increased theirs. The difference was about 5%, which might not sound like much but for an athlete trying to get every efficiency possible, it can be a difference-maker. A French study took it several steps further, suggesting that compression socks reduced Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) by over 25%.
How do the compression socks do this? By constricting your calf and leg, your blood is now moving through a smaller tube than it would have otherwise. It moves with more velocity, and doesn’t pool in your feet and ankles like it might have otherwise. The same effect of helping to keep fluids moving appears to apply to lactic acid as well. Still, as much as many runners swear by compression socks during their workouts, the scientific evidence points more to post-workout recovery benefits.
There are a few things to remember when considering adding compression socks to your workout arsenal. Firstly, they can be a real pain to get on. It’s highly recommended that for recovery days you put them on as soon as you wake up. This is when the legs are the least swollen, meaning it will be harder to get them on as the day proceeds.
Another thing to remember is that compression gear needs to fit your body perfectly in order to be effective. Anything that is just slightly too big or small can cause issues, or simply not provide the desired effect. In fact, you can seriously injure yourself wearing too tight of a compression sock for too long. It’s not common, as the seriously tight ones are usually only handed out by doctors. Still, it could be lifesaving so ensure you buy quality products.
The only other thing that seems to get as consistently strong endorsements from the running community when it comes to muscle soreness is good, old-fashioned foam rolling, a treatment that has studies backing it up. If you are finding your recovery to be in need of some more horsepower, the combination of compression socks, foam rolling, and stretching would be a good place to start.
Anecdotally, many of our readers and community members enthusiastically note that using compression socks during and after workouts helps avoid, aggravate, and prevent certain injuries, most notably Achilles tendon strains and shin splits. Invariably, shin splits come up time and time again as a condition that appears by be improved by the use of compression socks, especially those with pressure above 20 mmHg.
Regardless of the studies that suggest the beneficial effects of compression on recovery, we have this attitude: Anything that you feel helps you be more productive, perform better, or feel better is a good thing. To many people, using a product – a type of shoe, compression gear, a certain bike fit, etc., is largely a matter of personal preference.
To wrap this article up, here is an animation on how compression socks work, courtesy of our friends at the Muscle and Joint Center.
Global Compression Wear and Shapewear Market Size. Marketwatch. https://www.marketwatch.com/press-release/the-global-compression-wear-and-shapewear-market-size-is-expected-to-reach-64-billion-by-2024-rising-at-a-market-growth-of-58-cagr-during-the-forecast-period-2018-08-22
Leg Clots: An Immediate and Long-Term Hazard. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/leg-clots-aka-deep-vein-thrombosis-an-immediate-and-long-term-health-hazard-201112143955
Compression Garments and Recovery From Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage. NIH. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0067622/
Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures. NIH. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4299735/