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What's with the cheerleader socks?

November 19, 2012 - Erik Brown
Paula Radcliffe has been wearing them for as long as I can remember. Chris Solinksy wore them when he became the first American to break 27:00 for 10,000 meters. Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, and Amy Hastings practically made a fashion statement at the Olympic Trials wearing them. Dathan Ritzenhein and Meb Keflezighi wear them. You read that right, Meb wears them! If you haven't guessed by now, I'm talking about compression socks.

If you watched the coverage of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials last February, you couldn't help but notice the growing number of elite runners racing in compression socks. As one who has had two marathon buildups ruined by chronic calf injuries, I couldn't help but wonder if compression socks might hold enough magic to get me to the Erie Marathon starting line, this past September, with relatively healthy legs. So I decided to give them a try, even though, deep down, I could see "it" coming.

Given the growing usage of compression socks among elite runners - male and female - you might think that a guy with six marathons and a 50 mile ultra on his resume could don a pair of knee high socks, to go for a long training run with his wife and their 19 year-old twins, without raising eyebrows, even if that guy is 54 years old, 6' 3", 190 lbs., and anything but an elite runner. You might think that, but you'd be wrong - at least in my house, where I get no respect.

As I recall, it was Mark, who, in his dry, matter-of-fact manner of speaking said, "So Dad, what's with the cheerleader socks?" Thereafter, compression socks have been known as "cheerleader socks" in my house - no offense intended toward cheerleaders, mind you.

So, what is it with "cheerleader socks"? There are a couple theories.

One theory says that compression of the lower leg increases blood flow thereby improving race performance, as well as recovery after a race or long run. The idea is that the blood by-products that cause fatigue and soreness are flushed out better with the increased venous blood flow.

Another theory says that compression socks may result in an improvement in running efficiency, thereby reducing the cumulative effects of the impacts that occur when our feet strike the ground. It is thought that the vibration of the muscles and tendons in the lower leg, that occur as we run, could be one cause of the muscle soreness that we've all experienced, and that improving stride efficiency should reduce those bad, bad, bad... bad vibrations.

I'll leave it to sports physiologists to determine just how much magic, if any, there is in a pair of cheerleader socks. Despite the incessant mockery (which, truth be told, I cherish), I wore my cheerleader socks on long training runs in my buildup for Erie, and in the race itself. Overall, I give them a pretty strong endorsement. I still hit the proverbial wall - pretty hard in fact - but my calves held up fine and I definitely recovered better.

For an in-depth analysis of cheerleader... er, compression socks, I recommend you check out my source for this post which is an article by University of Houston cross country coach, Steve Magness. A link for his article can be found on the right side of this webpage.

Oh, by the way, Mark and his twin Michael, finished the Erie Marathon together in a time of 3:48, sans cheerleader socks.

 
 

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Chris Solinsky setting the American Record for 10,000 Meters in 26:59.

 
 
 
 

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