Compression socks are a deceptively simple accessory that have myriad recovery benefits for runners, as well as functioning as a medical aid in a range of scenarios. Aside from the sensation of your legs being drawn into a supportive hug—think a weighted blanket for your active muscles—the right style of compression socks can improve blood flow, which gives your legs an active, energized feeling and helps boost recovery.
Not all compression socks are created equal. Some are made to be worn during running, others are for the hours (or days) after your big event, and still others are for medical uses beyond running, like battling edema, varicose veins, and deep vein thrombosis. 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.
Best Compression Socks
What to Consider When Shopping for Compression Socks
How much compression do you need?
We typically recommend runners choose a style that has between 20-30 mmHg—“millimeters of mercury”—for running and recovery. This level is rated as “firm” but won’t cut off circulation or feel uncomfortable for most runners. We’ve recommended running-oriented models in this piece, and we suggest sticking to these (or similar) unless you’ve been diagnosed with a condition that requires a more medically-oriented compression sock.
Like standard socks, compression socks can be made with a blend of cotton, merino, or nylon paired with a durable, stretchy material like Spandex or Lycra. The percentage of elastane and the weave of the sock dictates both the pressure and the stretchiness of the sock. Lycra and Spandex are necessary for compression sock elasticity, and since we’ve recommended running models here, we chose socks made with wicking and breathable nylon, polyester, or merino.
What length / size do you want?
We typically opt for over-the-calf socks for the maximum compression benefits. This allows socks with a gradient compression to help push blood flow through the ankle and up the leg, preventing ankle swelling and increasing blood flow throughout your leg.
To find the right size, measure the widest part of your calf and the narrowest part of your ankle, then consult the sizing guides on the manufacturer’s website to make sure you’re getting the right fit. The socks will feel tight, but they shouldn’t feel like they’re cutting off your circulation.
How We Selected
To make this list of best compression socks, we relied on personal experiences running (and working) in several of these models, as well as input from the Runner’s World test team. We scoured studies on the effectiveness of compression in general, and also interviewed vascular surgeon and runner Dr. Britt H. Tonnessen.
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For the sake of thoroughness, we also sifted through online reviews for brands and models we 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 we recommend.
FOR EVERYDAY COMPRESSION WEARERS
Zensah Tech+ Compression Socks
These are Zensah’s best-selling sports compression socks, and are made specifically for runners of all levels. These socks are made with primarily nylon material but still have a soft knit, plus the graduated compression helps increase blood flow with dedicated compression zones. The higher percentage of elastane helps these socks retain their shape and they are highly durable for long distances and multiple seasons.
EQUALLY GREAT FOR TRAVEL AND RUNNING
Sockwell Modern Mountain Compression Crew Socks
Equally comfortable for hiking, running, recovery, or travel, these light compression socks are mid-calf height as opposed to over-the-calf, making them a versatile choice for runners who might not want to commit to the full-sleeve look. These are made with a soft merino / alpaca wool blend that stays stink-free and wicks sweat, with arch support and a reinforced toe for durability and fit.
They have a lower percentage of elastane and a lighter compression than others on this list, which makes them great for a range of activities while still getting the benefits of light, graduated compression.
BEST LEG SLEEVES
Zensah Compression Leg Sleeves
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
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
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
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
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.
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BEST POST-RACE RECOVERY SOCK
2XU Recovery Compression Socks
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
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 30 mmHG 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.
COOL AND LIGHTWEIGHT
2XU Vectr Compression Socks
There are a lot of size options for these 20 to 30 mmHG compression socks, which gives you a better chance of getting a 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
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
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
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.
RW: How Do Compression Socks Work?
MS: Compression socks have proven function in the medical world when it comes to aching and swelling in the legs.
“Compression socks help augment venous and lymphatic return in the legs—the primary vascular systems that return fluid and blood from the lower legs,” says vascular surgeon and runner Dr. Britt Tonnessen. Aching and swelling is common in people with more serious circulation problems, 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.
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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.
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.
RW: How Does Gradient Compression Work?
MS: Compression socks with “gradient compression” 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 medical-grade models. If your compression socks are so tight they’re digging into your skin and causing discomfort, size up—your legs should feel supported, not constricted.
RW: How Is Compression Measured?
MS: 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. We listed the numbers to give you a rough idea.
RW: When Should I Wear Compression Socks?
MS: While many runners wear compression 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, but most runners 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, wearing these socks can alleviate leg cramps during long car rides and flights.