Craft proCool Compression Socks
Craft ProCool compression socks represent something for nothing. Free speed. To us, free speed is anything that makes us faster just by using that thing. Lighter bikes, faster wheels, smoother bearings. A closer-fitting jersey. The proper tire pressure. But since training is not just what you do on the bike, but the totality of your life, food, job, sleep, happiness, etc, free speed can take countless forms. Food and sleep are the obvious free speed items. But there are more. Tons of people flirt with vitamins, supplements, and so on. We used to scoff at some elements of free speed, but now we look for them. Maybe it's from those moments when we got dropped within sight of the KoM line, or hit "empty" a few k before the finish. A few percentage points of improvement, even a single percentage point, or half, from a legal means, can result in a huge difference by the end of a race or ride.
Compression socks could be something for nothing. The promise is that all you have to do is wear them and your muscles will recover faster and you'll feel better when you take them off. It's a whiff of the Lost Ark, the Maltese Falcon, the fountain of youth, the edge we might have been looking for all along, if we just knew where to look.
We recently were in Belgium for Vlaamse Wielerweek. One 114km race and the Ronde Wielertouriste 250k ride were on the itinerary, and we'd be riding plenty in addition, so we certainly would use any legal recovery aid to make sure we could hang with the hardmen in the kermis and show we could do it all at the Wielertouriste. The socks came with us. They went on when we weren't riding.
Cyclists, pro racers in particular, have been experimenting with compression wear for at least the past several years. Some go with straight-up compression hose, of the kind used by people with circulation problems in their legs. Others have been availing themselves to sport-specific compression garments, particularly the ones made by Skins and 2XU. Coincidentally or not, both companies are based in Australia and both seem to be aggressively signing up pro teams.
Some use the garments for recovery while others do it for travel. A cross-section must do both. By recovery, we mean they're putting them on after their rides and keeping them on for hours. By travel, we mean that if they're going to be sitting in one position, be it in a car, plane, or train, for hours, they put them on to reduce potential swelling in their legs. Others still, use them for days when they're on their feet for several hours. We know of sales folk and doctors who are doing this.
We generally try to quantify an advantage. Much like the way people mistake seal drag for bearing drag, or believe that a 20mm tire is faster than a 23, initial impressions can be confusing and deceiving. Much like reams of empirical wisdom, handed-down tales can be not only wrong, but destructive.
While we see no reason to believe that compression wear can be deleterious to recovery, there isn't scientific consensus on whether or not there is a benefit. Joe Friel, on his TrainingPeaks site has a fairly thorough review of the research on compression socks. The conclusion he draws is that there's enough conflicting info out there not to draw a conclusion and if you want to try, let him know what you find. We would have thought he'd test them or get some of his athletes to do so.
We did some more Googling and found differing opinions. Tri247 has a piece that indicates compression garments work. Radio Doctor Gabe Mirkin says they don't. Mirkin, disappointingly, cites only one study. Skins, maker of compression garments, has a page where they have numerous studies, some of which show improvement, others of which show "no significant improvement." Most of the studies, whether pro or con, use relatively few subjects, so even the conclusions are hardly definitive.
After reading the studies and reviews of studies, we're pretty much back to square one. We have to figure it out on our own.
We've played with compression wear ourselves. As we've mentioned in the past, compression spandex strikes us as odd. Compression shorts and tights are spandex that somehow stretch less than our regular spandex or have a more robust thread that takes more effort to stretch. We think of the latter as a stronger spring, either a thicker coil or more tightly-wound coil. We've done both hose and tights. Compression tights, while they take more work to put on than regular tights, don't offer nearly the same compression as hose. The tights definitely feel tighter than regular spandex, but we didn't really notice much difference when wearing them. With the hose, we really feel the squeeze.
We want to feel the difference when wearing the garment. That says to us the garment is doing its thing. But it might not; cyclists respond to the hard. Hard effort, hard massage, hard rest. If you're pushing to 11, you probably expect that recovery will need to feel like 11 as well. We do.
Maybe you don't need to feel the squeeze when wearing to get a recovery benefit. Some of our friends have done the hose, others tights, and both sets believe the garments are improving their recovery, which means feeling fresher than otherwise after wearing them.
The Craft socks feel like they're compressing our lower legs at about the same pressure as the Skins tights. The foot part feels like a normal sock, there's a heel, and the upper is ribbed. The top is doubled-over material and it really feels like it's squeezing our leg. The ProCool material is definitely an improvement in terms of comfort compared to the hose, and it seems to wick better than the tights. Aesthetically, you want to be wearing pants over these socks, for want of the ribbing and the questions. No, we're not shooting hoops with the '78 Sonics.
The one thing we're not sure of is how much they help with recovery. Our calves seem to feel a little looser, a little more supple, after taking off the socks. This week has been particularly tough on the lower legs after we ran downhill in our sprint to the car after seeking out frites atop the Koppenberg. Shin splints and tight calves. So we've had them on for our waking hours and some of our sleeping.
It's not a silver bullet. The socks don't transform your legs in a day from mush back to the pistons they were when fresh. There might be some improvement, a slight speeding of the body's recovery process, but it isn't dramatic. Free speed. Maybe. But if it is, it isn't much, at least for our tired legs. Still bears further testing on our part.