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Rock Your Socks

by Stephen M. Pribut, DPM

Socks, are an important component of a running athlete’s equipment. While offering protection, cushioning, and distributing the pressures of the shoe onto the foot, they also serve to enhance or impede the flow of moisture off the foot. A soggy foot may not end up being a healthy foot and cotton socks can certainly end up soaking your feet with all the moisture that ends up contained within them.

For exercise that lasts longer than 30 minutes it is a good idea to use a sock made of material that is less friendly to water and more friendly to your foot and more capable of moisture transmission. The terms hydrophilic and hydrophobic meaning respectively moisture loving and moisture fearing refer to the capacity for a sock to absorb moisture. Cotton absorbs moisture extremely well. In fact, it never wants to let it go. Cotton socks will absorb the moisture, swell, loose their shape, compress and continue to hold moisture in the form of a soggy sock against your foot. Synthetic fibers such as CoolMax®, made of hydrophilic material, and including channels that wick the moisture off of your foot will retain their shape, wick the moisture off of your foot and dry relatively quickly. In most cases, this is the best choice of material for an athletic sock. Smartwool is another acceptable choice.

“...a soggy foot may not end up being a healthy foot ...”

Bad Sock Nightmare: Cotton Might Be Rotten

Slogging through puddles wearing tube sox might be okay when you are 7 years old, but no part of  that sounds good to me. Clearly a case where running barefoot might be good, and then followed by drying off your feet and putting on a pair of good fitting moisture wicking sox, good running shoes, and then continue on your way. Wet feet or feet that are bathed in moisture for long periods of time absorb moisture and the skin will become boggy, swollen, softer, mushy and look like they’ve been soaked in a bathtub for too long. This is not a good or healthy thing.

Wicking: A Feature of Your Candelabra?

Wicking refers to the transmission of moisture from one area to another. A wicking gradient allows for moisture or perspiration to be transferred from your foot to the outside of the shoe by passing through a porous sock which does not capture and hold on to the moisture and allows it to continue through a breathable shoe upper. This requires a non-cotton sock and a shoe made of a material, such as breathable nylon mesh, that will allow water vapor to move through it.  The weave of a sock also has an impact on the ability of a sock to carry moisture from your foot. A denser weave allows for more air pockets which can fill with moisture, be compressed and then have the moisture “squeezed” out of them. A denser weave compacts less and can provide better shock absorption. 

Sweat: Just A Glow Or A Rapid Flow?

Your feet are likely to end up soaked while performaing athletic activity. The amount of perspiration dramatically increases to assist your body in cooling. The sweat of the body is often produced so rapidly that it doesn't all evaporate but ends up in your socks.There are between 2 to 4 million sweat glands over our entire body. Each sweat gland is tiny and weighs little, but put all together they weigh as much as one kidney, about 100 grams. The highest concentration of sweat glands are in the palms of our hands and the soles of our feet. An individual can perspire up to several liters per hour and up to 10 liters per day. The sole of the foot actually has the most sweat glands with 620/cm2. The back has the least with64/cm2. The soles of the feet alone have between 250,000 to 300,000 sweat glands in total.

“...the soles of the feet alone have between 250,000 and 300,000 sweat glands in total...”

Wicking

 

refers to the transmission of moisture from one area to another. A wicking gradient allows for moisture or perspiration to be transferred from your foot to the outside of the shoe by passing through a porous sock which does not capture and hold on to the moisture and allows it to continue through a

 

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Blisters, corns, irritations, infections, athlete’s foot – all of these can happen from bad fitting socks made of the incorrect materials. In fact the use of inappropriate socks has even led to what has been called the “toxic sock syndrome”.  Pitted keratolysis, as unpleasant as it sounds occurs in feet which have suffered from excessive perspiration, occlusion, and moisture often in the presence of an increased surface pH. And as far as athlete’s foot goes, remember that a “Dark, Warm, Moist Environment is fungous heaven”.  Let’s at least get rid of some of that moisture!

“...Blisters, corns, irritations, infections, athlete’s foot – all of these can happen from bad fitting socks made of the incorrect materials...”

Materials

The most frequently used fiber which measures up is CoolMax®. Recently Smartwool has been added to the list of acceptable materials. At times polypropylene has been used for making wickable material for socks. The fibers being hydrophobic is not the sole consideration for the choice of an optimal sock. The mechanical structure of the fibers and their being constructed for “channels” to allow moisture to flow through and the compressibility of the material is also important.

Fibers made of materials that swell with moisture tend to hold moisture and lose their shape. The natural fibers seem to swell more than synthetic fibers: Cotton swells 45%, wool swells about 35% while acrylic will only swell about 5%. Cotton is more than 2 times resistant to the flow of moisture. The cotton sock absorbs and retains moisture and reportedly has more than 10 times the moisture retention of CoolMax®. When the cotton sock is wet, it compresses and loses its shock absorbing properties. And the sock can not breathe while the fibers are swollen and clogged with fluid. They are also subject to shrinking during the washing and drying cycle. Polypropylene will also shrink in the dryer, so allow them to drip dry. CoolMax® socks may be machine washed and dried and are considered shrink resistant. They are also the fastest drying material. While your feet may not be dry when they perspire, the moisture on your foot is moved to the outside of the sock where it can more readily evaporate.

Wicking is a good thing. It helps keep your body and feet cool in hot weather and helps keep you warm in the cold weather. It assists the thermoregulatory processes of your body.

While synthetic fibers cost more they often wear better and last longer.

How High?

Choosing the height of your sock is a personal matter. Whether you wear a crew sock or a mini-crew is up to you. Some sports though have standards that are either traditional or required. Over the calf socks are used in Baseball and Soccer. Crew socks are used in Running, Golf, Tennis,  a

nd Racquetball. And Mini-crew is usually chosen in Golf, Tennis, and Running.

 

Tips:

  • Choose your sock thickness to correlate with the fit of your shoes. If you fit and selected your shoes with thin socks, moving to thick socks or double thickness socks may end up squeezing your feet.
  • Make sure to bring the socks you intend to wear when you get fitted for new running shoes.
  • Consider using socks made of feet friendly, moisture wicking materials and not the 3 for $10 cotton socks.
  • Change your socks at least daily.
  • Always use fresh, clean, dry socks for your athletic activities.

Selected Running Sock Sites:

Wigwam Ultimax Ironman www.wigwam.com
Thorlo www.thorlo.com
Nike www.nikerunning.com
Asics www.asics.com
Smartwool www.smartwool.com

Some companies, among these are Asics and Nike offer socks that wick moisture and are designed for your right or left foot individually. And you can even find socks designed specifically for certain shoe models.

 

 
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Copyright 2003-2007 Stephen M. Pribut