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Every Ultra-Runner’s Secret Weapon: Socks?

By Larry Carroll

Let’s face the facts: Running shoes are sexy. Shorts get lots of attention, tees display messages that tell everyone a runner is serious, silly, or sweating for a cause. Then there are the accessories: packs to carry, GPS trackers that boast the allure of new tech, and of course nothing makes you look cooler than a good pair of sunglasses.

But the one thing (almost) every runner wears, and very few observers ever notice, is socks. They’re boring, they’re simple — and if chosen incorrectly, they could make a huge difference between a smooth run and one dogged by pain and discomfort.  

As Albus Dumbledore said in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”: One can never have enough socks. So, let’s give some love to the unsung secret weapon of ultra-runners everywhere, as we consider the reasons why proper sock selection is crucial.

Hold The Cotton – Sure, if your plan is to Netflix and Chill on your couch on a Friday night, cotton socks are a comfy choice. But those in the running community know that cotton is a terrible material for sweating, as it absorbs moisture and causes blisters. On hot days and in wet weather especially, it should be avoided at all costs — instead, preferred footwear options will typically contain merino or synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon or spandex. What you need is a fabric that dries quickly, breathes well, and protects your feet mile after mile.

How Low Can You Go? – While a lot of elite athletes prefer the “no show” look, lately crew length has returned from 80s exile to become the norm. It isn’t just a comfort issue, however — when you’re running on trails, taller socks can act as a barrier against brush scrapes and keep dust and dirt from accumulating. For this and other reasons, knee-length socks are the preferred option for many runners, because they cover the whole calf.

Don’t Decompress – Compression socks are all the rage these days, with many athletes thinking they speed up recovery, improve blood flow to the muscles and lessen fatigue. Snug fitting and stretchy, when worn correctly these socks will squeeze your leg and make you feel better on the trail.

As with running shoes, the key to compression socks is making sure they fit properly. It is recommended that runners use a tape measure to get the circumference of the ankle, and measure the widest part of the calves, before purchasing compression socks accordingly.

Minimize the Annoyance – If you choose your running socks well, you’ll never have to think about them. If you choose poorly, they will dominate your thoughts for mile after mile.

For instance, durability is a major concern because you’re going to be putting serious mileage on your feet and if a hole develops, it most likely will not be pleasant. Similarly, consider the seam, which could rub you the wrong way — quite literally. Thankfully, many socks today are seamless, presenting heel-to-toe comfort for those who prefer the seamless lifestyle.

Smell You Later – It’s a reality of running: Your socks are going to smell bad. But many socks offer options to diminish the odor, from wool to moisture-wicking fibers to silver ions that supposedly kill germs. Such factors are worth considering — particularly if you have a partner brave enough to do your laundry.

Extra Support – Some socks have silicone pyramids that massage the Achilles tendon; others have toes, maximizing blister protection; others still have dual layers that rub against each other to prevent chafing. There are socks that conform to the left and right structure of the foot — and don’t even get us started on cushioning options. The bottom line is, no matter what you’re looking for in a sock it seems to be out there — so compare notes with other runners in your life, and proceed accordingly.

What’s Your Style? – Last but certainly not least, a runner’s socks offer one last chance to personalize a look.

While many are purely functional, others come in a variety of styles and colors. Are you inclined to go fluorescent, so you’ll be easier to see on the trail? Or maybe have your own socks custom-made with a design, logo or message for all to see? Yeah, socks can be a little boring — but only if you want them to be that way.

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