Why I’m Not Giving Up My Cotton Socks

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For me, fit is more important than fiber. Why I’m Not Giving Up My Cotton Socks www.runnerclick.com

We were in Annapolis, Maryland for the day and decided to stop into a specialty running store since one of our sons was in the market for a new pair of training shoes. When my son slipped off his current shoes to try a new pair on, the employee said very condescendingly that there was no way he should be running in the type of sock he had on, that he definitely needed to make the switch to whatever brand of synthetic socks they were selling. He even went so far as to open a pair of socks and have him try them on, which as any mom of a teenage boy knows, is risky business.

We left the store with no shoes or socks, have never been back to that store or even the location that is closer to where we live. If that employee wanted to sell a pair of shoes, telling us the socks were sub-par was not the way to do it.

I wanted to tell that guy that I had plenty of running success in cotton socks. And in heavy cotton sweatpants and sweatshirts. With no moisture wicking. And on a cinder track. But I kept my mouth shut.

Actually, I have stood on a couple of podiums, won a national championship, and earned NCAA All-American honors all while wearing old-school, non-moisture wicking cotton socks. I even set a record for the 10,000 meters at my alma mater in cotton socks, which still stands today. In 33 years, you would think that someone in some kind of newfangled sock would have broken that record. I know you are probably thinking that maybe it has something to do with the popularity of running 10,000 meters on a track, but I don’t think that’s it. Maybe they don’t have the “right” socks.

Science behind it

I’m not a scientist but I do like science…not the math part of it…but the sciencey part…where studies have been done and decisions are based on research, outcomes, and logic. In this era, in which some science is deemed “fake,” I still like my drugs FDA-approved and my food inspected by the USDA.

So I looked briefly at the science behind cotton versus other types of socks. On an initial search, many of the websites touting the benefits of synthetic socks also were selling them so the part of my brain that likes science ruled those out as credible sources.

On I went to pubmed.com, a repository for biomedical citations—29 million of them—from journals and publications. From my cursory review, it appears that the two most common issues having to do with socks are blister prevention and moisture wicking. Synthetic socks are touted to have better properties both to prevent blisters and to facilitate moisture wicking, which means that your feet stay drier.

A 1990 study, “Friction blisters and sock fiber composition. A double-blind study,” published in the Journal of the American Podiatric Medicine Association, concluded that long-distance runners who wore socks of 100% acrylic experienced fewer and small blister than those who wore 100% cotton socks.

In a follow-up study in 1993, the same authors published in the same journal a study titled “Comparison of cotton and acrylic socks using a generic cushion sole design for runners.” In this study, they asserted that there was no difference in blister prevention properties between acrylic and cotton socks when the socks were constructed in the same way and without any bells or whistles. The study did note that the acrylic fibers were superior to cotton only when the sock was constructed to provide more anatomical padding, leading one to wonder if the superiority has more to do with the construction versus the material itself.

And yet another study claims that paper tape reduced the incidence of blisters by 40% in 128 participants in “Paper Tape Prevents Foot Blisters: A Randomized Prevention Trial Assessing Paper Tape in Endurance Distances II,” published in the September 2016 issue of the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine.

My personal sock experiences

I haven’t had a blister on my feet in years, even when breaking in new training shoes, which I’m actually in the process of doing. I did just have one on the palm of my hand from gardening and if you haven’t had one in a while, you forget how painful they can be. Obviously, blister prevention is important. In my humble opinion, I believe that properly fitted shoes and the right size socks help limit the incidence of blisters.

In an effort to preserve the life of my training shoes, I don’t wear them except to run; I immediately remove them when I return and I take off my socks as well, limiting the time I spend in both. Because of this, I am more concerned with the fit of the socks rather than the material from which they are made.

Because I am a US women’s size 6 in shoes, I often hover between a small or medium sock depending on the brand. But sometimes socks in size small are difficult to find. For instance, in Nike socks, a small is listed as a women’s shoe size 4 to 6 and the medium is women’s shoe size 6 to 10. According to the size chart, I could wear either a small or medium. I usually go with size medium because they are easier to find.

The socks I like most are 73% cotton, 25% polyester, 1% spandex and 1% nylon. They fit very well in a size medium. I tried a synthetic sock by the same brand, also in a size medium and the heel of the sock came about halfway up my Achilles. Evidently, sizes vary depending on the sock style, even within the same brand.

Wearing socks that are too big and have a bulge of fabric at the top of the heel of the training shoe can certainly cause blisters. As can wearing socks that are too small and that keep sliding below the top of the shoe.

I usually give more thought to my sock choice when I’m running a half marathon in the rain, a mud run or a trail run with water crossings. But, I have found that once wet, synthetic socks tend to make my feet slip around a bit in my shoes and when the weather is hot, they make my feet feel like they are on fire.

Although the synthetic socks help wick away moisture like sweat, there is no way they will stay dry in wet weather or when submerged in water. The best and only way I have found to keep socks—and feet!—dry on a wet run is to wear newspaper bags over the socks. It is an old school, low-tech trick my college coach taught me and it works pretty well. Just make sure to trim the tops from the bags right above the ankle so it doesn’t look too conspicuous and you avoid becoming known as the local “bag lady.”

Sources

  1. K.M. Herring, D.H. Richie Jr., Comparison of cotton and acrylic socks using a generic cushion sole design for runners., website
  2. K.M. Herring, D.H. Richie Jr., Friction blisters and sock fiber composition. A double-blind study, website
  3. G.S. Lipman, L.J. Sharp, M. Christensen, C. Phillips, A. DiTullio, A. Dalton, P. Ng, J. Shangkuan, K. Shea, B.J. Krabak, Paper Tape Prevents Foot Blisters: A Randomized Prevention Trial Assessing Paper Tape in Endurance Distances II (Pre-TAPED II)., website