The sock industry is stuck in the past and stymied by the idea that how it has always been done, is the best or right way. Unfortunately, even with the advance in new materials, socks still cause just as many problems as they solve. As a Sports Physiotherapist, trail runner and sock aficionado, I've broken down for you why regular socks cause problems and for me, the clearest solution to sock design.
The main problems socks solve?
They form a barrier between your skin and your feet. Preventing irritation and rubbing from your footwear while also drawing away moisture to keep your skin feeling dry and regulating temperature better.
That’s it in a nutshell, but why then do we still get foot problems?
Clammy toes? Cracks and irritation between our toes? Blisters and hot spots on big runs or long hikes?
Regular socks have a fair few fallbacks that really don’t help these problems. They don’t allow your toes to separate and reduce skin on skin rubbing – in fact due to the elastic component of most socks, they actively draw your toes together. This hot, humid and high friction environment between your toes as well as cramped, misaligned positioning really screws with your skin.
Just like the majority of modern sports shoe brands that really aren’t shaped to the natural ergonomics of our feet, the majority of socks also ignore the fact that our toes aren’t webbed. They miss the fact that for good economy of movement, propulsion and function, it’s best that our big toe to stay aligned straight and true, not pulled towards the rest of our toes like many socks and narrow toe box shoes do. (More info on this in our article about the windlass mechanism)
I’m sure your getting the idea that socks, even if that is how they have been shaped for so long, aren’t perfect for our feet.
So, can we do better and make socks that are better for our feet? Better function, comfort and foot health?
To help with this we took a leaf out of Aristotle’s book. He defined the first principle, which is a basic assumption that cannot be deduced any further. As James Clear mentions, the first principle is a fancy way of saying “think like a scientist”. In science, nothing is assumed and we should start first which what we know, what is sure to be true and proven, and work from there.
To develop the ideal sock for our feet, we simply need to know what our feet to well, their form, function and anatomy and create socks that work with this, not against it.
Firstly, our feet play an amazing role on locomotion and our feet contain 20% of the bones in our body for a reason – they’re made to move. In mid stance phase, when our entire foot, from heel to toe, is in contact with the ground, our foot is mobile to help us shift our weight and roll into pronation as we shift weight forward towards the ball of our foot.
And then it shifts. As our heel starts coming up and we load up onto the ball of our foot and our big toe, something crucial happens. Our big toe is extended upwards, tensioning up the big strong band of fascia that runs from our heel to our toe. This band is our plantar fascia and by cranking this tight, it lifts up our arch and tensions up our foot so that as we push off (toe-off), minimal energy is lost and that force is put into propelling us forward!
So you can see why keeping our big toe pointing straight and true forward is important. It’s not just about looks or bunions – to have the most economical, and optimal foot function, we want to maintain our natural foot positioning.
Secondly, for most of us, our toes aren’t webbed together, right? That’s because they evolved to splay, grip and move best as they are for efficient walking and running and just general getting around and balancing. The key here is to ensure we have socks, and shoes that allow our feet to do this and don’t reduce our capacity. There’s other benefits to allowing our toes to splay and move as well as that’s for good breathability and temperature regulation – squishing our toes together doesn’t allow that, leading to hot cracked toes, athletes foot and a heap more issues.
Without going to much deeper, even though I’d love to I feel like I might lose you with any more nerdy rambling about foot anatomy and function but as a Physiotherapist, movement and anatomy are a love of mine.
What features do socks need to embrace full and natural function, rather that stymie it?
They need separate toes and lightweight, low friction material.
Toe socks aren't new, I know but due to poor quality, a focus on bright rainbow colors and more than likely a lack of understanding of their benefits, they're still underutilized and looked at as a novelty or even a bit creepy by the majority.
Separate toes allow everything I mentioned above. That creates socks that mimic the shape of our feet and our feet are wrapped in a low friction, moisture wicking fabric for their entirety, not just the bits that come in contact with shoes. Your now protecting your feet not just from your shoes but from itself. It resolves the issue of the senseless toe chafe, squashed toes and reduced spread and balance.
Less rubbing, and improved toe splay sounds fairly boring but what does it mean to you?
It means less risk of blisters and hot sports. Less skin readiness and irritation. Better toe positioning, balance and feel while having less moisture and better airflow.
They’re socks that take a foot first approach and mimics gloves, rather than a shoe-first approach.
Better feel, less blisters and redness, cooler feet and optimized function?
Choose toe socks.
They’re not new, no, but they are incredibly under-utilized, misunderstood and so many of us are missing a trick in not utilizing them.
A much better question, is, why not toe socks?
If you’re unsure what toe socks to choose, my biased opinion is some merino blend toe socks like these.
Merino yarn has a lower friction coefficient than synthetic yarns and actively draws moisture and smell molecules away from your skin and into its core and to top it off, it also dries fastest. Combine this with synthetic fibers that best wick away moisture and you’ve got a second skin that works with you, not against you and barely feels like it’s there.
See you out there.