The Best Running Socks for Men
Do you need the best running sock for your next workout or adventure? For this test we took five of the top men's running socks and put them through the wringer. Over the course of three months we took them on 150+ miles of trails, road and treadmill running. We ran them on hot sunny days, cold mornings, muddy and snowy paths, hard asphalt trails and roads, rocky uphills and downhills, and climate controlled treadmills. We evaluated each pair in the areas of comfort, padding, durability, fit, ability to wick, and slip prevention. Not all socks are created equal and we run down the differences. Keep reading to see the test scores and important information.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Men's Running Socks
Darn Tough Light Cushion
The Darn Tough Light Cushion (run/bike), was the most durable product we tested, hands down. It was clear from the onset of the testing that this sock was designed to live up to its name and warranty. It looked as good on mile 50 as it did in the packaging, especially underfoot where it really mattered. It is a very comfortable sock. The natural fibers had a nice soft feel in the hand, which is counter intuitive to what we thought of with a super durable material. The tabs around the ankle made getting it on easier and added a little color out of the top of our shoes. The padding was not the thickest, but it was very resilient to being pounded flat, even after a ten mile run. This would be a good trail running sock as it has plenty of padding to help protect from sharp pointed rocks, but it is light enough to keep your feet feeling free. This sock fit well with plenty of retention in the arch and heel. When it became wet, from running in snow or mud, it did a good job of making our feet feel dry. The natural fibers of the merino wool did a fantastic job of repelling the stinky foot odor. It did a good job of staying in place even with a flatter backed shoe. Because the material did not pack out there was little need to retie our shoes mid run to keep the sock from slipping in the shoe.
Top Pick for Trail Running
Thorlo Experia Cool Max Micro
The Thorlo Experia Cool Max Micro, deserves special mention for a trail running sock. It has exceptional padding in the heel and the forefoot. Thorlo has done a great job adding padding where it is needed and taking it away where it is not. This sock feels similar to a hiking sock in the forefoot and the heel, but a thin racing sock under the arch and on the top. The extra padding added up to a relatively heavier and less responsive sock. For a trail runner the ever so slight loss of sensation translated into a welcome relief on longer runs over sharp rocky terrain or steep downhills. It is not too tight around the ankle or over the arch, while at the same time it has good elastic that keeps it in place. The slightly thicker heel slipped a little on flatter backed heels. With the thicker padding of these came the chance for random toe nails or rough skin to catch on the plush loops. We also noticed that the padding flattened out slightly over time, but it still had more padding than almost any other product we tested.
Analysis and Test Results
When trying to chose the right running product, keep the following characteristics in mind:
(The following applies to women's running products as well as mens.)
Fabric and Design
The first category to consider when trying to eliminate blisters is fabric type. The thickness of the material usually directly corresponds to the amount of heat generated by the foot. Most often thicker will be warmer. The heat is generated by either the runners energy or the friction from the skin, fabric and shoe interaction. Some types of fabric do a better job of removing heat than others. As the foot heats up, more moisture is created from sweating. Hence, the material used to construct a sock directly correlates to the amount of moisture produced or wicked from the foot. Moisture can also enter through outside sources like a stream or rain or puddles.
Because it is impossible for any sock to completely repel heat and moisture, the design is also important. Thinner sections of material with larger ventilation pores, can better disperse the heat and push out moisture. The most common place for manufacturers to use thinner fabric is around the arch of your foot. This area usually does not require much padding, because it is not striking the ground. Feetures, Darn Tough, and Thorlo are all good examples of this design.
Some manufacturers attempt to remove friction by creating a sock with more than one layer. The idea is that the friction will be between the two fabric layers and not between your foot and the fabric. The Wright Socks we tested have this feature.
Other models have individual toes. The theory behind these is that having fabric between your toes will keep them from rubbing on each other. For this review, no products were tested with individual toes. However, if you suffer from severe blisters between your toes it may be worth an investigation.
There are also many types of fabrics that are designed to wick moisture and thereby remove heat. The most popular fabrics are wool, nylon and polyester. Lycra is commonly added for shape retention, which basically means that it will help hug your foot and keep the sock in place. Some runners will swear by all natural fibers like wool. Merino wool is the new standard type of wool. Merino is not itchy, but rather soft and supple. Wool is a natural antagonist against smell, wicks sweat quickly, and stays warm even when wet. Additionally, synthetic fabric technology has come a long way in the last few years. Most major companies have some sort of proprietary fabric blend. Each of these synthetic blends tries to create the perfect combination to stop heat, moisture and friction from attacking your foot. We tested several different fabrics in this test finding that some were very plastic feeling while others were soft and supple.
Besides considering the type of fabric related to the impacts of heat, friction and moisture, some runners may find that they are allergic to a certain type of fabric, such as wool. It is important to try a new sock on a short run to see how your body reacts to the fabric. Try to test it on a warm day - when it is warm, your pores open up more allowing more interaction with the material. If you only run on cold days, you may not get a true test of how your skin reacts to a material.
Fit is another very important characteristic relating to blister prevention. If your sock does not stay in place or bunches up, you may experience excessive friction. Extra friction from a poor fit will surely cause the creation of a blister.
Also, it is important to note how your foot fits in the sock and how it fits all together inside your shoe. When testing, make sure to try it on with the running shoe you most frequently use. It is a red flag if they feel well worn and baggy right out of the box. It is better to find a pair that fits snugly out of the packaging, but not restricting blood flow. Socks are not like the old school hiking boot that need countless miles of breaking in; they should feel good and super comfy from day one. However, keep in mind that most fabrics will stretch out after a few miles and a wash or two. If it feels like it is pulling your toes backwards or it doesn't fit over your heel, then it is too tight or small. It is important that your toes are able to spread out when making contact with the ground because this makes a wider platform to push off from. In contrast, if the heel creeps up toward your achilles, it is too big and it will bunch up causing pressure and possibly a blister. Most modern running socks have some sort of elastic arch wrap that will help keep the whole thing snugly in place. The elastic around the ankle should also be snug enough to keep it from falling down, but not so tight as to cut off blood flow or rub.
Some manufacturers have developed designs to fit specifically on the right or the left foot. Since our feet are not symmetrical, this allows the manufacturer to create an anatomical fit that secures the material in the right spots. In this test, only the Feetures had this design. The downside of having a right and left sock is that the runner has to pay attention when putting them on. This isn't usually a huge issue since there is usually an obvious "R" or "L" to help you figure out on which foot it belongs. It can also be more difficult if you lose one and want to improvise to find a mate.
Padding is a very important consideration. The amount of padding needed from your sock is directly related to the amount of miles run per outing, the number of days run consecutively, the amount of padding in your shoes, the surface on which you run, your preference, your experience and your form. If you are training for a marathon you may want to consider more padding than someone who prefers to run a few miles a week. If you are running several days back to back, the added padding can offer some extra plush to your strides, making it more enjoyable to link up more miles and days. If your knees, back and soles of your feet are in good condition you will be able to get away with less padding. Running shoes can add extra padding that may help address these physical problems. A well padded sock can be a good way to add a bit of extra cushion while staying close to the ground. The way a runner strikes the ground can directly impact the preferred padding thickness. Runners that are primarily ball of the foot strikers may find that they prefer a more padding since most traditional running shoes are created with a heel strike runner in mind and designed with more of the shoe cushion in the heel area.
Your choice of running terrain can also affect your padding preference. Road running most often means a smooth surface with few sharp objects poking your foot. Trail running, on the other hand, can involve miles of sharp pointed rocks jabbing at your feet, hence the need for more padding overall. Finally, some runners don't want to feel their sock at all and want a very thin, "ultra light" feel. If you are not affected by the padding considerations above and want a more "barefoot feeling", then choose a pair with less padding and thinner fabric.
The height of your sock is mostly a personal preference, but there are a few things to consider. Some runners don't like the feeling of fabric above the top of their shoe. This is especially nice when running on the road or on a hot day. In contrast, especially when on the trail, some runners like to have a bit of ankle coverage. The difference is that trails are usually filled with small obstacles which require you to vary the angle and placement of your foot, and can sometimes cause the feet to deflect. When the foot is deflected it often hits the calf of the other leg, leaving mud, cuts or bruises. Another thing to consider is what types of surfaces you typically run on. Trails have more loose gravel and debris that can easily get in between your foot and your socks if you are wearing a lower height. Choosing a higher length can help deal with these nuisances. Recently, knee high lengths have become popular, especially for colder runs. Compression socks are also knee high. The advantage of the compression is that it can improve blood flow to your lower legs, which can reduce muscle fatigue as well as recovery time. Try several different heights until you find what works for you and don't be afraid to have a quiver of various heights for any occasion. Most other sports use different equipment depending on the terrain and conditions. Why not think about running the same way? In order to keep the fit consistent across all the products we tested, we used only height for this test – shoe top, which is one of the lowest heights.
Manufacturers have differing ideas about how to wash their socks. Some, especially ones made with wool, will need to be air dried to keep from shrinking. Other manufacturers suggest that to wash and dry them inside out to re-fluff up the padded portions. Pay attention and make a mental note about how to take care of your investment before you throw away the packaging. No matter what, its important to wash them after each use. Dirt and sweat can be your greatest enemy when trying to prevent wear and blisters. The sweat and dirt will work to break down the fabric and keep the padding from staying soft. Dirty socks will not be able to breath as well as clean ones, causing more moisture build up and the dirt can also cause added friction. If you are running long distances, it can be a good idea to bring an extra pair. It is very refreshing to put on a clean pair, and it can give you a boost or second wind.
Criteria for Evaluation
Comfort is probably the most important feature. How it feels on your foot will determine whether you wear it every day or never again. For this test we began with examining how the material felt in our hands. Did it feel plasticky or soft and supple? Were there exposed seams that might cause rubbing or friction? While pulling it on our foot, did the fabric catch on dry skin or toenails? We evaluated the feel on the foot, and in and out of the running shoe. Again, did it feel plasticky or soft and maneuverable? Finally, the most important test of comfort was during the run, both midway and at the end. Our feet needed to feel the same or better than when we put them on at the trail head. Even after a ten mile run none of the products tested made us want to stop and take them off. Some actually seemed to get better as the run went on. Darn Tough and Thorlo did the best at staying soft and molding to the foot even after increased mileage.
For this test we took into account the two zones where most runners strike the ground. We assessed the padding that is primarily in the forefoot as well as the heel. There is no need for extra padding in the arch of the foot, as it only adds more bulk. Socks with padding throughout the bottom of the foot scored lower than those with pinpoint padding. We looked for balanced padding – if it shielded the foot from ground strikes while still allowing for good sensitivity.
Scoring for this test was not simply based on the thickness of the padding. We examined the number, density, and resilience of the loops in the padding. It was important to determine if the loops were easily crushed, which would offer no real protection. For this test, the higher the score the better the padding protected the foot. The contender with the best padding was the Thorlo Experia. The Thorlos had a large quantity of loops in a very dense pattern. There was no excess padding under the arch. Other pairs like the Darn Tough and Feetures had a very dense and resilient pattern, but were not very thick.
Durability is a very important factor for those of us that don't want to buy a new pair of socks every 50 miles. For this test we ran each contender for at least 25 miles. In an ideal world we would all protect our favorite running socks and take them off as soon as we take our shoes off. Because this is not a perfect world and sometimes it is too cold or we simply forget, we also left them on without shoes to see how they would hold up. We tested their ability to resist pilling, the annoying little balls that form on fabric when it is submitted to friction. We looked for loose threads that might lead to unraveling and made sure to check for any stitching that came undone. We checked to see if the elastic in the fabric lost its ability to stretch and return to its original shape, or stay snug on our feet. The most durable pair in this test was the Darn Tough. This sock looked and felt the same as the day we bought it. Fortunately, none of the products tested formed holes or unraveled.
How a sock fits is directly related to comfort, but different in a few subtle ways. The fit is determined by how well it molds to your foot and stays in place. For our test, we looked at how easy each contender was to put on. Did it bunch up and need to be rearranged after first pulling it on? Did it stay in place mile after mile or did it creep down? Did it feel confining when first pulled on to the foot or did it almost feel as if it wasn't there? How well did it seem to move with the foot? Some socks had a lot of snug fitting elastic sections that hugged the foot. Others had too much elastic around the open at the ankle, leaving the feeling that circulation was being cut off. Similarly, some socks over emphasized the amount of elastic in the arch, making it feel restrictive or claustrophobic. Feetures, deserved an honorable mention in the fit category. Due to the detailed elastic support structures and the anatomical shape, the Feetures did a fantastic job of staying in place. The two best fitting products from our test were Thorlo and Darn Tough. The reason these two stood out was due to their ability to stay in place while not feeling restrictive around the opening or over the arch.
The ability to wick moisture is very important in order to prevent blisters. However, sock technology has come a long way. All of the products in this test did an exceptional job at pushing the moisture away from the foot. For this test we ran on very hot days, cold days, in snow, and through puddles. We wanted to make sure that these socks would be able to repel water made by the body and nature. With this in mind, no sock is going to keep your foot completely dry when immersed in a stream for a long time; part of the problem is that your shoes will also absorb water. Until your shoe is dry you won't be able to have an entirely dry sock. The difference between a sock that wicks and one that doesn't wick is the ability to make your foot feel comfortable, warm and dry, even when wet. A good wicking sock will be dry against your skin, when it is actually still wet.
The final component to avoiding blisters is the socks ability to reduce friction and heat. When a foot slips in a shoe, friction occurs usually in the heel, under the ball of the foot or between your toes. Friction in turn creates heat which accelerates the creation of a blister. For this test we were keenly aware of how well a sock helped keep our feet in place. The interface between the skin, sock and shoe liner is crucial. We ran with each sock in several different shoes. Some socks seemed to stay in place better than others. Darn Tough did the best job of staying in place. Interestingly, Wright Sock seemed to slip, but it is created with two layers that can move independently from each other. This gave the sensation that it was slipping in the shoe. We never had a blister form from any of these socks. However, we tested the sock for the feeling of slipping, hot spots, and the overall interaction with shoes.
After all the dust settled and mud stopped flying, two products rose to the top: Darn Tough Light Cushion and Thorlo Experia Cool Max Micro, in that order. Darn Tough and Thorlo felt equally comfortable with a snug secure fit. Balega was also very comfortable, but in a house slipper sort of way. The Thorlo, Experial Cool Max Micro, had the best padding hands down. The padding was thick, comfortable and only where you need it, in the heel and forefoot. In our test, Darn Tough was by far the most durable sock. The padding was not as thick as the Thorlo, but it stayed plush even after many miles. There was minimal to no wear visible.
When considering fit, Feetures gave the top two socks a run for their money. All three of the top fitting socks did a good job of mapping the foot and wrapping it with supportive elastic. Wicking was not an issue for any of these socks. They performed the same, which is why they are at the top of the running sock game. There was a big difference between the socks in their ability to resist slipping. We tried the socks in several shoes. Darn Tough did a great job of interacting with the several different shoe styles. It did the best job of staying in place.
See also our Best Trail Running Shoe Review and Best Trail Running Shoe For Women Review.
— Aaron Zanto
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