Why Buy Running Socks?
Running socks help to form an essential bond between your foot and running shoe. They have a number of specially adapted features that normal socks do not, such as extra padding in places of high impact and wear, moisture wicking fibers, panels of super thin breathable mesh, and an ergonomic fit. These features work to prevent blisters, the mortal enemy of the runner. Blisters typically occur after running for a long period of time or distance, and are more prone to form where there is rubbing, friction, heat, and moisture. Eliminating these four factors is the primary roll of a running sock, and the reason why a good pair is worth its weight in gold.
It is worth noting that running socks are typically made by companies that make socks for all types of activities, not simply running. So, if you go to a company's website, you are likely going to encounter lots of other socks that are not running socks. For running, we prefer a sock that is thin or at most medium thickness, and has a moderate amount of cushioning mapped into the most appropriate places. We prefer either no show or mini crew as our ankle height. Taller or thicker socks have their purposes, just not for running. If you are interested in socks for hiking, check out our Best Hiking Socks for Men Review.
Types of Running Socks — Endless Choices
A quick perusal of the running sock market and one will quickly realize that there are many, many brands of running socks available to choose from. Not only that, but each manufacturer seems to use its own blend of natural and synthetic fibers, produces socks in a whole variety of thicknesses, each paired with a different level of cushioning, and coming in a whole variety of different ankle heights. If you take all these different factors and choices together and multiply them to figure out how many potential combinations there are to come up with a running sock, we think that number would be in the millions (we didn't actually do that math ourselves, as we majored in writing, not mathematics). Below we break down the differences in fabrics, thicknesses, padding, ankle cuts, and special features, so you have a better idea of what you are choosing when you select a running sock.
Thickness and Cushioning
Peruse the website of a running sock manufacturer and you are likely to notice that socks come in a surprising amount of different thicknesses. These different levels are often described with variations of the words: ultra-light, light, light cushioning, medium weight, full cushioning, ultra cushioned, etc… In general, when describing their socks, most manufacturers will be sure to tell you what the thickness of the fabric used throughout the sock is (e.g. light, ultra-light), as well as how much cushioning is to be found underneath the foot.
For the purposes of this test, we chose only those pairs of socks with thicknesses that we felt were the most appropriate for running. In general, sock companies are into making socks for all purposes, and running is just one of those purposes. While there may be some circumstances or types of feet that warrant exceptions to our choices, we felt that in general the most appropriate thicknesses for running socks are ultra-light, light, and medium. With that in mind, the selection of socks in this review is taken from these three thicknesses.
These socks tend to be very thin and have no extra padding or cushioning. They are a great choice for running in the middle of summer or in very hot temperatures where you need your foot to breathe and don't want your sock to trap in any extra heat. There are a few downsides to these socks, such as a total lack of padding, and the fact that they are so thin that your favorite shoes may fit differently than when wearing a cushioned sock. The only ultra-light sock in this review that we tested was the Darn Tough No Show Light, which we felt was confusingly misnamed.
This thickness makes up the majority of the socks that we tested, and was also the thickness that we felt was the perfect combination for most running. These socks tend to use a combination of very thin and breathable fabrics on the top of the foot and throughout the arch, paired with padding and cushioning in the heel and forefoot/toes parts of the foot. In our opinion, this combination of fabrics provides the best of both worlds, managing heat and moisture with wicking and breathing fabrics, while also protecting the high impact areas of the feet with extra padding. Most of the socks in this review fall into this category.
Medium or Midweight
A couple of the socks we reviewed are medium thickness, the DryMax Running Mini Crew and the Injinji Trail Midweight Mini-Crew. These types of socks have thicker fabric throughout the entire sock. Many companies claim that due to the physics involved in moisture transfer, these socks will keep your feet just as cool as the light sock. However, in order to work in this manner, moisture transfer has to be constantly happening from inside to outside of the sock. There is no doubt that these socks are warmer and we prefer them for colder seasons or conditions. Some prefer them due to the extra protection and padding one gets from their added thickness.
We think that this thickness of socks is not really appropriate for running. These socks are ideally suited for hiking, skiing, and other cold weather activities.
All of the running socks in our review are made of a blend of fibers, typically some form of proprietary polyester, nylon, elastic, and sometimes wool. Each of these fiber types has its own set of positive and negative attributes, and the way in which they are blended together gives the sock most of its performance enhancing (or not) qualities. The particular blend of fabrics found in any given sock can be found on their website, and is also printed with percentages on the UPC label of every pair of socks.
The first "ingredient" listed on many pairs of running socks is some form of Polyester. Many of these polyesters are proprietary blends that are designed to be better at moisture control and wicking. Some of the names you may see in this review are Coolmax, Thor-wick Cool, and Drynamix. Polyester is a synthetic fiber that is essentially made from oil that is solidified and woven into fibers. Compared to nylon it is more hydrophobic, meaning it does not absorb water as well, a very beneficial attribute for running socks. However, it is not as durable or strong as nylon, which is why it is often blended to make socks.
Nylon is another synthetic fabric that is known for its incredible durability and strength. It is found in every single pair of running socks that we reviewed here, and is usually the second most prevalent fabric. It is blended with Polyesters in running socks to add strength and durability, as well as stretchiness. However, Nylon is known for absorbing water much easier than polyester, which is why none of these socks are made simply from nylon. A perfect blend of these two materials will give a pair of running socks strength, durability, stretchiness, and moisture-wicking abilities.
Elastic and Lycra Spandex are proprietary names for stretchy rubber fibers. They are blended into running socks in very small percentages, typically in the 1-6% range. They add both stretchiness and support, and are responsible for the constricting and hugging action that takes place most frequently underneath the arch of the foot. The downside of these fibers is that they dry out and break easily, which is why elastic areas of clothing such as compression socks or the waist bands of running shorts tend to end up fully stretched out well before the rest of the garment has broken down.
Merino wool comes from the Merino sheep, and is a much softer and more comfortable against the skin version of wool than usually comes to mind when remembering an old itchy sweater. Merino wool is used in place of polyester in a few of the socks that we tested, the Smartwool PhD Run Light Elite Micro and the Darn Tough No Show Light. The advantages to wool are that it effectively wicks moisture in a liquid state, and also breathes very well if moisture is in a vapor state. Its ability to breathe means it is versatile in both hot or cold climates. Some people also like it because it is a natural fiber, rather than purely synthetic (although in the case of running socks it is still blended with synthetic fibers). The downsides of merino wool are that it is more expensive than polyester, and it is not quite as durable.
Olefin fibers are the primary constituent of the DryMax Running Mini Crew socks, but are not found in any of the other socks in this review. They are also synthetic polymer fibers, known for their great bulk to weight ratio, meaning they are a good insulator for low weight. They are also known for their water resistance and wicking capabilities, two attributes put to very good use in the DryMax socks.
For the vast majority of runners, we doubt this is a very big deal. Those of us who like to recreate outdoors have long become accustomed to clothing made almost entirely of synthetic fibers. Of course, there is a hidden downside to all of our synthetic fiber consumption — the fact that they are made from fossil fuels, have an environmental impact in their manufacturing processes, and in the case of polyester, are not biodegradable. That said, synthetic fibers are very durable, water resistant, and endlessly adaptable, making them the mainstay of outdoor clothing today. While it would be nice to have a running sock alternative made of only natural fibers, they simply can't compete with the breathability, stretchiness, and durability of polyester and nylon. Cotton is probably the best option, but it absorbs and holds water easily, and is not very durable. One hundred percent of wool socks will shrink too small to wear after one washing. Unless you are allergic to wool or have a very strong aversion to certain synthetic fabrics, we suggest that you don't spend too much time assessing a product based on its fabric, and instead judge it by its performance while running. If you do need to know exactly what fabric a sock is made out of, check our specs table.
Generally speaking, socks come in three different thicknesses: thin or light, medium or midweight, and thick. However, this is complicated by the fact that some running socks can be "light," but still have extra padding and cushioning, so that they don't feel so light any more. Some manufacturers also label socks as "ultra-light," but to us this just seems like marketing speak.
Thin, Light, and Ultra-light
Thin and light socks are indeed very thin and light. They are designed to breathe well, and provide only the smallest amount of barrier between the foot and shoe. They work best in warm or hot conditions. In our experience, many companies pair light socks with some amounts of cushioning, making them feel not so thin anymore. This can be confusing, but is the best combination (in our opinion) for most running purposes. The majority of the socks we tested fit into this category, with only the Darn Tough No Show Light having no padding at all. Those runners who prefer a light sock without padding should be sure to fit their shoes with these socks in mind, because without the padding common to most running socks, a shoe may end up feeling loose or sloppy.
Padding and Cushioning
Padding and cushioning serve a few important purposes in running socks. They provide a barrier between your foot and the shoe, lessening the effects of repeated stress on the sensitive tissues of the foot. While the small pads and cushions do little to lessen the impact of running itself, they usually do an effective job of mitigating rubbing and chaffing within the shoe that can eventually lead to blisters. The looped fibers that make up the padding in running socks are most often polyester or wool fibers that are designed to wick moisture from next to the foot to outside the sock. Lastly, padding can help a shoe fit better by filling extra volume within the shoe.
Most of the running socks that are available on the market today, and in this test, have some amount of padding or cushioning. In our opinion, the best designs are those that pair a very light thickness sock with targeted or mapped cushioning in the areas of highest wear and abrasion — under the forefoot, the toes, on the sides of big and pinky toes, and all around the heel, including the Achilles tendon. Some socks are not as detail oriented in their padding locations, and simply pad the entire underside of the foot, or in some cases fail to pad all of the necessary areas. When trying on and purchasing running shoes, it is important to wear the types of socks that you intend to run in for the best fit. If you intend to wear a padded sock while running, then be sure to wear one at the shoe store.
Most socks come in a variety of ankle cuts, and here we highlight the pros and cons of the most common heights for running.
No Show, or No Show Tab
No show socks are designed to be very short, and to basically be invisible when worn. The top of the sock is cut to rest far below the ankle, hidden within the shoe, hence the name "No Show". No Show Tab are the same thing, but with a little extra tab on the back of the sock that often rests above the heel of the shoe. This little tab is designed to prevent the back of the sock from slipping down within the shoe, over the heel, or in any manner that causes it to not fit as designed. Besides being the most fashionable, no show socks are the sock of choice for most road runners. With the least amount of fabric covering skin, they are the coolest choice, and also have the benefit of not creating tan lines on the lower leg. They are not typically an optimal choice for trail running because they tend to allow dirt and rocks to filter into the sock easier.
Mini Crew socks have an ankle cut that comes up just above the ankle bone, and no higher. They are often the most practical choice for trail running because they do a good job of keeping out dirt and pebbles. They also provide much needed protection for the skin of the ankles, which can get scuffed or cut up by trail obstacles or the other shoe on very rough terrain. They have the downside of being warmer than no show socks, and that they leave a nice tan line across the lower leg. Only two of the pairs of socks we tested fit this category, the Injinji Trail 2.0 and the DryMax Running Mini Crew, although virtually all of the choices we tested can be purchased in a different ankle height if desired.
Knee high socks are becoming more popular for running, generally in the form of compression socks. We did not test any knee high or compression socks for this review. The benefit of knee high compression socks is that they hug and support the calves and shins while running, supposedly increasing blood flow and reducing muscle fatigue and damage, especially over long distances.
There are many different sock heights in between the three we have described here that we have ignored since they are not common or practical for running purposes.
There are a couple of interesting and unique features found on a few of the socks that we tested that are worth pointing out.
The Feetures! Elite Light Cushion No Show Tab running socks have an anatomical fit, meaning that the socks are designed for either a right or a left foot. To tell the difference and make sure you are putting the correct sock on the correct foot, there is a little "R" or "L" printed on the big toe area of the sock. This feature is designed to improve the fit, and we must say that these are some very form fitting socks that do an excellent job of hugging and supporting the foot, without extra fabric or creases. We have also seen this feature on some other brands that we did not test. Feet are not symmetrical, so this is a feature that really makes sense, especially if you have trouble finding the perfect fitting sock.
The Injinji Trail 2.0 Midweight Micro Crew feature individually "cut out" toes, as do all Injinji socks. These are called toe socks. The advantage to each toe having its own little sock that it fits into is that it cuts down on rubbing and moisture build up between toes. This can be a very worthy attribute in a sock if you commonly get blisters between the toes, or if your toes are close to each other and rub a lot. They are somewhat like flip-flop sandals, meaning that having all that material between your toes can be annoying at first and take a little bit of getting used to. They are also a real pain to put on. We have found that in really long races they did indeed reduce the preponderance of toe blisters (a problem we have had in ultra marathons in the past), but the thicker versions seemed to work better (for us) than the very thin versions.
Choosing the Best Running Sock
Now that we have fully discussed the various options that are available in running socks, we hope to give you some direction in terms of the process for choosing the perfect sock for you.
Trail vs. Road
Typically we would begin a search for the perfect piece of equipment by deciding what our intended use for it is, and then narrowing down the selection from there. With running socks, this process is a bit more difficult because deciding when you are going to be using your pair of running socks doesn't narrow down the field as much as we would hope. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to point out which attributes work better for road vs. trail running.
There is really no kind of running sock that doesn't work for road running. Most road runners seem to prefer no show socks because they are cooler and don't leave tan lines. That said, any kind of sock, whether thick or thin, padded or not, could be appropriate for you.
If you primarily run on trails, then there are a few kinds of socks that seem to work better than others. While no show socks will of course work, we find that they can annoyingly let in more dirt and debris than mini crew height socks. The same thing goes with tabs. Tabs on socks have a way of collecting dirt and funneling them down into the sock. It is annoying enough to have to take a shoe off to empty dirt or pebbles, but it is even more annoying to have to take off the socks as well. Despite the annoying tan lines that come with them, we think Mini Crew socks are the way to go for trail and mountain running.
The choice to go with padding or no padding when trail running is a personal preference, but it is our opinion that some amount of cushioning is helpful. Trail running involves running on an uneven surface, meaning that the foot may need to apply force in any direction. Some amount of padding protects the foot from rubbing and abrasion within the shoe, and also helps prevent it from slipping.
Fit of the Shoe
If you are buying socks for a pair of shoes that you already own, then you will need to figure out what thickness sock they are sized for. Different thickness socks take up different amounts of volume within a shoe, and the same shoe is not going to fit the same with a medium thick sock compared to an ultra-light one. On the other hand, if you have a shoe that is a little too loose, you might try wearing a thicker sock, and vice versa.
The Sizing Chart
It also helps to look at individual sock maker's sizing charts before purchasing. Unfortunately, they are all different. Some manufacturers have very small size ranges, while others have very large ranges. For one brand of socks your foot size might fall right in the middle, thereby giving you a perfect fit, while for others you may be right on the edge, meaning that no matter what size sock you choose, it will be either too big or too small. If we fell right on the edge of a size range and didn't have the opportunity to try the sock on, we would probably decide to look at a different brand of socks, rather than stick to one brand and make do with a slightly mis-sized sock.
Narrowing the Search
After narrowing the field down slightly by accounting for the things listed above, you are probably still left with a very large selection of potential running socks. There is an expression in running that says, "never try something new on race day." The reason that this is such good advice is that you are never going to know if something works unless you try it. Luckily, socks are pretty cheap. What has worked the best for us in the past is to select four or five different types of socks from different brands, and then try them all out on a run. You may have to play the role of gear reviewer for yourself, and luckily socks are affordable enough that this won't come at huge expense to your wallet. We can't all afford piles of hardshell jackets to test which one we like best (that's what OutdoorGearLab is for!), but we can all afford a handful of different socks to determine which ones we like best. After running in your selection of four or five pairs, you will know which ones groove with you, and can order a bunch of those next time you need to stock up. If you end up with lots of pairs you don't like, you can surely give them away, or trade them, to someone who will.
Tips and Advice
Through our lengthy research and review process involving running socks, we have come up with a few tips and pieces of advice we would love to share.
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 you 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, it's important to wash socks 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 mid race or run, and it can give you a boost or second wind.
Fakes on Amazon
Look on amazon.com for running socks and you will find that some pairs have an incredible amount of user reviews. Click to filter only the one star reviews, and you will see that in most cases the one star reviews come from people who were shipped rip-offs: fake imitation socks masquerading as the running socks you want to buy. If you order socks on amazon and find that what shows up doesn't look like what you ordered, it probably isn't! Be sure to send them back and alert amazon to the problem.