Socks are socks, no? Every day, those of us working at Metro Run and Walk can count on getting at least one (and usually more) customers coming in complaining of blisters or plantar fasciitis (sometimes both!). We discussed plantar fasciitis in a previous article (see, “A New Look at Plantar Fasciitis” in our July 2009 MRW Newsletter), so I’ll focus this month on the vexing issue of blisters and how to help prevent them. (The treatment of blisters is beyond the scope of this article, and more a matter of personal medical preference – “to lance or not to lance” – and the subject of much passionate debate!)
Blisters are primarily a friction injury, but can also be caused or exacerbated by the shear forces experienced during physical activity, excessive pressure, excessive moisture, or improperly fitting footwear. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume the underlying issues are a result of physical activity – notably walking or running – but also during our customers’ other activities, for example, Stairmaster, tennis, elliptical, kick boxing, rowing machines, volleyball, Zoomba, basketball, racquetball, soccer. (And, since the readers of this article are customers of Metro Run and Walk, who we “all” know were fitted in properly fitting and appropriate footwear ;-), we won’t address this aspect of the issue in this article, but will focus instead on the friction and moisture aspects.)
Decades ago, when I started running, running was an inexpensive sport. A cheap pair of sneakers (anyone remember “Chucks?”), a T-shirt, a pair of “gym” shorts, and cotton knee-high tube socks with colored stripes at the top (yes, sadly, it was that long ago!). Running shoes were evolving, becoming more “technical” (for example, in the mid-70’s, Brooks introduced the Vantage shoe with the “Varus Wedge” – an early attempt to help deal with over-pronation), but clothing advances lagged. In time, many companies introduced more “technical” gear, such as nylon taffeta shorts, which eliminated the feared “chub rub” on inner thighs, but cotton tube socks still ruled. “Technical” winter running gear back then was either cotton “sweats,” or a nylon windbreaker over a cotton T-shirt or sweatshirt, along with cotton painter’s gloves – 10 for $10 at Hechinger!
Blisters ruled too, driving up the sales of Vaseline, I’m sure. Some of us tried other “home remedies” to combat the blisters. We learned to wear our socks inside out so the seams were on the outside. The blisters continued. In desperation, some of us took to wearing women’s nylon “footies,” either alone or under our cotton socks, which helped immensely, but the blisters continued.
Then, in the early 1980’s, Thorlo pioneered the “sport specific” sock, and the athletic sock market was forever changed. http://www.sportsshoes.com/thorlo/history.php Manufacturers were quick to recognize the benefits of not only sport specific socks, but also, and maybe more importantly, the benefits of the hydrophobic and wicking characteristics of some of the new man-made fibers. Some of the early adaptors of the new wicking fibers were skiers and outdoorsmen who wore polypropylene base layers (notably by Helly Hansen) which are still around. Later, CoolMax®, Olefin, Dri-Release, Dri-FIT and a host of others came on the scene. The one main characteristic shared by all these technical fibers is that they are hydrophobic. Unlike cotton and wool, which absorb and retain moisture, the technical fibers cannot do so, rather, they wick moisture (and in the case of athletic footwear, pass it on to the shoes, where it evaporates, keeping the feet dryer).
Why is it important that moisture be wicked away from feet? Two major reasons for active folks – moisture reduces the ability of the socks to absorb impact and shear forces, but perhaps more importantly, excess moisture can weaken the flesh and contribute to blisters.
One final aspect not related to blistering and pressure in the feet that is a benefit of wearing technical socks is that almost without exception, the man-made fibers have a hollow core. Why is this important? The core traps air, which acts as an insulator which in turn will help regulate the temperature of your feet. For a variety of reasons, some of us get cold feet (no jokes, please!) during the winter, so the insulating properties of the technical fibers help keep our feet warmer during the colder months. (And, yes, just like the insulation in your house’s walls and ceilings, the insulating characteristics of the technical socks help keep your feet cooler in the summer!)
Stay tuned for Part 2!
- Find the Perfect Socks for Your Running Shoes (onlineshoes.com)