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When it comes to workout clothing, socks have often been the overlooked accessory. Shirts, shoes, even underwear have been upgraded with high tech materials and gadgets to make them more useful. You can get a heart rate monitor embedded in your shirt, a running computer in your shoe and everybody's advertising the latest advancements in clothing materials. What's really new with socks?

Plenty. Over the last 20 years, there's been a virtual revolution in footwear. Gone are the days when simple cotton socks were the default choice for anyone working out. The trick has become sorting through all the hype to choose which socks work best for what activity. I'll start with the basics.

Cotton vs. synthetic fibers. In 1990 the California College of Podiatric Medicine looked into what fibers were better at protecting against blisters. Cotton had always been king for socks, but the new synthetics emerged as the clear winner. Moisture was the key. When a person starts to sweat, cotton socks get damp, increasing their "coefficient of friction" (COF). The higher the COF is, the more likely you are to develop a blister.

Synthetic socks didn't hold onto the moisture but instead wicked it away for a lower COF. Now the only question is, which synthetic is better?

That's what the University of Missouri-Columbia's biological engineering students wanted to know. In 2006 they tested several brands of synthetic socks and they discovered the price of the sock didn't seem to matter. All nylon (synthetic) socks performed equally well and all-cotton socks did poorly.

For general athletic use, your first choice becomes simple. Start with almost any synthetic sock and you can shop based on price. Synthetic brands are sold under many names, but some of the more popular ones include acrylic, ClimaLite, CoolMax, Ingeo, polypropylene, PrimaLoft, Sensura, Thermax, Thorlon and Wonder-Wick. (See above right "Ingeo Socks" for an environmentally aware alternative.)

Having said that, there are times when a blended sock might be a better choice. Cotton isn't good next to your skin because it absorbs and hangs onto moisture. Some synthetic socks use synthetic fibers next to your skin to stay dry with cotton on the outside to draw the moisture away.

The theory sounds good, but if you buy blended socks, you're relying entirely on the manufacturer. As of January 2008, we haven't been able to find any independent studies showing blended socks are any better than 100% synthetics. Buyer beware.

Next, check out the padding. Several running socks have extra padding in the toe and heel for added cushioning. If you're running on very hard surfaces (like pavement or cement), the extra padding might be a good idea. For low impact activities like biking or weight training, it's not really necessary.

How the socks fit is the next test. Too big and the sock will bunch up in your shoes. Too small and your toes will be crammed together. Too loose and your heels can slip. They should be tight enough to stay up, but not so tight they leave an imprint on your foot or leg when removed.

When you inspect the socks, check out the toe seam. If it's poorly placed or extra thick, it can cause blisters. Look for a toe seam that's not too prominent or get socks that are seamless. If you plan on wearing them running, make sure they have a tighter weave in the midfoot area. That'll help prevent the sock from slipping in running shoes.

Bring along the shoes you'll be wearing them in, because you should try them on together. You don't want really thick socks if you're wearing narrow shoes or extra thin socks with shoes that have a little play.

What about wool? It's been a staple in cold climates for centuries and wool does have some advantages. Wool absorbs and holds onto moisture just like cotton. But when your feet get wet, cotton won't keep them warm; wool will. Once again, that's where blended fibers may make a difference. Synthetic next to the skin to keep your feet dry(er) and an outer layer of wool to wick the moisture away and still keep your feet warm if they get wet.

A big disadvantage of wool is that it's usually itchy. If that's something you're having a problem with, look for Merino wool that's much more comfortable on bare skin.

Synthetic sock brands designed to keep your feet warm in cold weather include AXT 50/50, Duraspun, Hollofil, Olefin, Outlast Adaptive Comfort, PrimalLoft, Thermax, Thermolite and Wick Dry.

Sock Tips

  • Choose synthetic fibers over cotton.

  • Get extra padding if you're running on hard surfaces.

  • Select a tighter weave in the midfoot if you're using them for running.

  • Make sure the fit is snug, but not constricting.

  • Check out the toe seam.

  • Try them on with the shoes you'll be exercising in.

Do you have Diabetes or Foot Problems?

Don't exercise in anything but white socks because they let you see problems right away. Any stains from blood or other fluids show up immediately on white but may be hidden by darker dyed socks.

AXT 50/50, ClimaLite, CoolMax, Duraspun, Hollofil, Ingeo, Olefin, Outlast Adaptive Comfort, PrimalLoft, Thermax, Thermolite, Thorlon, Wick Dry and Wonder-Wick are registered trademarks.

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