Runners need their feet to run. To enjoy running, their feet must function properly and efficiently. To run fast, a runner’s feet cannot be a distraction. For all of this to work, the feet must be pampered and cared for. That is the whole point of this series; to prevent injury through caring for the runner’s main tool for transferring energy into speed…the feet.
Shoes are critical, but socks can be crucial as well. The longer the run, the bigger the goal, the longer the race, the more important the socks become. Proper socks can achieve several things. Socks can prevent injury. Socks can reduce fungal infections that runners are prone to develop. Socks can increase blood flow to the muscles and enhance performance. Socks can even help you to recover faster. Socks increase comfort and allow you to feel better at the end of your run.
One of the obvious ways socks can prevent injury is through blister prevention. There are a couple of ways this happens. Cotton fibers are excellent at retaining moisture. In fact, cotton can retain 14 times the amount of water as some synthetic fibers. This is not a good trait for a running sock. The excess moisture can weaken the outer layers of the skin and make you more likely to develop blisters. In addition, the fungus that causes athletes foot and thick yellow fungal toenails just loves a warm, dark, moist environment…like your sweaty socks. By contrast, socks that are made of synthetic fibers can wick moisture away from your skin and allow it to evaporate, decreasing the chances of these problems.
Aside from reducing the moisture that makes the skin susceptible to blisters, they can actually decrease the mechanical irritation that causes blisters. There are also many double-layered socks that allow the friction to occur between the two layers instead of between the sock and your skin. In essence the idea is to let the sock take the beating instead of your skin.
Not only can socks help remove the moisture that can predispose you to athlete’s foot or other fungal infections, there are now socks that have actually been shown to decrease the amount of fungus that can grow. These socks have copper fibers incorporated into the material. In lab tests, the copper creates a “hostile environment” for fungus and bacteria and decreases their growth.
Socks can help you run faster and farther with less effort. You may have noticed more and more marathon runners and Ironman triathletes wearing knee-high compression sportsocks. Mariska Kramer-Postma, female Champion at 2008 Ironman Louisville, was one of the many elite athletes at that event sporting these compression socks. They work by exerting an almost consistent compression pressure onto the entire lower leg thereby increasing blood flow by approximately 40%.
The main feature of the compression sportsocks that produce such a considerable increase in blood flow is the consistent pressure. This distinguishes them from traditional compression socks (which are supposed to improve the venous return of blood back to the heart). Is there any science behind the socks? Yes. A study comparing the effect of compressive running socks with standard running socks found that sport specific compression socks increased run time by 6% and the VO2Max by 3%. A follow-up study found that 47% of marathon runners perceived their long runs to require less effort. In addition, 60% found relief of common aches while running distances.
Socks can even help you to recover faster. When you run you work your muscles intensely enough to get tissue damage. It is of course that very tissue damage that leads to increases in muscle fiber strength and development. A by-product of this damage is swelling. The swelling can be dramatically reduced by wearing compression stockings. Less swelling equals faster recovery.
So what does all this mean to the average marathon runner? Most importantly, wear running specific socks made of synthetic wicking materials such as Coolmax ®, Ultramax®, or any of the other many proprietary brands available. Don’t wear cotton. If you are prone to athlete’s foot infections try the Copper SoleTM antimicrobial technology found in Aetrex socks. If you feel the need for speed, compression socks just might be for you. According to published studies you could shave 12 minutes off a 4-hour marathon. Or you could run with less exertion and recover faster.
All of these highly technical pieces of equipment are worth trying. Of course, you will find high-tech running socks, as well as new shoes, at your local specialty running shoe store right here in San Francisco. Always see an expert if you are looking to try some new socks or other running gear. (Along those lines, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a list of recommended running shoes.)
If you discuss your needs with your local experts, they will guide you smoothly down the path to the finish chute. Just remember… Never, ever experiment on race day. Test out your new socks on a short run to see how your feet feel with the new set-up. When the big day arrives, you’ll knock their socks off!
Dr. Christopher Segler is a marathon runner Ironman triathlete and award winning foots specialist in San Francisco. He specializes in the treatment of busy athletes by offering convenient house calls, direct access to a true expert and extended patient visits to help prevent injury and recurring sources of pain that interfere with training. You can learn more about the best trteatment of sports medicine injuries at www.AnkleCenter.com