Your customers might know that they should wear socks when trying on shoes, because the sock’s thickness makes a difference to the fit. But do they know that they can’t just use any old cotton sock for sport or outdoor activities? Do they know that they should wear a sock designed specifically for the chosen activity? And do they know that there are often different types of socks for a specific sport?

Cotton socks are fine for regular everyday wear, but if he plans to take part in more strenuous activities your customer will need performance socks, since cotton socks retain moisture and don’t wick it away from the feet. This could lead to blisters and an overall sore and uncomfortable experience.

Performance socks, on the other hand, are designed to keep the athlete as comfortable as possible so that he can get on with enjoying his chosen activity. In fact, you know the sock is doing a sterling job when the wearer doesn’t think about it at all while taking part in his activity (if he is, it usually means something is bothering him).

Sock basics

Before you get to the sport-specific requirements, ensure the socks have basic technical qualities, such as breathability and moisture wicking. Performance socks tend to be made from a blend of synthetic and natural materials like merino wool and bamboo, each of which brings different qualities to the mix.

  • Merino wool regulates temperature (even insulates when wet), provides cushioning, is naturally anti-microbial and retains less smell than synthetics. It also wicks moisture and breathes well. Merino wool doesn’t itch, like regular wool will, and is more durable, but not as durable as polyester.
  • Bamboo is softer and more breathable than cotton and has a natural sheen to the surface. It is also hypoallergenic, naturally anti-microbial and durable.
  • Polyester insulates, wicks moisture and dries quickly. It is more UV resistant than nylon and doesn’t absorb as much water.
  • Nylon adds durability and helps to improve moisture wicking.
  • Olefin provides good moisture wicking, is breathable, and has a good bulk-to-weight ratio, which means it’s a good insulator while keeping the weight low.
  • Acrylic creates a wool-like feel and can be used in such a way as to mimic the softness of cotton. Can pill easily.
  • Silk is a natural insulator, comfortable and lightweight.
  • Elastic and spandex helps the sock to keep its shape for a better fit, stay up, offer support, and create the hugging or constricting feeling under the arch. It normally only makes up a very small percentage of the blend.

Typically, the higher the wool percentage in the blend, the warmer the sock. Synthetics are good for warmer temperatures and tend to be cheaper and more durable.

In addition to special fibres, you also need to consider unisex vs gender-specific fit when recommending a pair. Don’t get hung up on the label: socks labeled as women’s feature a narrower heel than men’s and, therefore, if your female customer has a wider foot, she will probably wear a man’s sock, and vice-versa for a man with a narrower foot.

The sock should fit snug, but not be overly tight. If it’s too big, it can rub and cause blisters; if too small, it can restrict movement. To make sure of the fit, check that the heel cup lines up with the heel of your customer’s foot and that there’s no spare material at the toes. Loose material can bunch and cause chafing and blisters, but if the sock is too short it will keep falling down.

Your customer will also appreciate socks that have seamless toes: seams can cause friction! If the sock has a seam, it should sit on top of the foot and not at the tips of the toes.

Hiking

Specific activities have their own requirements when it comes to socks. Hikers, for example, require socks that extend beyond the cuff on the hiking boot or shoe so that it forms a layer of protection against rubbing. The crew sock length is popular as it covers the ankle bone and protects the skin against boots with high cuffs. It’s also versatile in that it can also be worn with shorter boots and shoes.

Taller socks are also better for hiking in the bush or through tall grass as they provide more protection to the skin.

The taller the sock, however, the warmer it will be as it covers more skin. Similarly, the more cushioning, the warmer the sock.

Liners can also be worn underneath a pair of socks to help with moisture wicking and to prevent blisters. If your customer wants to wear liners, he should wear thinner socks over the liners than normal as the liner adds to the thickness.

Hiking socks tend to be sorted by weight:

  • Ultra-lightweight: good for hikes of up to a day in length in warm temperatures. These socks are breathable and don’t have a lot of padding, which makes them thinner and thus cooler.
  • Lightweight: good for day hikes and is more geared at high-intensity activities such as backpacking, running, etc. than socks in the ultra-lightweight category. It’s also more suited for cool to warm temperatures.
  • Midweight: this category is designed for multi-day hikes and offers more cushioning in the heel and forefoot. These socks are thicker to insulate against colder weather, but can still be worn during warmer conditions.
  • Heavyweight: good for multi-day hikes in cold weather. It has heavy padding in the heel and forefoot for both warmth and comfort. Tends to be less breathable and wicking than the lighter socks and a liner will benefit your customer if he is prone to blisters.

Cycling

Cycling shoes are made to fit snug so that the foot can’t move around. The socks therefore also have to be thin: they need to wick moisture away from the foot, but not add extra pressure by adding too much thickness between the foot and shoe.

A snug fit will also ensure the sock stays in place while your customer is cycling. If it can move around it will cause blisters and irritation.

UCI (Union Cycliste International) rules state that the sock may not extend beyond the halfway point between the ankle and the bottom of the knee, but this is for professional cyclists. It also doesn’t specify a minimum length.

For other cyclists, the length of the sock is up to their own personal preference, but generally, mid-crew socks tend to be the most popular as they provide foot and ankle support and offer some ankle protection in the event of a crash. They also provide MTBers with some protection against thorns, for example.

Very short socks can allow dirt into the shoe, but on the other hand the taller the sock the warmer it is. It’s therefore useful to know the conditions that your customer might find himself cycling in, for example if he’ll be doing mostly early-morning cycling he might appreciate a slightly warmer style.

Cycling socks tend to be made from synthetic fibres such as nylon and polyester: these can usually be woven closer together than natural fibres and thus allows the sock to fit better around the foot to wick moisture away and minimize the chance of dirt entering through the fibres.

They also usually feature anti-bacterial or –microbial properties, which reduce the chance of skin irritation and prevent the socks from retaining odour, and are moisture wicking.

Merino wool socks will keep a cyclist warm in colder temperatures.

Manufacturers often use different types of fibres in different areas of the sock, for example merino on top of the foot to regulate temperature, moisture wicking fibres on the soles and mesh around the ankles or calves to keep them in place.

Running

Running socks need to protect the feet from friction and wick moisture away. To achieve this they are usually made from a blend of different types of synthetic fibres, such as polyester, nylon and elastic, as well as wool.

They also need to be thin so that they are not too warm. Manufacturers will state the thickness of the sock and the most common are described below. Point out to your customer that his running shoes will fit differently each time he wears different thickness socks with them.

  • Ultra-lightweight: very thin with no padding or cushioning. Good for very warm conditions when extra breathability and moisture wicking is essential.
  • Lightweight: a combination of thin, breathable fabrics on top of the foot and through the arch, and padding and cushioning in the heel and forefoot. This offers moisture wicking and breathability, while also protecting high-impact areas.
  • Midweight: thicker fabric throughout the sock, which makes it better for cooler conditions. Offers moisture wicking all over as well as added protection and padding due to the thicker material.

Good arch support will help keep the sock in place and lessen movement and friction that can lead to blisters.

Running is a high-impact activity, but cushioning in the sock will help to lessen the chafing that can lead to blisters. The padded area is usually made from polyester or wool fibres that wick moisture away from the foot.

This padding will make the sock thicker, so keep that in mind as it’ll affect how the shoe fits.

Running socks also come in a variety of lengths:

  • No show: invisible when worn (doesn’t extend above the ankle) with a tab area on the back that helps to prevent the sock from slipping down. The tab also provides the Achilles area with protection from rubbing against the shoe.
  • Road runners often prefer this style. It has the least amount of skin coverage, making it the coolest of the sock styles (and it also doesn’t create tan lines).
  • Not ideal for trail runners as this style can let dirt and debris in.
  • Mini crew: ends just above the ankle. These will keep dirt and debris out, so is a better choice for trail runners who want shorter socks. They also provide some protection to the skin around the ankles.
  • Knee high: these are usually compression socks that help to increase blood flow around the calves and shins while running and help reduce muscle fatigue. They are also good for runners who’ll be running through tall grasses as they’ll protect the skin.