Socks are first line of defense in foot health

A show of hands: How many of us think about what covers our feet?

Time was, when we bought socks for athletic pursuits, we opted for a bag of white tube socks or suffered in itchy silence as we slid our feet into a new pair of ragg wool socks.

No more.

With summer over and people trading in their sandals and flip flops for socks and shoes, it's decision time.

Dr. Ross Taubman, a Baltimore area podiatrist, says he's beginning to have conversations with his patients in transition to fall footwear.

"I'm really big on appropriate socks for activities," said Taubman, past president of the American Podiatric Medical Association. "No dress socks for exercise. You need cushioning to protect and wicking to remove sweat."

But causal, trekkers, light hikers? Golf, biking, running? Low-cuts, high risers, quarter-length? Natural merino wool or a high-tech wicking and warming fabric?

In the sock business — a nearly $12 billion industry worldwide — it can be a foot race to stay in the front of the pack.

So Wigwam Socks ditched its "Ultimax" and "Ingenius" models in favor of its "Pro" and "Fusion" models.

Thorlo, a leading manufacturer based in North Carolina with 22 types of socks for outdoor activities, is pushing its Experia model "as a new type of athletic sock powered by Thorlo pad technology."

It's enough to make you wish for summer again.

But sock manufacturers and foot experts agree socks are the first line of defense.

"Foot health is key to enjoying and benefitting from exercise," said Ric Cabot, third-generation president of Vermont-based sock manufacturer Darn Tough. "You can be in great shape, but if your feet are banged up and hurting, you aren't going anywhere."

The APMA website lists 14 manufacturers with socks — many for diabetics and those with poor circulation — that have passed its tests.

Taubman says any of those products, and lots of others on the market, will provide protection.

"In general, stores like REI will have quality items that are sports specific. You can generally trust stores like that to ask questions and help you sort through them," Taubman said.

Cruelly, as we get older, the one place where we lose fat is the bottom of our foot, at the ball and heel.

"You can feel the hardness," says Taubman. "The bones get physically closer to the skin and that creates pressure issues that a well-cushioned sock can help alleviate."

The agony of the feet is just how the modern sport sock business got its traction.

In 1978, Jim Throneburg started running to lose weight. But at 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, his feet were taking a pounding.

So Throneburg hobbled to his corner office at the family business and called together his best thinkers. Luckily for him, the family business was Thorlo Inc., maker of socks for the military, and he was the president.

Designers quickly developed a line of padded running socks followed by socks for tennis, golf and basketball. Other companies took notice.

Fox River began making women-specific socks, with a narrower heel, shorter length and more rounded toe box. Other companies added silver thread to cut odor. New Balance makes "anatomically correct" right and left running socks. The Crescent Sock Co., a small Tennessee manufacturer, has produced models with a more pronounced heel cup that reduces slippage.

However, all that comfort comes at a price, these days north of $15 a pair.

Manufacturers say that customers spending $100 for a pair of running shoes or hiking boots don't think twice about the price of socks.

But Cabot says at $18 a pair, buyer beware.

"I'm a cynical sock manufacturer," said Cabot, laughing. "I don't think you need a sock for every specific event or every specific activity — a snowboarding sock vs. a skiing sock. That's art for art's sake. I think people see through that hype. What matters is the kind of fibers you use and the quality of those fibers."

He suggests finding a store with a sock bin full of different styles and weights. Stick your hand inside. Check the seams and cushioning. Feel the fibers. See if they're made in America.

"No one ever outsourced something to get quality," said Cabot, who offers an unconditional lifetime guarantee.

A good pair of socks and well-fitting shoes, "go hand in hand," said Taubman, laughing.

Cabot agrees.

"It's a tough world out there," he said. "Why should your sock make it tougher?"

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