Runners are seeking more versatility in their socks, with some looking for options to take on the trail or obstacle course and others looking for more style for that jaunt to the local café. See the latest socks from Balega, Swiftwick, Smartwool, Thorlo and Feetures!
Writer: Thomas J. Ryan
Do mud runners need activity-specific socks? They might. And so do those tackling Spartan and other obstacle races as well as triathletes.
Socks also now have to meet the varied needs of many of today’s runners, who incorporate running as part of an active lifestyle that might also include spin, yoga and hard-core interval training.
Similar to their expanding footwear needs, the varied approaches to the sport of running is feeding a need for more versatile socks. And that’s a change for running sock vendors who built their businesses protecting traditional runners from the steady, repetitive patterns of running on roadways and other hard surfaces.
Rick Mende, market business unit director, outdoor, at-work and therapeutic at Thorlo, notes that outdoor competitions can include jumping, climbing, pivoting and other more complex foot movements while also often being done on natural surfaces like dirt, grass and mud, as well as rocks and harder surfaces.
“So competitors need socks that will protect their feet from the more complex forces and movements they undergo in such events,” said Mende. “Not only that, but there is often a lot of moisture present (mud, water hazards, etc.). So the new outdoor running products must do a more comprehensive job of protecting the feet based on more complex foot movements and more unpredictable environments.”
At the same time, fashion is playing a bigger role. Consumers are looking to use their running shoes for a variety of social occasions beyond the run and often want appropriate socks as well. And a few are looking for more flair.
“Younger consumers want to stand out, but even older runners don’t want to look old – even though many may not admit it,” said Mende. “So fashion is always a consideration. At Thorlos, our designs are secondary to how the sock gear performs, but we recognize that colors, designs and aesthetic touches all contribute to the runner’s overall experience of our products.”
Swiftwick offers a variety of styles for runners from minimum cushion and firm compression (Aspire) to max cushion and relaxed compression (Maxus) as well as a few versions in-between and a collection featuring merino wool for support, durability and moisture wicking.
Chuck Smith, Swiftwick’s president, said serious runners will always pay more attention to performance attributes such as fit and moisture management, understanding the importance of keeping their feet dry and blister free.
“Hardcore runners always value function first over form,” said Smith. “The key is providing variety to meet as many personal preferences as possible.”
SmartWool is seeing a variety of sock heights trending, especially in the trail running category, according to Molly Cuffe, SmartWool’s global communications director. The brand’s athletes are wearing its new crew running socks that allow for more protection from rocks, sticks, and the occasional kick, while also helping to keep dirt from sneaking in around the ankles. The higher crew also has more room for some color and style.
The brand’s bread-and-butter in the category continues to be it PhD Run Light Elite socks, which comes with the promise of “targeted cushioning.” Less cushioning in areas where the runner doesn’t need it allows the foot to “breathe” more efficiently, preventing moisture build-up which can cause blisters and chafing. Additionally, less all over cushioning enables the running shoe to have a more secure performance fit, preventing friction blisters.
“Our female testers also love the gender specificity in our socks, truly creating a performance run sock for women,” said Cuffe. “We offer a gender specific heel pocket, toe box, and ventilation zones – because men and women’s feet are distinctly different. Women’s feet have a narrower heel and toe box and slightly different sweat zones throughout the foot. We’ve mapped our socks accordingly.”
For its part, Feetures! on June 1 will introduce the Plantar Fasciitis Relief Sock, which uses targeted compression to ease heel and arch pain. Due to the positive feedback received from its graduated compression sock released earlier this year, the Plantar sock was seen as a natural extension.
“This innovative product has been rigorously tested to optimize fit, and has received tremendous reviews amongst runners with a history of Plantar Fasciitis or foot pain,” said Feetures! Director of Marketing Joe Gaither.
Balega, which was acquired by Implus Corp. in 2015, is seeing strong demand for natural fibers but also combined with new hi-tech performance fibers
“Our proprietary Drynamix moisture management yarn is very much favored by Balega lovers and is a trademark of our brand,” said Tanya Pictor, VP of marketing at Implus Specialty Retail Brands. “Athletes do seem to favor a more contoured fit and more construction detail is incorporated in each and every design.”
From a style standpoint, Balega is experiencing a lot of interest in its new hi performance technical design socks. Black and white are still runner’s core colors but Pictor agreed colors are gaining more attention overall. Still, Pictor believes the sock choice ultimately depends on each individual runner’s needs.
“Where there is a functional need, Balega will offer it and it is as simple as that – we have no crossover in our line offering and each and every sock is designed to fit a specific purpose,” said Pictor. “Often it only comes down to personal preference of the athletes themselves. And is that not who we design product for anyway?”
Photos courtesy Balega, Feetures!, Smartwool, Smithwick And Thorlo