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FITNESS / KATHLEEN DOHENY

Athletic Socks Sport Lots of New Features

April 13, 1993|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Athletic socks used to be inexpensive, mostly white and performed basic functions, like soaking up sweat.

No more. Yesterday's one-style-fits-all socks are being inched out by a smorgasbord of other choices.

Now there are "performance socks," with subtle hints from manufacturers that these socks might just boost your workout skills or at least make exercise more comfortable. Athletic socks now come cushioned, padded and ventilated. Some are "sports-specific," with different varieties for hiking, skiing, running and walking.

Besides plain white or white-with-stripes, hues range from jazzy to subdued. But forget bargain-basement price tags. Today's trendiest, cushiest athletic socks can cost $16 a pair or more. Even so, business is booming. In 1991, Americans spent about $1.9 billion on athletic socks, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn.

The Need for New Styles

This plethora of choices, manufacturers say, is driven by consumers, who write to complain about socks, says Gene Oeschger of Wigwam Mills Inc., a manufacturer of athletic socks.

Biggest complaints? Socks that leave feet feeling sweaty or cause blisters, along with socks that have a "bothersome toe seam," he says. New styles are designed to minimize the complaints.

Jonie Stephens knows about socks-gone-bad. The 43-year-old Westlake Village resident walks four times a week and sometimes grabs socks belonging to one of her three daughters by mistake. Sometimes they fit badly. "They don't stay in place," she groans, "or they bunch up." Sometimes her feet burn.

Sock Wars

In their quest for a piece of the sock pie, major manufacturers all promote their own model's uniqueness.

"Anybody can make a padded sock," sniffs Renee Pitra, a spokeswoman for Thorlo Inc., which makes sports-specific socks retailing for $6.50-$16. "But our patent is on variable density: Thorlo's running sock, for instance, has high density padding at the heel, low at the arch and high at the ball of the foot, where it is needed, she says. The aerobic sock has medium density padding at the heel, low at the arch and high at the ball.

What's in a name?

"Don't call it padding for Wigwam socks, it's cushioning," insists Oeschger, whose company last year introduced Ultimax (R) performance socks, which sell for $6.50-$15 a pair. The line includes styles for tennis, running, aerobic dance, walking, cycling and hiking/skiing.

"We don't use thick cushioning," he says, because "thin, dense cushioning is better. Ultimax also has a moisture control system. The top of the sock likes moisture, while the bottom does not." As a result, sweat is supposed to be drawn up and out. The Ultimax models also have an "anatomically shaped heel" for better fit, he says.

Sweet Soles, socks made by Allstate Hosiery Co., New York, come in styles for walking, aerobics and all-round sports, says Delores Parker, spokeswoman. "All have a patented, cushioned and ventilated sole," she says. Retail cost is $4-$6 a pair, depending on style.

Fun or Functional?

So do you really need a pair of $15 socks or will a six-pack from the discount store do?

"If socks are not of decent enough quality, it could cause problems," says Dr. Jim Allen, a Malibu physician and former collegiate basketball player. "But it also depends on the exercise. Long-distance runners who wear cheap socks will pay with blisters. . . . But if you are playing casual tennis wearing cheap socks and good shoes, it's probably no big deal."

Suzanne Felson, a Seal Beach podiatrist, tells her athletic patients not to buy bottom-of-the-line socks for workouts. To avoid blisters, try socks with padding, she suggests, and try a material that helps wick away excess moisture.

Extra padding might especially help those with foot problems like hammer toes or bunions, some foot doctors say.

The Ongoing Fiber Debate

For years, podiatrists and other foot specialists have debated whether all-natural fiber socks or synthetic socks are better. Traditional wisdom was on the side of all-natural, but then the pendulum swung in favor of synthetic fibers, says Dean M. Wakefield, spokesman for the American Podiatric Medical Assn.

The "widely held opinion" among foot specialists, he says, is that acrylic blend socks--made of acrylic and natural fibers--produce fewer and smaller blisters.

But not everyone thinks the debate is over. Richard Gilbert, a San Diego podiatrist and consultant for the San Diego Chargers, prefers natural fibers--he wears wool socks.

Doubling Up Debate

Athletes in search of shock absorption often wear two pairs of socks. It's a common practice of runners, in particular, Gilbert finds. He says it's OK with this caveat: "If you want to double up, cut off the forefoot of the second pair of socks." That will increase comfort in the "toe box" area, he says.

Doubling up with padded socks isn't necessary or advised, says Pitra of Thorlo. "It will make your shoe fit too tightly."

Shopping Strategies

Whether your sock tastes run to beer or champagne, all-natural or blends, here's how to get the best fit:

Pay attention to the size chart.

"Don't wear socks too big or let them bunch," says podiatrist Felson. "Rubbing from a loose sock can cause blistering."

"The fewer the seams the better," says Gilbert. "Place the toe seam in a non-irritating position."

Knowing when it's time for new socks can save pain and grief. Once the elastic starts to give, Felson says, give up on that pair.

Hygiene Helps

The most comfortable, sweat-absorbing socks are for naught if hygiene's the problem. "It's tempting sometimes to pick out your old socks (from the day before)," says Allen. "But if you are prone to athletes' foot or other local dermatitis problems, it is smart to wear fresh socks every day."

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