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The Duel Trail Race

Sock Talk: Review of Smartwool, Thorlo, Wrightsock, Wigwam, and Balega Running Socks

THE IDEA

One of my favorite things to do at the end of a long run is to change out of my grimy socks and put on a comfy clean, dry pair. It’s not that I have some sort of strange foot thing, and it’s not because my feet stink, it’s just something I’ve grown accustomed too and enjoy. Seems like even a 3-4 mile trail run in the desert southwest will leave my little piggies covered with a thin layer of dust and grime.

Sock companies are not blind to our desire to put a comfortable, well-crafted performance shell around our important little piggies and in case you’ve missed, it, sock prices have climbed over the past several years which means these companies are doing everything they can to increase market share. Case in point, since mid summer 2012, I haven’t had to buy another pair because I’ve received five additional pairs as swag from races I’ve done this fall and it seems like every pro ultrarunner is sponsored by a sock company now.

For the past several years I’ve bought a particular brand of sock in bulk at the beginning of each season. I put around 2200 miles on my feet a year and so the socks get quite a bit of use. However, I started to notice that the socks seemed to be thinning and wearing out earlier and earlier in the season and I began to wonder if maybe I should try a different type. At an average cost of $15-$17 a pair, I wanted to find out if there was a difference in quality and comfort between several different socks so I put together a sock study over a five month period last summer and fall.

THE SKINNY

  • I went to my local REI and bought five pairs of socks. About a month later I bought two more pair of Balega socks to add to the study.
  • I ran a total of 928 using the socks in a random order. If I ran miles that were not counted in this study, then I used socks outside the study, so the mileage represented is only for the socks used here.
  • Each sock was worn and then washed and dried using a normal detergent and dryer cycle.
  • All the socks in the study were low ankle rise socks, that was just a personal preference.
  • I tracked mileage per run and what sock was worn and never wore the socks for any other purpose than running.
  • I rotated through several pairs of shoes so I didn’t bother trying to keep track of that, but overall, I didn’t notice any substantial difference in the socks from shoe to shoe.
  • I used a 1-5 scale in the following categories, 1 being horrible and 5 being dreamy.
    • Comfort: (how comfortable are the socks)
    • Value: (combination of cost and overall judgment of the sock in my opinion)
    • Wear and Tear: (over time how did the socks hold up to running and washing)
    • Would I recommend to a Friend: (a true test of my opinion of the sock)
    • Cushioning/Thickness: (scale = 1 super thin to 5 super plush)

THE RESULTS

Sock #1: Smartwool PhD Running Ultralight Micro – $15.95

Major Claims

  1. Temperature Regulation
  2. Moisture Management
  3. Odor Control
  4. Washer and Dryer Friendly

WOW Technology

  • High density impact zones in the heel and metatarsal areas
  • 4 Degree fit system designed to compress in 5 areas around the foot for a better fit and feel.
  • Ultra light cushioning in the sole for comfort
  • Open mesh areas provide for ventilation
  • Toe has flat knit seams for comfort and durability

Composition

  • 66% wool
  • 31% nylon
  • 3% elastaine

Smartwool has been my brand of choice for the past 4-5 years. I began to question their quality because of two reasons; they #1: were extremely threadbare at the end of each season and #2: didn’t seem to hold up well in terms of comfort and size after a season of washing/drying. During the course of the study, this pair did remarkably well. However, compared to the other socks, I didn’t find the Ultralight as comfortable to wear. Testing other socks allowed me to get a feel for other construction designs and I found that more padding throughout the sock was generally the most comfortable for me. If I do want a slightly more compressed, supported feel, I didn’t find that the 4 degree fit system was as comfortable as the Thorlo Experia.

The sock did perform well and the only issue with wear was a noticeable loss of pliability in the material around the top of the foot at the ankle and in the midfoot where the compression points are.

Total Mileage: 118

Comfort: 4
Value: 3
Wear and Tear: 4
Would I recommend to a Friend: 3
Cushioning/Thickness: 2

Sock #2: Smartwool Multisport Solid – $15.95

Major Claims

  1. Temperature Regulation
  2. Moisture Management
  3. Odor Control
  4. Washer and Dryer Friendly

Composition

  • 63% wool
  • 33% nylon
  • 4% elastaine

As can be seen from the picture, this pair is identical in every way to the other Smartwool. I picked the Multisport because I wanted to see if there was in fact a difference between the two. Other than composition, I found none. I don’t really have any additional comments on this sock. The two Smartwool socks were the only socks in the study with wool in their composition. I’m not sure that I noticed any difference in feel or comfort. More importantly, the socks that had a more minimal design or that included compressive properties didn’t seem to maintain as comfortable a fit over the course of the 5 months as the others. My takeaway from this is that if I wanted a compressive sock, I ought to be prepared to change it out more frequently because it will wear out faster.

NOTE: On just my second run of eight miles, this sock developed a hole above the big toe. Because of this I didn’t wear this sock as much during the course of the study. Although disappointed, I didn’t feel this was indicative of the sock as a whole. Like I mentioned at the beginning of the article, I’ve worn this particular sock and style for the past 5-6 years and have never had a sock do this. I think I just got a faulty sock.

Total Mileage: 74

Comfort: 4
Value: 3
Wear and Tear: 4
Would I recommend to a Friend: 3
Cushioning/Thickness: 2

Sock #3: Thorlo Experia – White and Grey (“Runner’s Word Gear Award”) $14.95

Major Claim

  1. Aero-dynamic fit protection without weight.

Composition

  • 66% coolmax tetra channel wicking polyester
  • 20% nylon
  • 13% polyester
  • 1% elastic

I’m not sure why a sock needs to have “aero-dynamic protection without weight” and although these socks turned out to be one of my favorites, I thought that was a stupid marketing statement. The Thorlo was similar to the Smartwool compression around the midfoot, but the similarity ended there. The padding around the heel and forefoot was much more substantial, extremely plush and comfortable and continued to stay that way throughout the duration of the study.

This was one of my favorite socks to wear and held up nicely throughout the study.

Total Mileage: 167

Comfort: 4
Value: 4
Wear and Tear: 4
Would I recommend to a Friend: 5
Cushioning/Thickness: 2 in midfoot, 4 in heel and forefoot

Sock #4: Wrightsock Coolmesh II – White $11.00

Major Claims

  1. Double Layer eliminates friction leaving the foot blister free
  2. Lightweight design
  3. Mesh panel ensures breathability
  4. Stabilizer zone, provides a performance fit

Composition (The composition of each layer is slightly different but close enough for my purposes)

  • 70% Dri-wright II polyester
  • 27% Nylon
  • 3% Lycra

I was intrigued by this double layer sock. I’d tried a pair of double layer hiking socks several years back and had mixed feelings. However, the Coolmesh II by Wrightsock did NOT disappoint. Although I do like a more plush sock, the thin minimal construction of these worked very well in snug shoes and they were extremely comfortable. I put the most mileage on these socks out of all seven in the study. The socks are slightly worn but still comfortable and wearable on long runs. I have noticed that they’ve gotten a bit tight around the ankle from too many trips through the dryer.

Total Mileage: 187

Comfort: 5
Value: 5
Wear and Tear: 5
Would I recommend to a Friend: 5
Cushioning/Thickness: 1

Sock #5: Wigwam Ultimax – F6026 Ironman Flashpro – Red and Black $12.00

Major Claims

  1. Dry Feet: Wigwam uses a patented ultimax moisture control that moves moisture from the bottom up.
  2. No Blisters
  3. No Odor: Chitosan in the X20 Acrylic prevents odor.
  4. Seamless Toe design
  5. Lightweight cushioned sole

Composition

  • 83% Stretch Nylon
  • 16% X20 Acrylic
  • 1% Spandex

I did end up putting over 100 miles on these socks but threw them in the trash after a couple of months. Even on the first run they were not as comfortable as others, and after the first washing, they shrunk so much that from that point on they were always the last pair I chose to wear. When I did wear them, I had to be very careful to pull them up over my heel as far as I could otherwise during the run they’d tuck back under my foot and expose the back of my Achilles to the shoe. There was really no comparison between these socks and any of the others. Even with the Smartwool, there was more comfort in wear and feel than these and I never grew frustrated enough to throw another pair out. I would not recommend these to anyone. There are plenty of other minimal, lightweight style socks, i.e. the Wrightsock Coolmesh II that will do the job and not become un-wearable after the first washing.

Total Mileage: 107

Comfort: 1
Value: 1
Wear and Tear: 1
Would I recommend to a Friend: 0 (I actually talked a friend out of buying these based on my experience)
Cushioning/Thickness: 0.5

Socks #6 and #7: Balega Hidden Comfort Socks – $11.00

Composition

  • 84% DryNamix polyester
  • 14% nylon
  • 2% elastane

Unfortunately when I bought the two pair of Hidden comfort socks, I failed to take a picture of them and I threw away the packaging before I decided to add them to the study. The data above is from the REI website. I was running so much this summer that I needed a couple more pairs of socks for the study so I wouldn’t have to do laundry as often and these were recommended to me by a good friend. They ended up being my overall favorite sock in the study. The socks I purchased were blue and orange and between the two I put 268 miles on them. The socks have no super special construction, no built in compressive, lightweight, super aero-dynamic properties; they are just comfortable like no other sock I’ve ever worn.

The fit is uniform along the bottom of the foot from heel to toe. There is slightly less fabric on the top of the foot but not much, for the most part, it’s uniform construction throughout. They are super comfortable, plush and haven’t shown any wear at all which I find interesting because the composition isn’t that different than many of the others socks in the study. However, the amount of fabric in the sock is more substantial so possibly that helps to keep the sock from wearing thin or becoming less pliable over the same amount of time. Of all the socks in the study these are the only I continue to wear with any regularity and I used them for my first 100-miler this fall. They performed beautifully (even if my knees didn’t, but that’s another story…)

Total Mileage: 268

Comfort: 5+
Value: 5
Wear and Tear: 5
Would I recommend to a Friend: 5+
Cushioning/Thickness: 5

BIG TAKEAWAYs

First, I learned what types of socks I like and don’t like. I had gotten stuck in a rut and was glad to find some new options. If you are unhappy with the sock you have been wearing or maybe like me are in a rut, then I’d encourage you to try a few new pairs and see what else is out there.

Second, although sock companies talk a lot about compression, performance and lightweight qualities, I think it’s all just talk. Overall, the socks I tested were comfortable (except for the Wigwam) and it really came down to what I wanted. None of the socks caused me blisters, I didn’t notice any hot spots, or seams, and they all did well in dirt, water, hot and cold.

Third, the most important part of the study to me was finding value. The socks are expensive and I wanted to find pairs that would last longer than the ones I was currently using. Unfortunately, they all held up pretty well over the 5 months which leads me to believe that to really find out how long they hold up, I’d need to do this for a year at least.

FINAL WORD

If I had to pick two of the socks of the study to purchase for myself and use for the next five years, I’d choose the Wrightsock Coolmesh II for a snug lightweight fit and the Balega Hidden Comfort as my workhorse sock.

How about you?!

- Jason Taylor


You can purchase Thorlo, Wrightsock Coolmesh II, and Balega Hidden Comfort socks and receive an Endurance Buzz tribe discount (10% at checkout) at Running Warehouse.

Simply…


About the author

Jason Taylor Jason Taylor reawakened his love of running in 2008 and continues to pursue longer ultra adventures. Jason’s life goal is to inspire, influence and transform others through his love for running and his passion for life. For more information on Jason, check out the About page.

12 Responses to “Sock Talk: Review of Smartwool, Thorlo, Wrightsock, Wigwam, and Balega Running Socks”

  1. on 22 Jan 2013 at 1:10 pm olga

    No Drymax? :) I did hear good things about Balega, may need to buy a pair and see for myself. Surprised on Thorlo – a bit too much bunching up of that cushion for me (used them 10 years ago or so though, so who knows, they may have improved). Thanks for the study!

  2. on 22 Jan 2013 at 4:24 pm Nate

    Thanks for doing all the leg work on this Jason – great study! I’ve been finding the same thing on my smartwools as well, they get super thin on the bottom after I’m not sure how long. Also, my wrightsocks have gotten tight along the ankle like yours did. I’m going to have to get me a pair of those Balegas…

  3. on 23 Jan 2013 at 12:57 pm TK42ONE

    Personally, I’ve done something similar but far less scientific. I’ve tried Asics and ended up with blisters. I’ve tried Drymax and ended up with holes. I’ve settled on Smartwool PhD Run Light Mini socks but I’ve learned that not all Smartwool socks are the same. Turns out they not only have different ankle heights but also different amounts of cushioning. Over time, I finally found a sock that fits, keeps my feet warm, and doesn’t give me blisters.

  4. on 23 Jan 2013 at 3:18 pm Jason

    Olga, drymax seems to have come onto my radar screen a bit late. They seem to me, to be one of the companies that really came hard into our sport this year. Two of the five pair I received at races were drymax and I like them a lot. Might consider using them for a “part duex.” :-)

  5. on 23 Jan 2013 at 3:20 pm Jason

    Nate, glad you enjoyed it. See you on the trails! The Balega are hard to take off, I find myself using them around the house on my tile floors because they are so comfy.

  6. on 23 Jan 2013 at 3:23 pm Jason

    TK, thanks for commenting. Glad you’ve found a pair that you like. That’s the same sock I’d run in for the past few years. For me, it was time for a change. I still have several pair but don’t wear them nearly as often now that I’ve gotten comfortable with others. If anything this study proved to me that getting out of my rut is a good thing from time to time. I have to do the same thing with shoes too, I tend to find one brand I like and that’s it, all others are the devil…or the shoe version of the devil anyhow.

  7. on 22 Sep 2013 at 8:26 am Tang

    Drymax lite trail running sock is really good for trail, no inside movement inside the shoes, injinji trail is ok but will slip inside the shoes a bit, i have a thorlo trail running sock which i bought it 3 years ago, very good for trail running but the new thorlo trail running sock quality is totally different, very lousy

  8. on 06 Oct 2013 at 2:30 pm Linda

    Coming to this article rather late, but I hope you’re still responding to questions. I notice you didn’t have any thoughts on heat . . . my big problem when running is my feet overheating! For this reason, I love my Smartwool ultra lights, but some mild foot pain recently has made me think maybe I need some cushioning to my socks. Do you find extra padding makes your feet hotter? Any thoughts? Thanks!

  9. on 08 Oct 2013 at 8:50 am Jason

    Linda, that’s a great question. I actually didn’t assess heat but I did most of the miles in NM, during the spring and summer months, so it was definitely hot. As best I can remember, I didn’t have any problems with heat with any of the socks. The Balega, the more cushy of the bunch, weren’t any warmer than the thinnest. My disclaimer on this would be that I don’t typically have problems with my feet getting hot unless I’m wearing a shoe that’s really light underfoot and I’m running on hot pavement, so you might try a couple of different socks out and then get back to the Buzz on what you found!

  10. on 20 Oct 2013 at 1:12 pm Craig

    Hi Jason,

    I found this post after searching for reasons why I keep developing holes above my big toe in all my socks. I’ve been running in Smartwool PhD Micro for 2 1/2 years with a couple pairs of IceBreaker. I do love merino, but I think its time to try something more durable. Also, Smartwool seems to have removed the achilles protection tab from the current PhD lineup, which is something I like to have.

    Did you have any odor or sweaty feet issues with the Balega?

    Thanks!

  11. on 23 Oct 2013 at 7:32 am Jason

    Craig, thanks for the comment. No I haven’t had any odor or sweaty feet issues with Balega. Keep in mind I live in NM so we don’t have a ton of humidity, as I assume that might contribute to foot “stench” in more humid places. :-)

    I haven’t taken a look a this years sock offerings but figure the companies will constantly tweak and adjust their product, nice to know they’ve made some changes to the Smartwool. Not sure if I’d like the PhD without the achilles protection tab or not. I will say this, since the original post, the only pair(s) I am still wearing and that have stayed soft and comfortable are the balega. I’m actually wearing the orange ones right now getting ready to go out for a trail run. I will definitely stick with this brand for the time being, they make some fantastic socks!

  12. on 13 Nov 2013 at 4:17 pm Burton J.

    Jason – Just found this article… very helpful!

    I’m a big fan of Balega too – the Smartwool can blow out on me as well.

    Have you tried Fitsok before? My favorite. Harder to find, but epic socks.

    Thanks!

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