What is the best pair of running socks for hammering out miles on roads or trails? We put eight of the best, most popular running-specific socks on the market through rigorous testing and months of running. We ran on roads and trails week after week before evaluating them for five important characteristics: Comfort, Fit, Wicking Ability, Padding, and Slip Prevention. After exhaustive testing and evaluation, we feel confident in showcasing our award winners. Read on to find out which contenders helped us run our best.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Running Sock
Thorlos Experia XCCU
The Thorlo Experia XCCU was the best overall running sock, delivering in nearly every category we tested. With its small size ranges (our tester was for size 10.5-11.5), this sock is made to fit more precisely than others whose range stretches up to three sizes. The padding cushioned all of the wear points on our feet, from the toes to the forefoot to the sides and the heel, while perfectly transitioning to thin, stretchy, breathable fabric everywhere padding was not needed. This design gave optimal cushioning, while still allowing for wicking and breathing. It scored near the top of every category, making it the highest rated sock in our review. It featured more targeted padding and wicked away moisture better than either the Balega Hidden Comfort or the Darn Tough Coolmax Vertex Tab No Show Ultra-light Cushion, and was more comfortable than the DryMax Running Mini Crew. We encourage you to check out the Thorlo Experia XCCU. If you're looking for a slightly longer sock, Experia XCMU or the crew-length Experia XCXU.
Wicks and breathes well
Perfectly placed padding
Not as grippy in the shoe as some
Low cut is in between
Best Bang for the Buck
Balega Hidden Comfort
The Balega Hidden Comfort retails for a low price of $12.00 each. Granted, none of the socks we have featured in this review are all that expensive, but these were pretty much the cheapest. With the Hidden Comfort, you get more than you pay for. These may just be the most comfortable sock, although that distinction can certainly be claimed by the Darn Tough Vertex Tab No Show Ultra-light Cushion as well (see below). Made almost completely of Drynamix Polyester, these socks pull on so easily, it's almost like they are meant to be there. We loved the soft fabric's feel and couldn't stop wearing them, even when we weren't running. Because they didn't wick or prevent slippage as well as the competition, they were not one of the highest scorers, but they are still a sock anyone would love to wear, at an affordable price.
Slips off back of foot
Most Comfortable Running Sock
Darn Tough Coolmax Vertex Tab No Show Ultra-Light Cushion
When it comes to selecting a great pair of socks, comfort is king. The most comfortable pair of socks was the Darn Tough Coolmax Vertex Tab No Show Ultra-light Cushion. While the name is a serious mouthful, the sock does all the talking. Darn Tough claims this sock is so comfortable that you will put it on and forget it is even there. We agree! With its soft Coolmax fibers, ultra-light thickness, and perfect cushion, this was nearly the perfect running sock. Its attention to detail separates it from the competition, exemplified by the "seamless" seam across the toes. This sock did a great job of keeping our feet cool during warm days on the trails, but the Coolmax polyester fiber wasn't as effective at wicking away moisture as it claimed and was less effective than other socks in the test. There was no doubt, however, that these fibers were far more comfortable than its wool counterpart, the Darn Tough No Show Light. If you want the most comfortable sock available, this is the one for you. And, if you're looking for different lengths, check out the ankle-length Coolmax Vertex Quarter Ultra-Light Cushion or the longer Coolmax Vertex Micro Crew Ultra-Light Cushion.
Perfectly placed padding
Doesn't wick moisture well
Top Pick for Wicking Ability
DryMax Running Mini Crew
The DryMax Running Mini Crew is a unique sock. DryMax claims that their socks are the absolute best for wicking moisture and maintaining that dryness all day. We would have to agree. It was remarkable how much dryer these socks stayed than every other sock. The hydrophobic DryMax olefin fibers found on the inside of the sock really don't absorb any water, while the wicking outer fibers attract the moisture that simply won't stay on the inside of this sock. This combination of fiber technology was incredible. That said, these socks have downsides. The same DryMax olefin fibers felt rough to the touch, and we felt that these were the least comfortable socks compared to the competition. We also thought that they fit large. These issues can be worked around, and for the person who frequently runs in wet conditions, these socks are the ultimate weapon. For a shorter version than the Mini Crew, DryMax Running No Show. For taller versions, try the DryMax Quarter Crew and full-length Running Crew Length.
Incredible wicking ability
Grip within shoe
Heavy and thick
Fit and sizing a little off
Bunched up seams
Analysis and Test Results
We set out to reveal the advantages and disadvantages of the plethora of socks available. Running is a simple activity: the only thing that you need is a good pair of shoes. But is that really true? What about the socks that protect your foot from your shoe? The truth is that a good pair of socks is just as important as shoes when it comes to enjoying your run and wanting more. Not convinced? We suggest you talk to someone who has had their goal race derailed by blisters or foot issues, and ask them whether sock choice is something to be taken lightly.
We chose socks that were made out of different fiber combinations, with different levels of padding, and different ankle heights. Socks play an incredibly important role in keeping your running feet happy, in ways that may not be immediately obvious. The two biggest enemies of a runner's foot are friction and moisture. Socks play a critical role in mitigating these potentially catastrophic obstructions. Friction occurs when a runner's foot moves around inside a shoe, rubbing forward and backward as the runner's foot moves through each stride.
Too much friction localized in a particular area causes heat build-up, as well as trauma to individual cells. These traumatized cells fill with fluid, swelling and eventually creating painful blisters. While a running shoe is designed to protect feet from the ground, a sock protects the foot from the shoe. An effective sock will help a foot and shoe grip each other effectively, reducing friction. A sock can also work to absorb and dissipate some of the energy transferred to the foot, helping to reduce heat buildup and swelling.
Moisture is another enemy of the foot, and again socks prove to be the best weapon to combat this problem. Running on dry roads and trails in warm or hot weather will cause a runner's foot to sweat inside their shoe, and a good sock can help to absorb and move the sweat away, where ideally a highly breathable shoe will help it evaporate. Running in the rain, mud, or snow only makes this problem worse, demanding that much more performance from your sock. When moisture isn't quickly removed from the foot, the skin is quick to absorb it, leading to softening and swelling. Take our word for it—soft and swollen skin is much quicker to break down and blister than tough, dry skin, and so for long runs, making sure that liquid travels away from the foot is important.
A slightly less important role of a running sock relates to hygiene. If you have ever lived with someone who insists on running without socks (or if this is you), then you are well aware how quickly bacteria and fungi breed in the warm, dank environment of running shoes. Not only do these microbes create a horrible stench, they can also lead to an increased chance of infection. Running-specific socks help manage the moisture that causes bacterial and fungal colonies to thrive, minimizing this in the shoes themselves. They can be easily washed and sterilized after every run.
Components That Make Up a Great Running Sock
Compared to the simple cotton tube socks that used to be the norm for running, socks these days are remarkably complex. With all of the permutations and combinations of features for a running sock, the choices are almost limitless. Below we will look at a few of the most obvious and important differences between socks and brands: their thickness and cushioning, fabric types, design, and the height of the ankle. For a more in-depth discussion of these and other choices available in our fleet, we encourage you to check out our Buying Advice Article.
It is worth noting that although we mostly reviewed No Show or No Show Tab varieties of running-specific socks, those who would like mini-crew can usually still order the exact same sock with a different ankle height. Sock makers produce endless varieties, so options abound in fabrics, thicknesses, and ankle heights.
Criteria for Evaluation
In order to determine the best overall pair, we put each sock through months of field testing and then conducted other tests to fine-tune our findings. If you would like to read more about our process, check out our article How We Test. We rated each pair on a scale from one to 10 based on five individual categories: Comfort, Fit, Wicking, Padding, and Slip Prevention. We then assigned each category a specific weight based upon its relative value to the perfect function of a running sock.
The sum of a product's weighted scores for each category constitutes its final score, displayed in the chart above. When assessing each product, we strove to rate them comparatively. That means that each product is compared to all the others, and the scores are assigned based on their relative strength. All of the socks could be comfortable (and were!), but that didn't prevent us from giving out both high and low scores for comfort. Below, we have gone into detail explaining the importance of each category, pointing out the best and worst socks for each, and what was the winner of that category.
Comfort is the most important consideration when evaluating a running sock. How a sock feels will determine whether you wear it every day or never again. We began by examining how the material felt. Was it rough and abrasive, or soft and supple? Were there exposed seams that cause rubbing or friction? While pulling it on, did the fabric catch on dry skin or toenails? Did the sock hug our foot comfortably or squish the toes? Did the sock pinch the front or back of the ankle or the top of the foot, or easily stay in place with no discomfort?
We evaluated the feel of the sock both on the foot and in and out of the running shoe. The most important comfort test was during the run, both midway and at the end. Our feet needed to feel the same or better than when we geared up at the trailhead. For the most part, all of these socks succeeded, and our complaints tended to be nit-picky for the sake of discrimination.
Even after 10 or more miles, none of the products tested made us want to stop and take them off. Some actually seemed to get better as the run went on. It was not uncommon for us to realize that we hadn't even noticed the socks, even when we were doing our best to focus on how they felt. Two pairs of socks really stood out for comfort, both in a shoe and out. These were the Darn Tough Coolmax Vertex Tab No Show Ultra-light Cushion, our Top Pick award winner, and the Balega Hidden Comfort, our Best Bang for the Buck award winner.
On the other end of the spectrum was the DryMax Running Mini Crew. While their hydrophobic inner fibers were not abrasive, they certainly were not soft and plush like the most comfortable socks, and they also had creases and bumps that rubbed against our toes and heels. It is worth noting that comfort is a somewhat subjective metric, no matter how much we might try to objectify it. Comfortable to some will not feel that way to others. The most important thing is to try a pair of socks on for yourself. Comfort was weighted as 30% of a product's final score.
How a sock fits is directly related to comfort, but different in a few subtle ways. A sock that is too big or small is not going to be as comfortable as it could be. The fit is determined by how well a sock molds to your foot and stays in place. It should hug the foot comfortably, while not being too tight or loose. A perhaps overlooked aspect of fit is where your foot fits within a manufacturer's size range. Some companies manufacture a single sock for a wide range of foot sizes. It is not uncommon to find that a size large sock fits feet from 9-11.5.
If you have a size 9 foot, it isn't unreasonable to assume that this sock may end up feeling large on you. Similarly, someone with an 11.5 foot might feel constricted in that sock. However, there is little consistency between brands, and each individual will need to be aware of where they fall on the sizing chart. We have done our best to point out in the individual reviews whether a sock fits small or large and to point out nuances of fit.
We asked a number of questions to determine the best fit. Did it bunch up and force rearrangement after first pulling it on? Did it stay in place mile after mile, or did it creep down? Did it feel confining when first pulled on, or did it feel as if it wasn't there? How well did it move with the foot? Some socks had a lot of snug-fitting elastic sections that hugged the foot. Others were too tight around the opening at the ankle, giving us the feeling that circulation was being cut off. Similarly, some socks over emphasized the amount of elastic in the arch, making it feel restrictive.
The best fitting sock out of the bunch was the Thorlo Experia XCCU. This was due in no small part to the fact that their size range was relatively small - ours was from 10.5-11.5. Since our head tester's foot was a size 11, this perfectly matched what we needed. The Feetures! Elite Light Cushion No Show Tab, deserved an honorable mention for fit. Due to the detailed elastic support structures and the anatomical shape, the Feetures! sock did a fantastic job of staying in place.
On the other end of the spectrum was the DryMax Running Mini Crew, which was too large for our foot, and had extra space and bunched up fabric in both the toes and heels. This was despite the fact that we ordered a size down, and went with the large, which is for foot sizes 8.5 — 10.5. Our size 11 foot should have been too large for this sock, but, this sock was still loose and baggy. Fit accounted for 20% of a product's final score.
Wicking is a sock's ability to effectively pull moisture from the skin to the outside of the sock where it will hopefully evaporate. Wicking is an essential quality for a running sock because whether it is hot outside or cold and wet, your feet are going to get wet. Sweat is the most common moisturizer when running, but rain, streams, mud, puddles, and morning dew are also common culprits. When water is trapped next to the skin, it gets absorbed, causing the feet to swell and also soften, increasing the chance of blisters. To combat this, you need a sock that effectively wicks moisture.
The best socks in the wicking department tend to use a blend of thick padding that effectively wicks moisture from the highest wear areas, mixed with very thin, stretchy, and breathable fabric covering the rest of the foot. The DryMax Running Mini Crew was so effective at wicking that we couldn't help but recognize it as a Top Pick. The inside of this sock is comprised of hydrophobic olefin fibers that won't absorb water, sending it to the outside of the sock to evaporate. This technology was remarkable, and compared to the competition, this sock's wicking ability was off the charts.
The Darn Tough No Show Light was another sock that wicked well. On the other hand, we found that the Injinji Trail Midweight Mini-Crew did little to transfer moisture from inside to outside of the sock. As a midweight sock, this one was substantially thicker than others, but we still expected it to do better than it did. Wicking accounted for 20% of a product's final score.
Padding, also known as cushioning, is an optional feature in running-specific socks. Padding helps protect the feet from the repeated impacts of running and protect from rubbing inside the shoe. There is little doubt that socks with cushioning will last longer than those without. The amount of padding in a sock is a personal preference, but in our opinion, there is an optimal level.
We think that targeted padding in the forefoot, toes, sides of the toes, and the heel is the ideal makeup. If the rest of the sock, such as the arch and top of the foot, is made up of thin, breathable material, the runner benefits from having that extra protection while not adding bulk and heat-trapping fabric. Padding tends to become a more valuable feature when you are running for longer distances, and also when the ground surface becomes rougher, like when trail or mountain running.
Scoring for this test was not simply based on the thickness of padding. We tested some socks with lots of padding, as well as the Darn Tough No Show Light, which had no padding whatsoever, so we tried to assess the padding for each sock compared to what was advertised. We looked for balanced padding — if it shielded the foot from ground strikes while still allowing for good sensitivity. There is no need for extra padding in the arch of the foot, as it adds more bulk. Socks with padding throughout the bottom of the foot scored lower than those with pinpoint padding. For this test, the higher the score, the better the padding protected the foot.
The best socks were the Smartwool PhD Run Light Elite Micro, which had Merino Wool pads that covered target areas and nowhere else, as well as the Thorlo Experia XCCU, which nicely accomplished the same thing. On the other hand, the Balega Hidden Comfort, despite having a lot of underfoot cushioning, chose not to target it to areas of need, instead thickly padding the entire underfoot, while high-wear areas on the sides of the big and pinky toes, as well as the Achilles region of the heel, went unpadded. Padding was weighted as 15% of a product's final score.
The final component to avoiding blisters is a sock's ability to reduce friction and heat by staying in place. When a foot slips inside a shoe, friction occurs — usually in the heel, under the ball of the foot, or between the toes. Friction creates heat, accelerating the creation of a blister. For this test, we were aware of how well a sock helped keep our foot in place. The interface between the skin, sock, and shoe liner is crucial.
That said, the sock is only part of this equation, with the shoe playing an equal role. We found that socks with added padding or cushioning, or socks that were thicker, tended to "fill" our shoes better than thin socks. For an optimal fit, you would be wise to run in the same thickness of socks in the same shoes regularly, and fit the shoes to the volume of your preferred sock. If you size your shoe wearing a medium thickness sock and then go running in an ultra-light sock, there will be extra room for your foot to slip.
The very best sock for slip resistance was the Injinji Trail Midweight Mini-Crew. It is a high volume sock that has lots of surface area with its individual toes, enabling it to grip the shoe. Its relatively large, loose weave seemed to help increase this grippiness. For different lengths, Injinji Trail Midweight Micro and the Trail Midweight Crew. Both options are available for the same $15 price tag as the Mini Crew. The Feetures! Elite Light Cushion No Show Tab was another top scorer in terms of slip resistance.
The other end of the spectrum was held by the Darn Tough No Show Light. This was the only sock we tested without padding, and we found that it had very tightly woven fabric that felt slipperier to the touch as well as against the inside of the shoe. If this is your preferred style of sock, you will want to size your shoes smaller and tighter to better grip your foot. In addition to the No Show Tab that we tested, this sock is available in Elite Light Cushion Quarter, the Elite Light Cushion Mini Crew, and the Elite Graduated Compression Light Cushion Knee High. Slip Prevention was also weighted as 15% percent of a product's final score.
Choosing the perfect running sock is a challenge. This process is complicated because there are countless combinations of features in a running sock when taking into account different fabric types, thicknesses, padding levels, and ankle heights. Luckily, all these choices ensure that if you figure out what you like, there is a running sock out there for you. We have reviewed eight of the most popular and common running-specific socks available, and in doing so have made an effort to investigate as many different choices as we could. We hope that this review has pointed you in the right direction, and helped you find a great running sock to meet your needs. We also encourage you to check out our Buying Advice Article, where we go into even more detail on all the various choices involved in this seemingly simple running accessory. We'll recommend the best pair of socks for you, as well as make other recommendations based on differing criteria.
— Andy Wellman
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.