It’s time for a total wardrobe check. Does yours sound like this?
- Fitting, breathable top? Check.
- Moisture wicking, anti-rubbing undies? Check.
- Perfect shorts with pockets to hold the 2nd tennis ball? Check.
- Sturdy, supportive shoes? Check.
- High quality, ergonomic socks? Wait.
It’s true: Most of us just pick up the cheapest lot of socks at the local Target without two thoughts as to whether they’re the right socks for a long, grinding tennis match. Or, if you’re like me, you were firmly convinced that only cotton socks would do the job. I’m here to tell you why you don’t want to head into this Summer season with the same old loose fitting cotton socks you’ve always worn. I’ll show you why selecting the right socks is every bit as important and all the rest of your wardrobe.
Cotton is King (or is it?)
To help prevent injuries and boost athletic performance, you need a wardrobe that keeps you performant throughout your match. If you are like me, the last place you usually think about is what’s in your top drawer. Foot problems are common among tennis players as we are constantly stopping and starting and moving in every direction throughout the match. Yet, most players stop at the shoe and forget about what they enshroud their feet with before slipping that shoe on. If your feet are killing you after your matches, it may well be the sock that is the culprit. We generate enormous forces with rapid stops and starts, as well as jumping, lunging, and running during the points. All that forwards, backward, and lateral movement puts excessive stress on the feet that the shoe alone may not be enough to handle adequately. Luckily, modern athletic socks can help neutralize some of this extra force.
Athletic socks cushion feet, protect them from irritation and blisters, and, keep them feeling dry and warm without overheating. If you’re like me, you believed cotton socks was the only way and was the certainly the only fiber you would even consider wearing. But having experimented with a number of new socks and materials recently, I can personally say that cotton is no longer the king of socks for tennis players.
Despite what commercials say about cotton, here’s the lowdown: Cotton performs even when soaking wet, but that’s just the rub — it gets soaking wet. Take off your shoes after a hot Summer match and you can refill the local backyard pond with amount of sweat wrung out of those socks. That’s because cotton fibers are made of absorbent hydrophilic fibers, which have the tendency to trap sweat rather than channelling it away from your skin. That’s a recipe for blisters. Cotton also loses its resiliency and shape over time and that leads to fabric bunching and skin irritation. The same properties that make your favorite T-shirt a “go-to” after a hundred washes is not what you want sandwiched between your foot and shoe. Lastly, studies also prove cotton doesn’t protect against foot fungus, so with that, we’ve dispelled the most common reasons for sticking with cotton over synthetic blends.
In contrast to cotton fiber, synthetic fibers are engineered to be lightweight, durable, and less likely to bunch up. Some fabrics are specifically designed to act like capillaries to channel air in one direction and moisture in the opposite. Choosing sock fibers with a good wicking gradient will help trap and transfer moisture away from the skin, which will keep feet far drier. Some studies also show that when running, acrylic socks are better than cotton to keep blisters away. So there’s definitely science behind the new fibers.
When you open the door to synthetic fibers, you also open the door to completely revamping the design of the sock and many of the newest models utilize different weaves and fabrics in different zones to good effect. For example, the sleeve or sock cuff might be made with Lycra, which is designed to hold it’s shape without overly compressing, so you get a firm grip to keep the sock from sliding down to your ankle while also allowing blood circulation to flow freely. On the other hand, zones where a lot of moisture perspires might be woven with CoolMAX, a fiber engineered to move moisture out while allowing maximum air flow in. All this technical wizardry adds up to a performance package no cotton tube sock can match.
Choosing the Right Sock
Before grabbing the cheapest option in the sock aisle, consider this: All synthetic blends may be better bets since they hold their shape, stay dry, are comfortable, and even repel odor. But, like specific shoes, tennis players should choose socks depending on their game, shoe fit, and conditions they’re playing under. For example, if you’re playing predominantly hard courts in the heat of the Summer, you should, perhaps counterintuitively, be wearing a higher sock helps to channel blood circulation back up your legs whereas when you’re in relatively cool climates and indoors, ankle cuts might do the job. Similarly, if you’re on hard courts, you may favor a heavier padding on the soles and heels than if you’re on clay where you may want a lighter weight trim to keep your feet feeling light for all that running for the longer rallies.
For me, if it’s a hot, hot day on a hard court, I go for a medium padded high-rise crew cut sock. This model protects my feet from the extra pounding of the hard court while helping blood circulation — which means less chances of cramping in the calves. If I’m on clay, I also like a mid-calf cut, but lighter padding than for my hard-court matches. The mid-calf rise, keeps the clay off my skin and from getting inside my socks while the lighter sock keeps me fleet of foot for the long rallies. The clay’s forgiving surface doesn’t demand the heavy padding hard-courts do. If I’m playing doubles, or playing indoors or at night, I tend to prefer ankle cuts with a bit of extra compression and arch support. In doubles matches, I seem to be split stepping and moving forwards and backward to reposition on the court a lot more than sprinting to the ball. There’s just something about the constant shuffling and general repositioning on the court that demands the extra support from such a sock and wearing them pays big dividends on how my feet feel the next day.
Fancy or Plain?
Do you want Chocolate or Vanilla? Do you want ergonomic (distinct left and right socks) or neutral? Do you need a gazillion zones and weaves or will the basic model utilizing the best fibers do? This is where it gets tricky. Choosing fancy over plainer designs can be challenging. Generally speaking, both are great options, so it comes down your match conditions and how your feet are feeling the next day. The socks without all the bells and whistles will provide far better support and moisture wicking than cotton socks, making even the most basic models a step up in the performance category. So, if you’re skeptical and just want to try out your first non-cotton pair of socks, go with a basic model.
If, on the other hand, your feet are feeling fatigued the next day, and you’re looking to maximize the advantages of all these socks have to offer against the dollar spent, then look for socks that have at these three zones of support: 1) padding zone for balls of feet and heels, 2) compression/support zone around the middle of the foot, and 3) moisture wicking zones along tops and sides of the socks. Some socks have even more specialized zones, but like buying the $180 top-of-the-line pair of shoes vs. buying the $80 all-around-performance model, the potential gains for dollar spent are only worth it if you’re dealing with chronic pain issues or you like to intimidate your opponents with pure style.
Put a Sock in It!
If you haven’t considered a high-performance athletic sock before now, I hope I have inspired you to rethink cotton as your only choice as well as critically reviewing the socks you do wear for your future matches. After years of being a cotton purist, I can attest to the upgraded performance of the new wave of socks out there today. Give them a try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.