Toe Be or Not Toe Be?

A rather bizarre name for a title, but when it comes down to it this feature is about socks, which after your choice of shoe could be argued to be one of the most important pieces of gear you use. The reason this topic sparked my imagination is that one morning as I pulled on my trusty Bridgedales, I noticed a big hole in the bottom under the forefoot. Bugger I thought, last pair. Then I remembered a pair of Injinji’s that were unopened from a freebie that was included in the Great Ocean Walk 100km pack.

Now, I’d deserted Injinji a number of years ago. I loved the concept and could certainly see why they worked, but for me, for some reason the material would dig into the space in between my toes and actually become really uncomfortable. Fast-forward three years and as I sat on my chair at 5am contemplating this thought ahead of another beast of a stairs training session, it didn’t exactly fill me with joy.

Low and behold however, the training session went well and no discomfort was felt. So I wore them again… and again… and again and so on, you get the picture. In the name of making sure we look after our feet, I thought we’d do an overview of the pros and cons of the ‘toe’ sock versus the normal ‘tube’ sock with two brands and see where you, our readers sit with regards to ‘toeing’ it or not.

The concepts

The two different concepts are world’s apart in their approach, and I believe there are quite a few arguments for and against each. The tube sock is the far more traditional approach that many of us know, so why should we care about the toe approach? The main reason as far as I can see it is blister prevention. That little annoying ‘friend’ that many of us in the running world have probably come up against on a few occasions. But being someone who rarely suffers from blisters, having individual ‘toe’ socks wasn’t hugely on the priority list for me. What I want is something that is slightly cushioned and padded for those long distances. But, we all have different needs, so without further ado, here’s a run down of the two socks that sit in my running attire right now and an analysis of each.

The ‘Tube’ Sock Approach

First up, I’ll start with my trusty Bridgedales. But before I do, here’s the Ultra168 disclaimer – I have no affliation with this business whatsoever, nor have I ever received product from them. All product has been bought by me and my hard-earned cash 🙂

The Bridgedale endurance trail light sock

This sock is a rock of a sock as far as I’m concerned and is a firm choice amongst those who yomp around North Wales and the North of England. Despite having two ‘L’s on each sock, which gets very confusing as you think you have two left feet, this sock has NEVER given me an issue with blisters – but I do put that down to the fact that I’ve looked after my feet pretty well over the ears rather than a sock doing all the work. Being English, there’s always a part of me that’s drawn back to niche British manufacturers like Bridgedale and Inov-8 in a world crowded by the likes of Salomon and The North Face. I don’t necessary like to go with the mainstream flow, and will always go out of my way to look for specialists, and this is what I like about Bridgedale. They make socks. Full stop.

To give you some background on Bridgedale, they base their socks around the concept of WoolFusion®, which combines natural fibres with man made fibres. Normally I’m a big and firm believer in using as many natural products as possible in clothing (I’m also a big fan of merino wool tops), but I can forgive Bridgedale in this instance 🙂 Sometimes there’s  a balance between comfort and being stubborn for the sake of going ‘au naturel’.

I literally wear these buggers into the ground. The socks also have  reinforced heel and toe areas, and the company reckons they last longer than most other sock brands on the market. Indeed they are so confident about how long the socks will last they offer a 3 Year Guarantee on WOOLFUSION® socks. Personally I’d challenge that and blow it out of the water. I reckon I can destroy a pair within a year… maybe that will become one of Ultra168’s next challenges!

As with most sock manufacturers, there are a number of different styles to choose from, depending on what activity you’re doing, and for us who live in Australia where temperatures are higher than in the UK, making sure your feet don’t get too hot is important. First up is the ‘outdoor’ style range, which is what I think, the foundation sock from Bridgedale. I personally use the Endurance Trail Light, and have been doing so for nigh on three years. What I like about these socks most is the padding you get around the toes and forefoot, and it’s far better suited to the warmer climes. The range contains nearly twenty different types of socks, so if you’re interested have a poke around. For me, this is one of the most comfortable socks around, but if you suffer from blisters around the toes our next sock could be the one for you.

The ‘Toe’ Sock Approach

The Injinji sock is pretty much known for changing the way we think about how our feet should be wrapped up in our running shoes, helping to change the way runners thought about looking after our feet. (Once again, the Ultra168 disclaimer. In this instance, I was contacted by Injinji to test some of their liner socks and was sent some samples to help with this feature).

Image courtesy of Injinji

And this is where we get into the debate around what is actually best for your feet – the open ‘tube’ toe concept that has been traditionally used for years, or the individual toe compartments that Injinji employs. Of course, the major advantage one can glean from using a sock such as the Injinjis is that it helps to prevent the toes rubbing together, which invariably is one of the major causes of blisters on the toes. Now as mentioned above, I’m rather fortunate in that over the years I’ve suffered very little from this type of blistering and have what I would regard as pretty tough feet. Hence why I’ve stuck with the open tube sock approach. However what I have noticed is that during the latter stages of a 100 miler, my big toes rub quite heavily against the toe next to them and this has caused a sensation of numbness.

Whether or not this can be attributed to the open tube sock approach, I’m not sure. Some further investigation yielded a response from the Twitter community that this could be as a result of having your shoes done up too tightly and stopping the circulation somewhat. However, once again I can see where the individual nature of the toe socks can have a real benefit in helping to prevent this rubbing.

But let’s go back to the Injinji range, which according to the philosophy of the company, ‘creates the best possible interface that allows the entire foot to perform naturally and freely inside our shoes, just like being barefoot’. Like the Bridgedale range, it features a number of different styles depending on what type of activity you decide to embark upon. For us runners, the outdoor and performance ranges are probably the ones to hone in on.

Starting with the former, the outdoor range has an interface system specifically designed to perform and adapt to any type of terrain. It is engineered with AIS technology (Anatomical Interface System – see picture above), and constructed with natural moisture wicking Nuwool. For the performance sock, Injinji adds that it is only sock on the market which allows for true restriction free movement from your heel to five toes. Available in micro, mini and crew lengths. Three thicknesses; light, original and mid-weight.

As mentioned, my major draw-back when using the Injinji a few years back was that the material seemed to dig into the areas between my toes making it pretty uncomfortable. Having tried the liner sock on Saturday for a 4.5 hour run, normal service seems to have been resumed and that feeling of discomfort seems to have disappeared. Whether or not Injini has changed the composition of their socks over the last 3-4 years, or it’s all in my head, who knows. But so far so good and I’m impressed with the feel of these and how they do enable the toes to just do their thing.

So how do we try and sum all of this up? For me, Bridgedale wins in the comfort stakes, but Injinji has the unique toe sock approach that I think genuienly follows the form of your foot and gives you a very flexible feel in your running shoe. So what will I end up wearing for 2012? The answer?

Both… I’ll admit that I’m now a ‘re-convert’ to the Injinji concept, and I’ll use the liner sock as the first layer. But for comfort, the Bridgedale is unbeatable for those long distances, so it will go over the top… a perfect combination I think.

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Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

8 thoughts on “Toe Be or Not Toe Be?

  1. I ushered in my new-found love of trail running with the ‘liner’ version of Injinjis under a light trail sock. Having completed my first (read exploratory) season of training and first 100k event with no requirement for preventative taping nor any blisters (yes there were water crossings) i can recommend this combo from a purely personal point of view.
    The ‘liner’ versions take very little getting used to as the fabric is so thin that there is barely any sensation of fabric between the toes.
    For someone that can’t walk barefoot across gravel without dancing an awkward dance i am glad to have experimented with this combination without having gone through any foot trauma first.

  2. Bang on Dan, my feet have been thrashed in races before – think total foot delamination.

    I grabbed the book, fixing your feet, read and re-read it.

    Now for me it’s a simple, bodyglide over the toes, injinji mini crew liner socks over the top, then smartwool socks over the injinji’s away we go, do not touch feet again for 30 hours.

    If it’s a training run then it’s just the injinji mini crew performance toe socks.

  3. Have worn injinjis for years now and love them to bits. My only gripe is the durability or lack thereof in the material around the ball of the sock. Every pair I have worn wear through in that area, everytime. Would love to see a thicker or better material placement there.

    Bodyglide and injinjis here too. Good to go for a day or two.

  4. Used to be an Injinji user and religiously followed the footcare manual, then as I moved to more minimalist shoes like my favourite Inov8 Talon 190’s and more recently the Nike Free 3.0’s which are basically a sock with a sole already I now just buy bargain bin socks from Rebel. Seemed to be fine for 30 hrs at GNW100miler and to date no blisters. So for me, as long as my shoes drain well and dry quickly and I look after my feet in the downtime they send to not require or demand a detailed approach to socks. Its the one area I am not a gear junkie on this occasion. Now backpacks and watches, there’s a couple of topics I get excited about.

    Good post by the way Dan and Andrew as good footcare and the implications of the opposite will often mean DNF in a very painful way.

  5. I don’t get it Andrew. The socks are so good you need bodyglide and another pair of socks????

    I have raced in many running / racewalking events and dozen or so ultra events. Socks of choice have ranged from Rio / Target through to X socks.

    BTW, more than happy with wearing Rio socks for any running / racewalking / walking / triathlon / ultra event.

    When I have had blisters it has been the shoes that have let me down more often than the socks. If the socks are old and have lost shape they take the walk of shame to the bin.

    Same for shoes if they are looking worse for wear, lacking spring for example. They either go to the above bin or if they still have a good amount of life but not for running ,etc events, they are donated to Shoes for Planet Earth.

    1. Not saying whether they’re good or not-that’s for you to test. Just giving a comment on what works for me and that this was arrived at through several total foot delaminations in the early years and 20,000 blister free training kilometers in the bush since. Cheers. AV

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