Sweated & Vetted: Running Sock Round-Up

I’m a running shoe geek, but a pair of racing flats or burly trail shoes are only as good as the socks inside them. This month’s Sweated & Vetted is a round-up of socks from four different companies, all of which manufacture in the US. For the last few weeks, I’ve been working out in socks from PRO Compression, Swiftwick, Darn Tough, and Smartwool. Overall, the variety, quality, and performance of US-made options is remarkable.

PRO Compression is based in Carlsbad, CA and makes a range of graduated compression socks, calf sleeves and full tights in both solid colors and wild patterns. I wear-tested the over-the-calf Marathon model, as well as the mid-calf PC Racer and ankle-height Trainer Low. I wear size 13 shoes, which put me in PRO Compression’s size L/XL socks (L/XL covers the 11-13 range, S/M covers 8-10, and XS covers 5-7). I found the sizing spot-on, even though I’m at the top end of the range.

Compression socks are intended to improve blood flow to aid performance and speed up recovery, although in the past I’ve struggled to find options that aren’t uncomfortably tight or too thin to be useful. I’m happy to report PRO Compression’s socks are neither. They’re sturdy enough to stay up during multi-hour trail runs, including a recent 50K, and relatively easy to get on and off. The ribbing on the shaft and around the arch is substantial, and it’s paired with a softer, more cushioned weave around the heels and toes. And, the seams are all tight and virtually invisible, including the toe seam, which can be a source of irritation and blistering in poorly-designed socks. ***Jeff Pennington, one of the brand’s co-founders, is offering Well Spent readers a special 40% discount on anything in their online shop with code WS40. Thanks Jeff!***

Tennessee-based Swiftwick produces an immense variety of socks, including a range of running and cycling models, as well as socks for medical, travel and rehabilitation. Their Aspire line includes high-performance compression socks that are knit with “managed compression” zones to be thin, supportive, and seamless. Each sock has multiple weaves throughout, with noticeable differences between the shaft, heel, arch, toe box, and top of the foot. I ran in three different Aspire models, including The Seven, The Four, and The One (referring to the height of each model’s shaft).

Although billed as compression socks, I found Swiftwick’s Aspire models a bit less constrictive than counterparts from PRO Compression. So while they’re easier to slip on and more comfortable to wear, runners who want maximum compression may not find it here. Because the fabric (a blend of 67% nylon, 28% olefin and 5% spandex) is thin, I often wore these with snug racing flats or under a second pair of socks in roomier shoes. Doubling up with a second pair of socks gave me the support of Swiftwick’s arch compression and sweat-wicking fabric, and the seamless construction kept it from feeling bulky or giving me blisters. XL Aspire socks fit my size 13 feet well, although there is some disagreement between the online size chart which says XL covers 12-15, and the packaging, which gave the range as 13.5-16. Folks with feet in between size ranges may want to try these on somewhere in person before ordering online.

Darn Tough makes a full line of hiking, running, skiing, cycling, and casual socks in a second-generation family-operated mill in Northfield, Vermont. Many of their models are knit with merino wool, which is excellent for moisture-control and odor. I tested two pairs of Darn Tough’s Vertex running socks – one with a merino blend and one knit with Coolmax polyester. Both pairs fit me well in size XL (12.5-14.5), and folks with bigger feet will be pleased to know that Darn Tough is one of the few companies that produces XXL (15-17). Of the two pairs of Vertexes I tested, I slightly preferred the softer, more cushioned footbed of the merino pair. Even with the thicker fabric around the front quarter, the toe seam was unnoticeable. I was also impressed that the merino socks maintained their shape, size, and length after multiple washes (cold water, hung to dry).

From Colorado-based Smartwool, I tested the new PhD Run Light Elite Low. These fit and feel much like the Darn Tough merino Vertexes, and even have the same fabric blend (50% merino wool, 47% nylon, 3% spandex). The stretchy ribbing under the arch was supportive, while the thicker padded sections around the heel and toe box were cushioned and comfortable. This model does seem to run a bit smaller than indicated on the size range however, and runners in between sizes may want to go up.

Overall, the range of models, features, and materials from PRO Compression, Swiftwick, Darn Tough, and Smartwool is notable. The sock-making industry in the US is still remarkably robust, and this is an easy, meaningful way to support domestic production, much of which is still small-scale, independent and family-owned.

Jason Brozek is an ultramarathon runner, lapsed Ironman triathlete, and professor at a small liberal arts college, where he teaches courses on sustainability and international politics.