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The Science of Cycling Socks: Six Things to Know

May 17, 2017
The Science of Cycling Socks: Six Things to Know

There are a number of factors that contribute to your overall comfort on the bike, such as your position, kit and contact points. Add to those the often overlooked socks on your feet, an item that can play just as important a role in your comfort as the chamois in your bibs.

With advances in sports apparel technology trickling down into what we wear on our feet, socks have evolved dramatically from the humble item we once used to simply cover our feet. Different from your business socks, cycling socks are loaded with tech, and if the comfort and performance benefits weren’t enough, they’re a great way to add a touch of style to any rider's cycling kit.

With the help of Jackson McCosker, podiatrist at the Melbourne Podiatry Clinic, we’ve put together the following list of six things to know about cycling socks and why they should matter to you.

The importance of a snug-fit

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Chances are if you’re unaware of your feet whilst out on the bike, your shoes and socks are doing the job. The close fitting nature of the sock, working in conjunction with other elements such as a seamless design and a high thread count, will result in fewer pressure points that can be caused by micro-vibrations and seams inside of the lining of the sock. This offers supreme comfort over extended periods, perfect for those long days in the saddle.

In addition to reduced pressure points, the tight fitting nature also carries the benefit of simply ensuring the sock is held in place during your ride and can also promote blood flow to your extremities, reducing the swelling that naturally occurs during exercise.

“Is the snug fit performance enhancing?” It’s a frequently asked and hotly debated topic among social cycling groups and the product research worlds alike. Whilst there is a proven benefit in the medical world in terms of repair and recovery, McCosker states that those same compression garments are “generally very specific with their compression measurements and definitely not something you would feel comfortable cycling in”.

Whilst the word 'compression' is often used as a buzzword by marketing departments to shift product, it's also used to describe the compressive fit typically experienced with cycling-specific socks. Whilst this snug-fit is important for a range of other reasons, McCosker says it’s worth noting to “never underestimate the power of a good placebo”. How you are feeling within yourself can have an enormous impact in your performance on the bike. If you believe the use of compression garments work as a performance enhancer, they can and will often help you perform better as a result of pushing past a mental barrier as opposed to a physiological one.

It’s all about the fibres

The materials used in the construction of cycling socks have undergone a radical change over the last twenty years, with synthetic fibres now the material of choice over natural fibres.

Much like your towels at home, natural fibres like cotton, tend to absorb moisture and expand, leading to rubbing, blistering and hot spots.

Synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester have a number of benefits over their natural fibre counterparts. They can be woven much closer together, which allows the sock to better conform to the shape of the foot, wick moisture more effectively and minimise road grime and dirt from working its way into the fibres. The high thread count also means colour fastness over the life of the sock so they won't fade prematurely.

Synthetics will also often feature antibacterial or antimicrobial fibres woven into the sock that balances the levels of bacteria on your skin. This reduces the chance of skin irritations and importantly, preventing the sock from retaining odor, a godsend after clocking up the kilometers on a long hard ride.

Light-on cushioning, big on benefits

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Sports specific socks such as those used for running will have a significant amount of padding strategically placed throughout the sock to aid with shock absorption, whereas the opposite applies for cycling. When cycling, the foot is placed in a unique, stable position, and so thinner, form-hugging socks are more beneficial, allowing the technical features of the sock to perform at their efficient best.

Cycling socks are designed to provide comfort through improved contact with your cycling shoe, highlighting the importance of selecting the right shoe to suit your foot. The thinner weight of cycling socks can also play a part in ensuring your pedal stroke is as efficient as possible, saving you precious energy by providing greater tactile feedback and improving your power transfer as a result.

Selecting the wrong shoe and socks can promote blistering and nerve pain commonly known as 'hot spots'. Overly cushioned socks or excess movement inside of the shoe is usually the culprit and typically occurs following the contraction and expansion of sensitive nerve endings in the foot.

Efficient temperature regulation

Thermal protection in cycling socks will generally be a result of the fibres used in the construction of the sock. For those riding in the height of summer, the moisture wicking effect of synthetic socks works by directing the sweat from the sole of the foot to the shoes outer, leading to wicking which has a cooling effect on hot feet.

For those wanting something a little warmer during chilly mornings and winter conditions, Merino wool has been continually proven to be the most effective natural fibre when it comes to heat management. In addition to natural moisture wicking properties, Merino wool has a natural crimp to the fibre, which in conjunction with being breathable, ensures a small layer of dead air, known as a 'heat zone', is retained close to the skin ensuring your feet stay warm.

Length matters

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Sports specific socks are available in a number of lengths with brands such as Swiftwick and DeFeet offering a range of sock heights from 1” ankle socks, right the way up to 12” length knee high options. Aside from unwritten rules in cycling culture, cultivated by social circles and personal preference, there is a benefit to longer length socks in the form of increased temperature regulation.

Sitting above the ankle, mid-crew length socks are the most popular option with riders. Providing a good amount of foot and ankle support without feeling too high or too short, they also aid with ankle protection in the event of a crash.

Whilst we're on the subject of looks, longer socks are typically favoured by riders for their aesthetic qualities, offering more space for a little style and improved calf muscle definition, after all, it’s important to show off what you work so hard on.

Moisture management features

The plantar surface, or sole of your foot, contains one of the highest densities of sweat glands found anywhere on your body. With as many as 60,000 glands, McCosker warns that “the shear amount of fluid created can cause big issues with blistering and prove uncomfortable within cycling shoes”. It’s no surprise then that brands put a large emphasis on ensuring their socks are effective in keeping your foot dry.

Whilst moisture management is achieved by both natural and synthetic fibres, the latter is a clear winner. The ability to have higher concentrations of specialised, hydrophobic fibres in sweat prone areas such as the sole of the foot, allows the sock to manage moisture much more efficiently. Whilst natural fibres such as merino wool will typically offer commendable moisture retention levels (7% moisture retention rate), synthetic fibres, that are coined by many different names, will typically offer moisture retention rates as low as 1% as is the case with Olefin, the hydrophobic material found primarily in the footbed of the Swiftwick socks shown.

The specialised synthetic fibres are typically inherent properties found in the fibres themselves as opposed to a lining. This carries the benefit offering quick-drying, moisture management performance throughout the life of the socks, as opposed to the first handful of wears until the lining wears off.


Pictured socks were provided by Swift Sports, Australian distributor of Swiftwick socks, a brand we use and rate highly ourselves. Find cycling socks for purchase on BikeExchange, or otherwise, visit our friends at the CyclingTips Emporium for a large range of high-style cycling socks.


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