There's a few recurring themes that you'll see in a lot of the articles I write for this site. One such theme is certainly "Identify And Eliminate The Practices We've Inherited From Western Society That Slowly Ruin Our Biomechanics".
Modern shoes, with tall heels and narrow toe boxes are one example I've covered previously that falls under this theme. So too is sitting in chairs for extended periods, which is killing you slowly (and not-so-slowly wrecking your posture).
This article is somewhat of a continuation of the reasoning in the barefoot/minimal shoes article, so let's start by re-covering the main points there.
Walk Like A Human
The idea is pretty simple. There is an ideal way for your particular body to walk, biomechanically speaking - and thanks to a lifetime of walking around in poorly designed footwear - the way you currently walk almost certainly isn't it.
Our bodies are designed to walk around barefoot, usually on soft and uneven surfaces. In this, our foot is designed to stretch and splay - our ankles, knees and hips are designed to respond dynamically in response to the feedback from the foot.
When we throw a hunk of rubber under our foot and walk on flat surfaces all day, all of this is lost. We are left instead with an unnatural repetitive movement of the foot, ankle, knee and hip. Extrapolate this over thousands of steps a day for several decades and the result is maladaptive muscle patterning and a dramatic loss of flexibility. This leads to poor posture and undoutedly, a body that doesn't feel as awesome as it could.
For a more detailed review of proper walking mechanics and how your shoes have screwed your mechanics up, check out my previous article on barefoot shoes.
You've Got Sock Problems
A few years ago when I purged my shoe closet of it's last "traditional" shoe and started to wear exclusively barefoot/minimal shoes, I (as do most people who make the switch) became way more attuned to my walking mechanics.
It took me a while to figure it out, but I eventually realized that despite now having perfect shoes, there was still a part of my footwear equation that was not perfect and was negatively impacting my biomechanics. Of course, it was the socks.
Here's the problems I've identified with socks:
Socks Impede Toe Splay - The first thing your foot naturally wants to do upon striking the ground is to splay the toes. This motion is critical not only for the foot but for proper engagement of the muscles "upstream", at the ankle, knee and hip.
Through compression of the foot and simply by taking up space in the shoe, socks prevent the toes from fully splaying. The relative restriction of a sock in a shoe with a wide toe box is much less than the restriction of a narrow shoe - but it's far from insignificant.
Socks Encourage Slipping Of The Foot In The Shoe - This was the big one for me. When you wear a shoe without socks, you'll notice your foot rarely, if ever, moves around inside the shoe. This is because there is a sufficiently high degree of friction between the skin of your heel and the insole of the shoe.
Throw a sock into the equation and everything changes. That little layer of cotton between your foot and the insole of your shoe allows for more movement of the foot on the insole. The foot likely only moves a few millimeters back-and-forth with each step cycle - this might seem insignificant, but repeat over thousands of steps a day and millions of steps every year and it becomes something very significant.
The slipping necessitates an unnatural engagement of the hip flexors as they instinctively try to compensate for the movement of the foot in the shoe. Again, extrapolate this over thousands of steps and the result is a significant negative effect on hip alignment.
Deconstructing The Sock
When I made the commitment to move into a post-sock existence, I first had to identify all of the problems socks solve, and then find new, elegant non-sock ways to address those same problems.
Here's what I came up with.
Socks Prevent Your Shoes From Getting Nasty - Yep, bare feet in shoes inevitably means your shoes will get smelly faster.
A. Wash your feet! - Before each time I put on a pair of shoes, I give my feet a quick rinse and dry. You'll be amazed how much doing this a few times throughout the day keeps your feet from getting offensive.
B. Wash your shoes - Athletic shoes do just fine in the washing machine. Dryers are perhaps a bit less kind to shoes, so I generally let mine air dry in the sun. My athletic shoes get washed about once every 3 weeks on average. I have a few pairs of minimal dress/casual shoes that would do less well in the washing machine, so with these I will periodically remove and wash the insole.
C. Take off your shoes - Whenever appropriate, I take off my shoes if I'm staying in one place for a while. Don't worry, people get used to it.
D. Odor Absorbers - Between washing my feet and shoes, my shoes stay way cleaner than those of most of the sock-wearing populous. If I ever had a problematic pair, however, natural odor absorbers like these would be the move.
Socks Prevent Blisters - Perhaps, but probably only if you have shitty shoes.
The Fix: Get better shoes. Good minimal shoes should be constructed in a way that makes them better to wear sans-socks and are much less likely to give you blisters. There is also a component of skin toughening here, as will inevitably happen once your feet are liberated from living in cotton tubes.
I should say, however, that the only time I've gotten blisters in recent memory is when I ran in socks (still in minimal shoes) - I assume because of the aforementioned slipping of the foot inside the shoe. So I think it's totally possible that socks actually create more blisters than they prevent. Who knows.
There's no shortage of options for minimal athletic shoes out there. I made some recommendation about my personal favorites in the barefoot shoes article. The minimal shoe market is continually expanding, so there are more and more stylish casual and dress shoes coming available every year.
I'm living abroad at the moment, so I've pared my shoe collection down to 3 pair of shoes for travel purposes. Below (R to L) are my athletic shoes (New Balance Minimus MT10v2's ), my casual, dressier shoes (Vivobarefoot Gobi's ) and my sandals (Luna Venados).
Socks Keep Your Feet Warm
The Fix: Move somewhere warmer. Seriously - If you live somewhere so cold your feet would freeze without wearing socks, I'm not sure if I can help you. ;) Another reason to look forward to spring I suppose.
If this "sock question" seems somewhat trivial to you, I think there's a fundamental point you're missing. The ways in which we move our bodies on a daily basis are a huge determinant of how our bodies feel and perform. Poor movement patterns turn into maladaptive muscular holding patterns and a general loss of range-of-motion - which equates to a less-awesome body to inhabit.
Socks are perhaps a small component of the larger movement-pattern picture, but not one to be overlooked in my opinion. If you're going to take the time to make the switch to minimal shoes - and I seriously hope you do - you should really see the process through and ditch the socks too.