Fast Transitions: Socks or No Socks?

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With race season here, most triathletes are thinking about how to optimize race times. Sometimes getting faster doesn't require physical training, but thought, strategy and knowing a few tricks of the trade.

One way to get a faster race time is to make your transitions faster. There are lots of tricks to faster transitions, but let's focus on the big decision of "socks or no socks?"

The first time I ran without socks in an Olympic-distance event, the last two miles were torture. Pain, pain, pain. After crossing the finish line, I took off my shoes to find a nice crop of blisters on both feet. While I had blisters that remained closed, several other competitors showed me their blisters that were open wounds. Ouch and yuck!


The best care for blisters is to not get them in the first place—sometimes this is easier said than done. The three major contributors to blisters include heat, moisture and friction. How to eliminate the blister fertilizers seems to vary among individuals. Also, a cruel twist is what worked for the last race may or may not work for the next one.

Wearing moisture-wicking socks is one remedy that can reduce or eliminate blisters altogether. Some competitors prefer single-layer, thin socks while others prefer the double-layer socks. Wearing double-layer socks keeps feet cool and dry by wicking moisture. These socks reduce friction on feet by transferring the friction to the area between the two sock layers (as opposed to the foot and sock interface.) Unfortunately, some athletes get blisters even if they wear socks.

Sock-Free Tips

Socks are difficult to put on wet feet and competitors can hear the seconds ticking away as they struggle. Leaving socks out altogether will make a faster transition. There are plenty of athletes who don't wear socks when they race and don't seem to get blisters. What's their secret?

Four major categories to combat blisters include lubricants, powders, hydration and taping. Interestingly, it's been found that rubbing "moist" skin produces more friction than rubbing either very wet or very dry skin. Lubricants help reduce friction by keeping skin-to-skin or skin-to-shoe areas wet and slick. Powders and antiperspirants reduce friction by keeping feet very dry.

Keeping your body hydrated and in a state of homeostasis helps keep your feet from swelling. If you over-hydrate and take in excess sodium, fluid retention causes your toes to swell into Vienna sausages and your feet into potatoes.

If you underhydrate and lose too much sodium from sweating, fluid tends to accumulate in your feet and you actually retain fluid in extremities. Underhydrate and it's Vienna sausage and potato time again. Fluid balance is, as you already know, critical.

Some athletes can't get by with lubricants or powders and swear by taping—with duct tape. There are other tapes that can be used but duct tape seems to be a favorite due to its slick surface. If you tape your feet before the swim, a tape adherent can be used to keep the tape intact through the swim and bike. Immediately after taping, be sure to use a powder on all the edges of the tape to prevent rocks and other debris from sticking to the tacky border.

Taping feet prior to the swim can be a problem because the tape can loosen, sand and dirt can get stuck in it and if the tape is too tight, your swollen feet will begin to ache during the run. For these reasons, certain athletes prefer to apply tape to the inside of their shoes. They apply tape to the top and side seams of the shoes, the heel area, the insole and shoe interface or any other area that creates a "hot spot" on their feet.

How do you know where the hot spots are? Practice riding and running without socks in your training. Begin by practicing on short workouts, close to home.

I've touched on just a few areas of foot care for training and racing. An excellent resource for more information is Fixing Your Feet, Prevention and Treatment for Athletes, by John Vonhof.