Workout gear looks so good, it’s become more of a lifestyle and spawned athleisure. But workout gear doesn’t only look fabulous, it improves workout performance too.
The perfect workout clothing is the kind you forget about once you start exercising. If your clothes are making your workouts uncomfortable, you are much more likely to quit, or feel self-conscious or restricted during your workouts.
So here’s a run-through of what you should look for when buying workout clothes.
1. Activity Appropriate
While you could wear the same clothes for every workout you do, some forms of exercise will be more enjoyable if you use activity appropriate clothing.
For example, cycling shorts are padded and can make long bike rides much more comfortable however, they aren’t necessarily the best choice of clothing for running or group exercise classes. Running shorts are equally unsuitable for cycling as they have no padding and are prone to bunching and chafing.
Stick with clothing that is designed specifically for the activity you want to do and you will be much more comfortable. This “rule” also applies to footwear which will be discussed later in this article.
Workout clothes should be unrestrictive, easily vented to prevent overheating, be “forgettable” once they are on and designed specifically for your chosen workout.
Thick seams, restrictive or tight sleeves, a back that rides up whenever you lean forward; all of these comfort issues can make your workout experience less enjoyable. Make sure your workout clothes are as comfortable as possible by trying them on before you buy.
3. Wicking Materials
Workout clothes come in a variety of materials – from good old-fashioned cotton to scientifically designed synthetic fibers that let sweat out but not rain in.
Wicking is the ability of a material to divert sweat away from your skin and through the material for easy evaporation. This helps to keep your skin dry and comfortable.
Cotton and other natural fibers are not naturally good wickers. Cotton clothing absorbs moisture, be it sweat or rain, like a sponge. Once wet, cotton becomes heavy and cold, loses its shape and clings to your body. This means the cold, wet fabric is next to your body, cooling it down and chafing the skin. When the muscles cool down, they can also start to cramp.
Many synthetic and so-called technical materials are excellent at wicking. If you run, cycle, hike, or do any type of workout where you are going to sweat, wicking materials are a good choice.
Have you ever noticed that, however much you wash your workout gear, as soon as you put it on and start to warm up, it starts smelling like it was never washed in the first place?
It’s not that your workout gear is still dirty as such, just that there are microbes trapped in the fibers that washing will not remove. You could soak your clothes in white wine vinegar to kill these microbes but as that’s not especially practical you could choose to buy clothes that have anti-microbial properties.
These specially treated clothes are much less likely to develop unpleasant odors that won’t shift with normal washing.
If you work out at night outdoors, your clothing should make you easily visible to other road users. This means bright colors and reflective strips. Black may be flattering but it could end up being flattening if you are invisible to other road users.
Make sure you are highly visible by wearing bright reflective clothing for your nighttime workouts.
6. UV Protection
If you work out in the sunshine, you may benefit from clothing that offers UV protection. Twenty to thirty minutes of sunshine exposure is often considered to be very good for you as it triggers vitamin D production.
However, if you are especially sun-sensitive, live somewhere the sun is very strong, get enough sun already or are going to be out for an extended period, you might be better off shielding yourself from the sun.
Like sunscreens, UV protective clothing is rated using the SPF system which simply means that the higher the number, the more protection you will be afforded. Of course, UV protective clothing only protects the skin being covered so you’ll still need to apply sunscreen to any exposed areas of skin.
If you exercise outdoors or even indoors in some instances, you may find that you need to wear not one but two layers of exercise clothing during the cold, winter months.
While you could have a winter-exercise wardrobe especially for the colder months, it’s more cost-effective to be able to combine layers from your regular collection.
Layering also means that, as you warm up, you can peel off an item of clothing to regulate your temperature. If you are going to layer, make your base layer close fitting and wear looser fitting garments on top. Also, don’t forget a hat and gloves if you are heading outdoors to exercise in the cold.
Read more: How to winter-proof your workout
So, that’s what to look for when you’re buying new workout clothes, but it’s also important to nail the rest of your workout gear.
SPECIALIST WORKOUT GEAR
A perfectly fitting sports bra and the right workout shoes are top-of-the-list, essential items you absolutely have to get right. An ill-fitting bra or workout shoes will throw a wrench in any workout.
Everyday underwear is not made to withstand the rigors of working out. Unsupportive underwear can lead to discomfort, pain and adversely impact performance.
Research shows that unsupported breasts can move significantly during exercise.1 Furthermore, post-workout breast pain can afflict women irrespective of cup size, though it does tend to be more common in larger chested women.2 Therefore, all women benefit from a supportive bra.
As a general rule, the more high-impact the activity, the more breasts move,3 and the more support you’ll need. However, cup-size also affects the level of bra support required. If you have fuller breasts, you may need a sports bra with medium or high support, even if you’re doing low-impact exercise such as yoga or walking.
Don’t wear your regular underwear for exercise and buy activity appropriate underwear instead. Sports bras provide support, minimize bounce and will make you feel much more comfortable. So you can keep your mind on what’s important – the workout, run, or game.
Read more: How to choose a sports bra
Good quality exercise clothes can last a long time and are an investment in your health and fitness. But you don’t have to spend a fortune on workout clothing. Stock up at sale time, hunt down bargains online, and check out discount stores.
Lots of people buy one pair of shoes for exercise and use them for every activity they do. It’s amazing how many pairs of running shoes you’ll see being used for activities that they really aren’t suited for.
Running shoes are designed to be shock absorbent. The downside of this is that they’re not awesome for cycling or heavy weight training because they’ll distort and compress, robbing you of valuable energy. Likewise, a firm pair of shoes perfectly suited for weight training (weightlifting shoes traditionally have wooden soles and heal blocks) would be insanely uncomfortable to run in.
If you are a Jack-of-all-trades who does a variety of workouts, consider buying cross-training shoes instead running shoes.
If you can, buy shoes that match your chosen activity. Specialist workout shoes will boost your performance and will also last longer, as you’ll be using them in a way for which they were designed.
Read more: How to choose the right workout shoes
Some workout clothing is specially designed to give you support during your workouts.
Compression sportswear is a form of supportive, functional fitness clothing that has long been used in the field of medicine in preventing the formation of blood clots. Compression clothing is made from Lycra-type fabric that compresses the muscles and is designed to minimize muscle vibrations, keep you warm, and increase blood and lymphatic flow.
Compression wear is purported to have a rather long, but so far, mostly unproven list of benefits. These benefits include, better performance, shorter recovery time, reduced muscle fatigue, less cramp, and lower risk of injury.
While not an essential piece of workout gear, you might especially benefit from compression clothing if you train very hard, are exercising in cold weather or suffer with aches and pains and are looking for some extra support. Compression sportswear comes in various guises, including leggings, shorts, tops, sleeves, and socks.
A more specialized form of supportive workout clothing is powerlifting support gear, which is designed to make you stronger because it is so very stiff and strong.
If your clothes are making your workouts uncomfortable, you are much more likely to quit. Nix that excuse by selecting comfortable, supportive, performance-enhancing workout clothing.
- Scurr J, White J, Hedger W. Breast displacement in three dimensions during the walking and running gait cycles. J Appl Biomech. 2009;25(4):322-9. DOI: 10.1123/jab.25.4.322. PMID: 20095453.
- Brown N, White J, Brasher A, Scurr J. The experience of breast pain (mastalgia) in female runners of the 2012 London Marathon and its effect on exercise behaviour. Br J Sports Med. 2014;48(4):320-5. DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092175. PMID: 23603819.
- McGhee DE, Steele JR. Optimising breast support in female patients through correct bra fit. A cross-sectional study. J Sci Med Sport. 2010;13(6):568-72. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2010.03.003. PMID: 20451452.