The ancient Greeks had it easy when it came to what to wear when breaking a sweat. Competing in those first Olympic Games, all they had to do was strip down to, well, nothing. Fast forward to the 21st Century and you have myriad materials and designs from which to choose, depending on the activity and time of year.
What to wear is no longer just about putting on any shirt, shorts, socks and shoes. Sports and active wear design has become a rat race of real technological advances as well as marketing hoopla. Some claim to help keep you cool, some claim to boost performance, and some just bank on their style factor to keep you interested in the latest to roll off the factory line.
One thing’s for sure: you’ll never have to go naked again.
Sweat and Movement
The two distinctive features about sport are sweat and movement. When choosing what to wear, the first question to ask is: How does it deal with sweat?
While cotton is a fabric that helps keep you cool during a hot summer day because air can pass through it quite well, it cannot deal with the copious amounts of sweat your body produces to cool itself during aerobic exertion. It absorbs water very efficiently but it also takes a long time to dry. The excess moisture carried by wet cotton clothing adds to its weight; the material will also stick to your skin, causing chafing and irritation.
Most sportswear fabrics are made of a blend of synthetic materials in special weaves depending on the function. They claim to be breathable and wick sweat away from the skin, transferring it to the outer layer of the material where it can evaporate faster, creating a cooling effect on your body.
How an article of clothing deals with body heat and sweat also depends on how it was constructed. Most performance clothing is created with different fabrics depending on where heat or sweat needs to be vented.
The second question to ask when choosing what to wear is: Will it let me move? With good sportswear, you shouldn’t have to worry about chafing at the joints or ripping the crotch seam or not being able to take a deep breath. Sportswear is thus designed with a certain amount of stretch in them due to the presence of Lycra and other similar elastic materials in the weave. This allows the material to give way in motion, but returns the garment to its old form so it doesn’t start sagging and bagging in the areas that expand when you move.
Speaking of sagging, garments that control the jiggle and bounce of certain body parts (men and women have similar needs for different areas of the body) also come in handy. Good athletic bras and athletic supporters (also known as jockstraps) help you avoid the pain and discomfort of excessive movement in these areas.
High-performance sportswear also claims to help you move better. Compression apparel keeps muscles and joints from moving excessively so that no energy is wasted; this lessens wear-and-tear and fatigue.
Something must also be said about footwear. Shoes can make or break a workout. With the right fit you feel like you’ve just taken a walk in the clouds; the wrong fit, like you’ve been dancing on coals or worse. Most physical activity now has a specific shoe designed for it; even yoga, which is usually done barefoot, now has soft shoes that claim to provide better traction in sweaty, slippery conditions. It is always a good idea to use shoes that help you move safely, cushioning impact and supporting the ligaments and tendons in your feet so you avoid injury.
Fashion with Function
If function were all that people are after, we would live in a world where all clothes are cut out of the same material in the same color. Reality is different, and in many ways more interesting. After all, if you’re going to spend money on sports-specific apparel, you might as well look for clothes that look good on you and won’t make you look like a hot sweaty mess.
Remember the 1980’s, when spandex and leotards were de rigeur workout attire? Sure they were functional (stretchy and aerodynamic), but not pretty to look at if you didn’t have the appropriate body shape. Thankfully, designers for sportswear have become more sensible and such atrocities are rarely inflicted.
These days, you might be more concerned about whether what you’re wearing shows pit stains, retains odors, or goes transparent when wet (or perpetrates other kinds of indecent exposure). Some rules of thumb:
- If dressing in color, go for hues that don’t change too radically when wet. This helps keep you looking fresh even when you’re sweating hard. Colors to avoid include greys and blues.
- Observe good laundry habits. Before putting your shirts through the wash cycle, try scrubbing the armpits with a detergent bar to get rid of stains caused by sweat and deodorant residue. To make sure your clothes come out smelling clean, try adding some baking soda or diluted vinegar to the first rinse. (Avoid using fabric softener on sweat-wicking fabrics as this reduces their ability to move sweat away from your skin.) With shoes, keep them clean and presentable. You may have gone trekking on a mountain trail in them, but people don’t have to know about it through the mud caked on the heels.
- Use caution when purchasing white or light-colored clothing. If the fabric is too thin, the material will become see-through when wet.
- Wear clothing appropriate for the setting. What we wear in private may not be appropriate to be worn publicly, so avoid wearing underwear bras and briefs as outerwear (there are horror stories of these worn as gym wear, or out running). And make sure what you’re wearing fits well enough so wardrobe malfunctions don’t happen.
Because a wide range of physical activity is available, there are also clothes designed specifically for each kind of activity. (Some clothes can be worn for a variety of sports.) Whether you’re de-stressing with yoga or hitting the road with running, never worry again about whether or not you’re wearing the right thing.
When cycling, your bottom is in contact with the bike seat for long periods of time. Whether they’re tight-fitting Lycra or look like cargo shorts with Velcro-attached padding inside, it’s a good idea to invest in padded bike shorts to avoid chafing and bruising, especially on those century (100-kilometer) rides.
Cycling jerseys made of material that wick away sweat are a Godsend. If you ride fast enough, a sweaty jersey in a low-humidity environment will dry out pretty quickly. It’s also a good idea to wear a cycling jacket with zip vents that help keep you cool, but protect you from the elements whether a sweltering sun or torrential rain.
Because bikes can travel at high speeds and do not offer you the benefit of a windshield, a good pair of cycling-specific sunglasses to protect your eyes are a must. Pick out those that sit comfortably high on your nose and ears, wrapping around your eye area. Seek out those with UV protection and anti-glare coating as well.
A pair of cycling gloves can help you keep a good grip on your handlebars and minimize blisters and calluses that may form, especially when braking hard. They also protect your hands from scrapes or other bruises should you try to break a fall with them.
Shoes protect your feet, so avoid wearing flipflops unless you want to lose a toe or scrape your heel. You can use regular athletic shoes. Most avid cyclists opt for cycling shoes that clip onto their pedals. These help you pedal more efficiently because you can push down on the pedals as well as pull them up, giving you more power through the pedaling motion.
Though touted as the cheapest sport to get into because you can run anywhere and anytime, dressing for running may turn out to be more of an investment than you think. The most important item to consider is that which is in contact with the road most: your shoes.
Whether you’re running on asphalt, track, or treadmill (for those rainy days), you have to get yourself the right kind of shoe for your foot type. Feet come in all shapes, sizes, and angles of pronation, so don’t just buy any shoe off the rack. A gait analysis will show you how much support and motion control you need from your shoe. You also need to think about the sock that goes into your shoe. It should be thick enough so hard edges inside the shoe don’t cause blisters on your foot, high enough so your ankles and the back of your heel don’t rub uncomfortably against the heel counter and tongue, and be able to wick moisture away so you run on fresh and dry feet.
Racing tops have to fit comfortably loose so that they do not ride up over your hips and belly. Your top should keep you well-ventilated so that even when your body starts heating up and sweating out, you don’t get weighed down with a wet shirt. Make sure also that the areas your arms swing against don’t chafe or scrape your skin — without a product like BodyGlide or petroleum jelly to make your skin glide against the fabric, you may end up with a nasty friction burn especially after long runs.
You can opt to wear shorts or racing tights. Shorts allow you freedom of movement and help you keep cool, while racing tights compress your leg muscles, improving circulation and preventing excessive and tiring muscle motion.
A variety of exercises can be done in the gym setting, so it’s important to choose clothes that can cross over from one activity to another. While it may be tempting to slip into a ratty smelly old t-shirt and basketball shorts just to pump iron, the gym is a confined space. Be more courteous to your fellow gym-goer and come in clean clothing, which won’t give off an offensive odor when you start sweating.
Cross-trainers are your best bet when it comes to good gym shoes; they offer forward-and-back stability for running on treadmills, and side-to-side stability when doing agility drills or group exercise classes. Wearing shoes even while lifting weights is a good idea, as they protect your toes in case someone accidentally drops a plate on your foot.
Whether you’re a novice or an expert at the poses in yoga, you’ve got to wear clothing that will give you unrestricted freedom of movement. You may not be able to touch your toes, but ideally it should be because your hamstrings are too tight, not your pants. Materials that stretch and move with you are keepers as you improve your range of motion and flexibility.
Avoid clothes that are too loose. There will be inversions where a baggy shirt will roll down or wide-legged pants will roll up. At the same time, avoid clothes that are too small and roll up when you stretch. Go for shape-skimming apparel with good coverage that will allow you to move without constantly tugging at your hems.
Keep your muscles and joints warm by layering an overshirt, light sweater, or zip-up jacket over your workout wear. You can always take them off when you start sweating and feeling warm. They will keep you comfortable when your muscles are cold and inflexible in the beginning, and protect you from shivering in your own sweat during the final savasana.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Total Fitness Magazine, November 2009.