It took me until late in my marathon training before I realized that not all workout clothes are created equal. Due to our cultural acceptance of specialized fitness clothing for almost every occasion, we associate this style with comfort, ease, and relaxation. It isn’t until we try to use them for, you know, actual exercise that we discover it can be complicated. Workout clothes are not obvious.
First off, work clothes are not suitable for a real workout. The fabrics tend to be too delicate, and they start to tear or pill. Tops won’t stay in place, sleeves totally get in the way, trouser legs aren’t flexible enough for any movement, skirts start twisting sideways. Generally there’s too much coverage and the fabrics are much too heavy and hot. Jewelry bounces everywhere and almost no hair clips or ties will stay in place. Don’t even get me started on shoes, or, worse, pantyhose.
Jeans are the worst workout garment of all time. I learned this during Street Clothes Week at my Krav Maga class. I wore a Lycra cocktail dress with bike shorts underneath, which was fun and even empowering. A couple of people wore jeans, and it didn’t take more than a brief glance to see what a fresh hell that must have been. The legs are too tight to do any kind of kick properly, while everyone had to keep tugging their waistbands back into place as they slid off waists and hips. Imagine holding your waistband with one hand while frantically trying to execute a roundhouse kick with the opposite leg. Yikes.
I’ve settled on five particular styles of workout clothing, depending on the weather and what I’m doing. This is what I wear and why.
Martial arts, hot weather:
Ponytail holder and yoga headband: Everything I’ve tried eventually falls off at least once, but when my sweaty hair gets plastered to my face I can’t see.
Sports bra, because jump rope
School t-shirt for full chest coverage and uniformity
Black shorts, because I sweat through light colors in a mortifying way. I’m finding that bike shorts are good and running shorts are... kinda bad.
Colored belt appropriate to promotion level, currently orange
Barefoot, because socks are slippery and shoes aren’t allowed on the mat
Martial arts, cooler weather:
Same as above, except substitute tights for shorts, again black for sweat camouflage. Tights are great for knee coverage if you’re down on the mat, whether martial arts, wrestling, yoga, Pilates, or boot camp.
Running, hot weather:
Sports bra and cotton underwear. 1. Don’t wreck your nicer stuff on the trail, 2. There are few things more annoying than uncooperative undergarments when you’re trying to train.
Socks paired carefully with running or trail shoes, half a size larger than street shoes. There is no “right” sock, although toe seams are always under suspicion. I wound up with two distinct sets of running socks, depending on whether I was running on mud in trail shoes or on concrete in ordinary running shoes. Too thin and the sock will slide down and bunch up under the arch of your foot; too thick and they will cause blisters.
Wicking t-shirt. Three reasons: sun protection, prevents underarm chafing, low-maintenance fabric.
Shorts, chosen for fit and waistband. Natural waist stays put, legs need to be long enough not to ride up, waistband can’t have exposed elastic. Drawstrings are high-maintenance and don’t tend to hold up to distance events.
Washcloth, carried in left hand because I am over-the-top fussy about trickling sweat. Note to self: do not anthropomorphize or name your washcloth or attribute special luck-generating powers to it, because you will lose it during your first marathon.
Fanny pack for phone, back-up battery, and snacks.
Running, cold weather:
All of the above plus:
Running tights, ankle length, with shorts over the top for booty coverage. Mud protection and warmth, but not too much.
Zippy jacket with zippered pockets to carry a handkerchief and possibly my phone.
Fingerless Lycra gloves, which usually come off after 15 minutes.
Ball cap if it’s raining.
Bandanna tied over top of head, with hair pulled back, for maximum dust protection
All the old cotton t-shirts I earned from foot races, because they’re useless for actual running
Same zippy jacket from winter running gear
“Adventure pants” for performance and pack weight
Special padded and shaped socks my mom got me
Old cotton underwear I don’t care about
Two sets of underlayers, top and bottom, one in XS and one in S for layering
Fleece jacket and puffy jacket designed for backpacking
Stocking cap that has gone on every camping trip with me for the past ten years
This probably sounds like a lot, but I still have stuff I work out in that I bought a dozen years ago. My entire “collection” fits in a small dresser drawer plus my expedition backpack. You can do the whole kit and caboodle with two pairs of tights, two pairs of shorts, four bras, and half a dozen shirts. Once you figure out a specific garment you can trust, you wind up wearing it a couple times a week, until it literally starts to fall apart on you. Most people with a regular fitness routine get significantly more wear and value out of their workout clothes than their casual or work outfits.
Pitfalls of athletic clothing:
Cotton starts to permanently carry the scent of exercise.
Sleeveless tops are a problem for several reasons: underarm chafing, difficulty of applying sunblock to exposed shoulder blades, skin exposure to Camelbak has led to blisters.
Exposed elastic is a definite problem, although I don’t know yet whether this synthetic fabric called elastane counts. I’ve gotten giant two-inch welts from elastic bra straps and my skin has also reacted to the waistband of my shorts.
Light colors are lovely, except when the first place you sweat is around the groin and five minutes later it looks like you wet yourself.
Strappy leggings, adorable but hazardous for a martial art like Krav Maga, kickboxing, or jiu jitsu. Someone would get their foot caught and then goodbye straps, hello foot injury.
Tank tops: too tight, breathing problem. Too loose, inverted posture or wrestling problem. I have one that I can only wear for yoga, which is what it was designed for.
Souvenir t-shirt collection is always larger than needed, and without backpacking as a hobby I’d have a lot of trouble justifying why I keep them.
I utterly, utterly do not understand sweatpants or what workout someone could possibly do in them, except for running in the snow.
The moral of the story is that some of the cutest, trendiest pieces are only really useful for a specific type of exercise, if any, while some of the tried and true, faithful legacy pieces quit working when you escalate your workout. Shorts I could happily wear for a half marathon suddenly quit on me around the 17-mile mark.
There’s something about the right garment in the right fit and fabric that suddenly makes you feel READY, ready for adventure in an exciting new way. I’ve found that the better I’ve gotten at finding appropriate gear, the more often I wear it, meaning the cost per use is lower each time. And besides, it’s cheaper than the medical alternatives that accompany the sedentary life.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.