There are enough reasons not to work out. The fit and feel of your workout clothes shouldn’t be one of them.
Alas, the athletic wear industry seems a bit oblivious to this fact. Off-the-rack workout clothes such as running shorts, leggings, tanks, and even hoodies are all too prone to fit issues such as awkwardly placed seams, unconsidered contours, and unforgiving fabrics. There’s nothing worse than being interrupted, just as you’re getting into the zone, by a chafing seam in your shorts or a t-shirt freighted with twenty minutes’ worth of sweat. Unless, perhaps, it’s hitting the locker room and realizing that your leggings have bagged out in back, giving you that “just dropped a load in my pants” look.
Someone really should let these athletic brands know how their workout wear fails the hard-wear test. Instead, we at The Manual have reverted to buying our athletic clothes from small brands that specialize in workout wear for specific sports. We spoke with some of our favorite athletic designers from these brands to learn how they perfect their designs for fit and feel.
First of all, a primer on what you’re actually looking for. If you’re not sure you know what a good fit feels like, you’re not alone. Most readily available workout gear is made with so little thought, that we’re just used to it being uncomfortable. Here’s what to look for in well-designed athletic attire:
For shorts or track pants, you should be able to feel right away if the garment fits properly — it should essentially feel like it disappears. If it’s bulky or snug, or requires a lot of pulling on drawstrings, waistband, or inseam to make it fit, that’s not going to work.
For workout tops: The key is to pay attention to how it feels in places that will bear the brunt of movement: Your underarms, your shoulders, across the chest and upper back. If it’s too snug or way too loose there, move on. The handfeel of the shirt should also reveal if it will be a good fit for your chosen workout.
For workout pants: It’s all about the activity you have in mind. Running tights are designed to be snug, but not so tight that they restrict circulation. Compression leggings will feel much tighter, like a second skin, but they should still be comfortable and not dig into your skin. For low-impact activities like yoga or martial arts, you want a mix of support and relaxation — snug enough to stay put as you move, but not so tight that they interfere with your movement. No matter what style you choose, you want leggings to fit snugly around your hips or waist. If you notice bunching around the ankles or knees, or looseness in the butt, keep shopping, since these areas will only get worse the more you wear and wash the garment.
For workout jackets, shells, or hoodies: You want something roomy enough to fit over your base layer and offer good flexibility, while still being streamlined enough not to get in your way or slow you down. Like any jacket, you want to make sure you can fasten it all the way up and still have your wrists covered and your neck free. Look for styles that are tailored with darts in the back to fit close to the body, and vent panels to regulate your temperature.
None of these tips seem all that revolutionary. So why is it still so hard to find workout attire that fits right?
First, it’s helpful to understand the thinking that goes on behind an athletic wear brand. It might not surprise you to know that not all brands approach their work the same way. For big corporate brands in particular, the dollar often rules the design process. “Their supply chain is set up to churn out high volume, average quality, and low-cost product,” says Brad Sheehan of Velocio, a cycling gear brand based in New Hampshire. “It’s a race to the middle.” This is why your favorite running shorts start falling apart after just a year — the cheap fabric is built to last just long enough to get you to the next year’s collection.
Maybe you expect this from corporate “fast fashion” brands. But even for smaller brands, it’s not uncommon to strike a money-saving deal with third-party producers. In other words, instead of developing their own product based on real customer needs, they simply white-label a generic design as their own, and call it a day.
That’s why, when you’re looking for workout wear that fits great, it’s important to start with a close look at the company who makes it. Does their marketing content reveal a vigilant focus on the whole user experience, or just one aspect of it? For example, not all running shorts are built for the same run. If it’s for a race, it should be as lightweight as possible, with nothing that could restrict your stride or chafe over long distances — this means the fit is necessarily more streamlined and body skimming. On the other hand, a piece designed for everyday training can have a more relaxed fit.
Another thing to consider is whether they plug one flagship product, while leaving the rest of their catalog as an afterthought. Your favorite pair of compression leggings might fit impeccably, but that doesn’t mean the matching thermal top is going to feel the same.
Finally, does the brand demonstrate an interest in feedback to improve its designs? This feedback can come from customers, team members, even fit models. Dive into the back story of the brand to find out who is using these pieces (beyond just a stable of celebrity ambassadors) and how the brand tests and refines its products for better fit and function.
We all know it sometimes takes a while to “break in” your workout gear. That said, there are some telltale signs that indicate, when you try a garment on for the first time, whether it’s going to adapt to become a good fit or not.
The first is obvious: Whether it feels comfortable or not. If the seams around your joints don’t feel flexible enough, or you have to keep hiking up the waistband in order to keep your butt covered, those issues aren’t going to get better over time.
Another big sign is how the fabric feels. If it doesn’t feel the way you want it to (lightweight for running shorts, comfortable yet sleek for a cycling singlet, good stretch and “snap-back” on yoga wear, second-skin softness for base layers, etc.) put it back on the rack and try something else. It can be tempting to associate softness and comfort with post-exercise relaxation. But in reality, comfortable workout attire makes it a lot easier to get in the zone and meet or exceed your goals.
That being said, even the best designed athletic gear can benefit from a spin in the washing machine. Washing an item before wearing it helps to “release” the fabric, bringing out its full stretch, softness, and performance capabilities. Our favorite athletic wear brands go the extra mile to guarantee good fit by opening up their exchange/return policy even to items that have been washed. “We allow customers to return their apparel within 30 days, worn and washed, to allow them the opportunity to really try our apparel out,” says Brad Sheehan.
A better fit typically goes hand-in-hand with higher quality fabric, and both have an impact on the longevity of the garment. David Spandorfer of Boston running brand Janji notes, “We’ve all thrown away products that just don’t work or shred after a year. That’s because some of the bigger brands are constructing their products in low-grade mills using fabric that’s incredibly cheap.” If the fabric feels itchy, stiff, or just cheap, you’ll be shopping for a replacement a lot sooner than you want to.
So what fabrics should you look for? Merino wool is an obvious one — a natural performance fabric that is thermo-regulating, moisture-wicking, and environmentally sustainable. Another good option is recycled polyester, which gives new life to a proven performance fabric. A really good indicator of fit is a garment made from a proprietary fabric. Brands that invest in developing their own fabrics are staking their bottom line on a superior fit and performance in their gear.
At Tracksmith, Matt Taylor and his team worked with Swiss brand Schoeller to develop a fabric for addressing the unique problems runners face in intense summer heat. “It’s a blend of nylon and elastane, but the major difference is in the weave, which has a unique grid structure that allows the fabric to float away from the skin and prevents any cling. On top of that, it’s finished with coldblack for UV-protection and active silver to prevent odors. It’s one of the best materials on the market for running, and Bluesign certified, too.”
The company making your workout wear can only guide you so far. Even your favorite pair of track pants will end up at the back of your closet if the waistband starts to droop on you. That’s why it’s imperative to care for your workout wear in a way that maintains the fit, and the best brands will offer detailed instructions on washing, drying, and other care.
All our experts agree that the rule of thumb is to air-dry your athletic gear whenever possible. “Good, sturdy running apparel should be able to handle a spin through the dryer,” says Matt Taylor, “but if you want to ensure things like that the anti-odor finish don’t fade, hang them on a line or a drying rack.” In addition, the heat of a dryer makes elastic fibers like Lycra and Spandex get brittle, and the fabric loses its ability to recover after stretching and moving. Since most athletic wear is designed to dry quickly, anyway, you usually don’t need a dryer at all, even if you plan to use the same gear the next day. Just don’t hang shirts from the collar, warns David Spandorfer; the weight of the wet garment will stretch it out and negatively impact the fit.
Also, there’s no need to do a full laundry cycle every time you sweat in your gear. If you’re working out from home, just step directly in the shower when you’re done, strip off your gear after it’s thoroughly wet, then hang it on a towel bar to dry. Less soap means less abrasion breaking down the fibers. When you do wash, using mild detergents, and skipping softeners will help maintain fit and longevity.
For some items, it’s best to avoid the washing machine altogether. For waterproofed items, says David Spandorfer, “most can only keep their waterproofing for a few runs, so always read the care instructions.”
But in general, you want to make sure to wash your clothes as soon as you can after a workout. “When clothes sit in a sweaty pile for a period of time, that moisture and bacteria can break down fibers, and odor becomes nearly impossible to remove,” says Brad Sheehan.
So maybe you’re not the guy who shops around for workout wear. Maybe you’re perfectly content to hit the gym in the same pair of track pants and t-shirt you’ve been using since college. If you’re reading all this rolling your eyes, you clearly haven’t experienced the difference that properly fitting athletic clothing can make.
“In terms of improving your workout, good gear has a profound impact,” says Brad Sheehan. “With cycling especially, it’s a critical part of what makes a ride enjoyable. A pair of bib shorts can have a more profound impact on the quality of your ride than even the bike you’re riding. It’s that big of a deal.” (Cyclists who have been saddlesore after a 30-minute ride, you know he’s right.)
All of our experts agreed that, bottom line, well-fit workout wear supports your workout experience and goals, not only by maintaining its integrity and comfort, but also by making the workout experience more enjoyable. David Spandorfer says, “Better gear can can inspire faster and better performance.” Matt Taylor agrees, “A well-fitted kit will set you up for success and eliminate excuses for days when it’s rainy, or too hot or too cold. As soon as you layer on different factors – higher temperatures, longer distances, harder work — you need more considered gear to really get the most out of your session.”
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