Dear Lifehacker, I exercise a few times a week and sometimes when I'm at the gym I see people all tricked out in crazy-looking clothing. Is there really a benefit to wearing anything beyond some shorts and a cotton t-shirt? Thanks, Rayon Polyester
We feel your pain. When you walk into a sporting equipment store, you're blinded with a lot of choices for different materials that all claim to do the same basic thing: make exercise better. In some cases, that's at least partially true, but it's just as often a waste of money.
When Fabric Type Matters
You don't need to spend a fortune on workout clothes, but it's good to have a set of clothing that you dedicate just to working out. For one, you're going to sweat in them a lot. It's also helpful to just get into the mindset of working out.
All that said, certain fabrics are better at wicking away moisture. In terms of exercise, this means keeping your sweat off of you. This helps prevent chafing and rashes. Fitocracy sums it up pretty simply:
If your thighs rub together and you're planning on running, make sure your shorts are longer than mid-thigh. If you get rashes in and around your armpits, make sure you are getting breathable or wicking fabrics and staying away from tank tops.
Essentially, you want fabrics that are both breathable and can help wick away moisture. Anything made of polypropylene, spandex, polyester blends, or wool should do the trick pretty well. For obvious reasons, wool tends to be nice in the winter as well. Cotton is very breathable, but sweat evaporates slowly on it, so it gets heavy as you work out.
Ultimately, it's a bit of trial and error to figure out exactly what you'll need, but if anything you're wearing is uncomfortable, try a different cut or fabric. Most workout clothes are tighter-fitting so they don't get caught in machines or blown up in the wind, but otherwise it doesn't matter much. That said, WebMD points out that fabric does matter for underwear more than you might think:
For optimal comfort for both women and men, choose the right fabric for your underwear.
"Cotton is not the right choice," says Goeke. "Look for performance fabric that is breathable, moisture-wicking and quick-drying. These fabrics won't promote bacteria growth and are better than cotton for health reasons."
Or you can bypass underpants altogether and work out in fitness shorts, pants, or tights with a built-in crotch panel, Wessel adds. Don't wear underwear with these garments, she says, because it will negate the benefits of the performance fabrics used for the built-in liners.
Beyond fabric type, it's mostly just about construction and style. Something being more expensive or from a name brand doesn't mean it's any better than a generic brand, so go with whatever you think looks good and will last.
Some Clothing Adds Support
Some exercise clothing is made to add support and make exercise a bit more comfortable. In this case, it's actually helpful for certain sports.
For example, if you're running, a sports bra makes the experience a heck of a lot better for many women. If you're cycling, cycling shorts with a padded rear make long rides way more comfortable.
Conversely, you can use pretty much anything as a pair of running shorts, swimwear is all essentially the same, and if you're weightlifting whatever you're most comfortable in should be fine.
Comfort Matters The Most
We've talked about picking out running shoes before, and the main conclusion of that post was that you just need to find a comfortable pair of shoes. The rest doesn't really matter. The same goes for most other exercise clothes.
You want something that's comfortable and that you're comfortable in. Exercising is hard enough as it is, but if you have a set of clothes you like it makes the whole thing a little easier.
Likewise, some exercise clothes have little features that are nice to have and might make exercising a more comfortable. A pair of running shorts might have a built-in pocket for an iPod, or a cycling kit might have pockets for tools. Of course, these aren't necessary, but they're beneficial for some people.
Don't Forget About Safety
Finally, it's worth noting that some exercise clothing is made specifically for safety. A pair of running shorts might have reflective tape on the sides so cars can see you better at dusk, while cycling pants ensure you don't get tangled up in your chain.
That said, most of the safety stuff is only necessary if you exercise outside. After all, a reflective lining on your running shorts doesn't do you much good if you're inside on a treadmill.
In the end, it's really all about comfort. Special exercise clothing is often made to make you more comfortable, but it's often also over-engineered and overpriced. There are some factors that matter -- like how it picks up your sweat and if it prevents chaffing -- but otherwise, you don't need to invest that much money into it.
Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact form.