Can the clothes that you wear while you’re running or walking really make a difference in your performance? After successfully training thousands of runners for marathons, half marathons, and ultra races, our team of West Coast Road Runners coaches have seen again and again that your apparel can indeed make a difference in how comfortable you are, which can help or detract from your athletic performance.
In this article, we review:
Choose Clothes that Can Keep you Cool
Your body has amazing natural systems that are designed to regulate your body temperature. The technical term for that process of maintaining your body temperature at a normal level is thermoregulation . When you exercise, your body heats up and then you sweat to help your body cool down (thermoregulation in action!). However, for sweat to cool you, it must evaporate from your skin. Evaporation can be helped (or hindered) by the clothes you are wearing . If the clothes you are wearing keep your sweat on your skin, it is harder to cool down in the heat, and remain warm enough in cold weather (and damp clingy clothes are just more uncomfortable). In contrast, if your clothes pull the moisture away from your body, you’ll remain cooler in hot conditions, maintain your warmth in cold conditions, plus you’ll simply feel dryer and more comfortable during exercise.
Cotton is Rotten & Synthetics are Sensational
In order to stay cooler in the heat and warmer in the cold, wear apparel that effectively wicks away moisture and allows sweat from the body to quickly evaporate. You’ll find some exercise apparel made from cotton and other athletic apparel made from synthetic fabrics. Cotton absorbs sweat, but then just remains wet on your skin (it is not moisture wicking), so your sweat won’t quickly evaporate which hinders thermoregulation . Hence, this fact about that fabric is why we say “cotton is rotten” as an apparel choice for distance runners.
In contrast, apparel made of synthetic fabrics (typically blends of polyester, nylon, latex, spandex, etc.) tend to have moisture-wicking properties. Research has shown that synthetic shirts keep athletes’ body temperature lower than those made of cotton . As an added bonus, many wicking tops provide protection from the sun. To help regulate your body temperature when running in colder weather, consider layering. Wear a wicking base layer next to your skin and then layer breathable lightweight layers over the base layer. As a rule of thumb, if you are warm before you start your workout, then you might have overdressed for the particular weather conditions .
Considerations for Dressing your Head, Feet, & Hands
When you are preparing what outfit to wear for your training run or race, remember to purposefully plan for your head, feet, and hands. In the heat, a mesh or highly ventilated hat with a brim can protect your face from the sun and can wick sweat away from your head and face. Conversely, in the cold, a hat or beanie with a wicking liner or a winter headband can keep your ears warm. Because a large amount of your body’s heat leaves from your head and hands, remember to keep your hands warm by choosing running gloves made with wicking fabrics, in addition to your hat.
For runners, dressing yourself from head-to-toe also includes wearing a good pair of socks. Like the other athletic apparel discussed here, make sure that your athletic socks are made of synthetic fabrics that will wick moisture away from your feet. Since cotton retains moisture, sweaty wet socks are a key ingredient for forming blisters on your feet. If you have repeated blister problems, consider double layer socks that may more effectively reduce friction than a one-layered sock. Thinner socks generally breathe better than heavier socks; however, heavier socks can provide more padding for the feet (so you may need to determine whether the breathability or cushioning is more important for the comfort of your feet). We’ll discuss shoes in another blog post, but wear the same thickness of sock that you train in when you go to buy your running shoes.
Where to Find your Running Wardrobe
Quality athletic apparel can be found in many locations from specialty running stores like Road Runner Sports to other general retail or clothing stores. In addition to finding breathable wicking clothing, look for manufacturers that provide flat seam stitching and seamless designs in their apparel because such designs can reduce skin chafing and irritation from clothing rubbing against the skin. By making mindful clothing choices, athletes can increase their comfort as well as optimize their performance.
1. Gavin, T. P. (2003). Clothing and Thermoregulation during exercise. Sports Medicine, 33(13), 941-947. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200333130-00001
2. Groom, D. (n.d.). Cotton vs. synthetic: What’s best for workout gear? International Sports Sciences Association. https://www.issaonline.com/blog/index.cfm/2017/cotton-vs-synthetics-why-the-natural-choice-may-not-be-cotton
3. Groom, D. (n.d.). Importance of proper fitness clothing and footwear. International Sports Sciences Association. https://www.issaonline.com/blog/index.cfm/2017/dress-for-success-or-at-least-injury-prevention
4. Hooper, D. R., Cook, B. M., Comstock, B. A., Szivak, T. K., Flanagan, S. D., Looney, D. P., DuPont, W. H., & Kraemer, W. J. (2015). Synthetic garments enhance comfort, Thermoregulatory response, and athletic performance compared with traditional cotton garments. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(3), 700-707. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000000783
5. Hughes, L. (2018, December 5). Winter running: What to wear at every temperature. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/6-tips-stay-fit-warm-winter-ncna944061