Nike sweat-wicking running top: $55

Adidas training pants: $45

Lululemon leggings: $109

Why are workout clothes so expensive? Let’s talk about that.

“Active wear” is an all-American invention. Given the plethora of open spaces and active people, companies have long sought to provide a range of attire to keep us comfortable while in motion. Or on the couch – Athleisure, anyone?

Yes, you’re most likely to improve athletic performance if you’re comfortable in the gear you’re using. And you’re more likely to attend the gym if you’re looking good.

But are the prices worth the benefits? Are the technologies in the materials what drive the price, or is it the logo? Having the proper feature for your workout is important. Moisture wicking, sun protection, compression technology – all are wonderful additions to the sweat pants and spandex from the old days.

But when you can get a pair of yoga pants (aka tights) from a discount department store for $10, it makes you wonder about why we’re so quick to cough up dough for minimal coverage and fancy fabrics.

Let’s take a look at the range of athletic gear available today and discuss why – and why not – to invest in quality gear for the gym.

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What Do You Need When You Work Out?

Paula Rogers, partner at the Apparel and Textiles Industries Group and fellow of the Textiles Institute in the UK says critical factors in fabric are fabric, stretching, and fit. You should also expect fabrics to be colorfast so colors don’t run when you wash them.

When an Australian study compared Nike, Adidas, Lululemon, Lorna Jane and other name brands versus lower-end brand like Cotton On and Kmart brand, they found predictable results.The logo-less track pants lost color and lost elasticity (stretch) faster than their premium apparel counterparts. As you might imagine, high-end brands have run field tests and consumer studies to assess fit and fabric preferences. Nike itself actually has an entire department dedicated to future-fabrics and materials.

The study also showed that Adidas, Nike, and Lululemon each bore 13 – 16 stitches per inch, making it more durable and tear-resistant. Kmart had only 10 stitches per inch. This is the result of cost-saving and faster manufacturing processes.

But admittedly, much of what we pay for with the higher end gear is perceived value and brand loyalty. While there is a minimum standard of quality to be appreciated with name brands, fabric costs and scales of global production (being mostly made in southeast Asia) allow plenty of wiggle room on the ultimate price.

The price tags are a balance between what we as consumers are willing to pay and the actual cost of production (unlike the pair of Givenchy leggings for $1,837 – which are all perceived value). Our brand loyalty, a trust and affiliation built up over many years and countless advertisements, is ultimately what convinces us of these branded garments’ worthiness.

Workout Apparel Worth Spending On

Workout pants: Given repeated friction, workout pants always deteriorate the fastest. Spending more for a pair of well-fitting leggings can prevent painful chafing, rashes, and wear and tear around the groin and inseam areas.

Sports bras: A poorly-cut sports bra can result in chafing and lack of support. These issues can compound over time, leading to sagging and damaged tissues. T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s offer high-performance sports bras at around $15 per piece.

Shoes: You can’t compromise on the fit and arch-supports in a pair of athletic shoes. Whether you’re endurance training, weight training, or cross-training, it’s always crucial to take care of your feet. Foot arch (normal, high, low) and foot alignment (underpronated, neutral pronation,  overpronation) can be aided by various insoles – some custom-made – and shoe types. If you suffer from alignment or impact stress, ask your doctor about preventative orthopedic measures. It will make all the difference in comfort and injury prevention.

Save On:

Shorts and activewear tops: Target and other big box retailers offer savvy shoppers moisture wicking garments at more than half the prices of name brands. T.J. Maxx and Marshalls will also stock high-end garments at steep discounts. If you’re not one to sweat much, cotton is lightweight, breathable, and super-cheap.

Now let’s look at a range of workout fabrics that can really aid in workout comfort and performance.

Moisture-Wicking Fabrics

The original moisture wicking fabric is wool. Thankfully, we don’t have to be sheep when it comes to buying functional workout clothing. Wool is still a favorite for hikers, but the fabric has come a long ways since the knit-sweater. Thin-weave wool apparel is great for regulating body temperature while wicking moisture from the skin.

Fabric like polyester, through capillary action, absorbs sweat away from the skin and allows sweat to evaporate on the exterior of the garment. Essentially plastic fabric, polyester is durable, lightweight, non-absorbent, and breathable. It’s UV repellant and even insulates when it’s wet. Downside: polyesters synthetic makeup is the perfect home for bacteria growth.

Nylon, most-known for making women’s stockings, is mildew resistant and quick drying. The elasticity of nylon also makes it durable.

Unlike polyester, polypropylene is a totally water-resistant synthetic fabric. Polypro forces sweat out through its fibers where they can evaporate.

TENCEL is made from wood pulp, so it’s biodegradable, breathable, resistant to wrinkles, and soft to the touch.

Anti-Microbial Fabrics

Antibacterial or anti-odor workout apparel contain microscopic silver that are natural bacteria-killers that prevent odor and mildew-causing bacteria from stinking up your workout routines.

Garments with antimicrobial properties owe their smell-fighting powers to topical finishes that are applied to the fabric. Though companies insist otherwise, the antimicrobial applique could wear off sometime after you hit the 50-wash mark.

The silver nanoparticles sloughing off clothes and onto your skin may be dangerous. Animals have shown liver, kidney, and lung damage after repeated exposure to silver over time. That said, consumer goods like this have never been tested.

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UPF Clothing

Clothing is the first defense against damaging ultra-violet radiation. If you’re keen on exercising outdoors (and you should be), UltraViolet Protection Factor clothing is available. What does UPF mean?

A shirt with UPF of 50 allows 1/50th of the harmful UVA and UVB rays of the sun to reach the skin. As a reference point, a white cotton shirt provides a UPF of about 6.

UPF is not SPF. SPF is the number that, theoretically, indicate how long you can stay in the sun before skin reddens. For example, SPF 60 buys you an hour of suntime.

As a rule of thumb, you can expect UPF finishes to last for about two years. If you notice you’re starting to get a tan under a piece of UPF wear, it’s time to throw it out.

Compression Apparel

These garments were developed around principle that medicine validated long ago: that compression clothing—made with highly engineered, elastic gradient fabric that molds to various parts of the body—increases blood and lymphatic flow. Compression garments are designed to improve performance and expedite recovery.

Unfortunately, the Sports Journal of Physiology found no evidence that compression apparel assists endurance athletes. Athletes engaging in explosive movements, from squats to sprints, were shown to gain from keeping muscles warm and the reduced muscle fatigue (because it takes energy to keep the body at a ‘warm’ temperature).

As well, the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that compression garments also reduced muscle soreness. Says Jessica Hill, M.S.c. and exercise scientist on the 2013 study,

“When compression garments are worn during and after heavy exercise, they appear to reduce muscle soreness.”

When muscles are worked hard, they become inflamed. The inflammatory response release fluid and white blood cells into the area. This leads to swelling, increases in pressure, and therefore pain. By keeping muscles compressed, these symptoms are reduced.

How To Care for Workout Clothes

“Garment performance and life is dependent on how you care for them,” says Joanne Whiteside-Mayor, senior apparel developer at Reebok. Tossing your high-performance apparel in with the rest of your laundry can break down its fabric more quickly, wash away antimicrobial properties and clog up the fibers so they cease to wick moisture properly.

Performance fabric, like all exercise clothing, is high-maintenance. Here are eight guidelines for getting the most life out of your gear:

  • First, move stinky clothes from the gym bag to the side of your hamper (where they can dry) or into the wash ASAP. Leaving clothes in a sweaty gym bag allows bacteria and mildew to multiply, promoting faster garment deterioration.
  • Next, machine-wash your clothes on delicate cycle by themselves or hand wash them. Repeated rubbing against zippers, denim, and buttons can cause microscopic abrasions to build up quickly, eroding high-performance treatments.
  • If a tag calls for a “hand wash” it’s because of the delicate nature of the fabric or the type of treatment that has been applied to the fabric. Following care instruction will drastically improve garment longevity.
  • Wash your workout gear on the lowest temperature possible. Over time, hot water can decrease the elasticity of straps and waistbands. Cold water will also keeps colors looking brighter for longer.
  • Don’t use any fabric softeners, detergents with dyes or fragrances, or dryer sheets. These extras clog fabric fibers and limit the ability to wick moisture and fight odors. Specialty sport wash detergents are available.
  • Just as with underwear, sports bras need a wash every time you wear them. Doing so will both return the fabrics’ fibers back into place for optimum fit, and de-clog the fibers of sweat, salt, dirt and bacteria. Build up between fibers prevents the bra from breathing and wicking sweat.
  • Add a cup of white vinegar to the rinse cycle to cut out unpleasant odors. Because sweat is oily and easily builds up on clothing, it’s hard to remove old sweat with regular detergents and water. Vinegar both breaks through oils on fabric and serves as a deodorizer.
  • Hang-drying workout apparel will keep elastic study and prolong the life of workout garments. Don’t leave clothing in the sun for too long – UV rays are destructive over time.
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If you’re looking for workout gear with high-functioning fabric, it’s going to cost. Many of us simply don’t need the added extras for our workouts – cotton, polyester, and spandex do just fine. For those looking for premium comfort and performance, retailers offer a plethora of fancy styles and fits. No matter what you choose to sweat in, be sure to take good care of it, both to preserve fit and whatever additional attributes it may possess.

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