If showing up to exercise is half the battle…wearing the right gear is the other half. A simple cotton shirt can ruin a day of skiing, while an added sweat-wicking base layer could keep you hiking or snowshoeing comfortably for hours. And shoes with cleats or clips let you tackle your indoor cycling with far more gusto—and fewer injuries—than sneakers.
Fabrics and designs for sportswear have become very high-tech. Investing in a few key pieces can help you get the most out of all of your workouts…
For: Outdoor winter sports, such as snowshoeing and skiing
When outdoor temperatures drop, you need to dress in clothes that draw perspiration away from your skin as you exercise, yet trap heat to keep you comfortably warm and protected from the elements.
Here’s why: Not only does sweat that sits on your skin feel uncomfortable as you exercise in cold weather, it also leaves you chilled and prone to hypothermia. In the old days, even “thermal underwear” was cotton—but cotton traps moisture and remains cold and damp next to your skin, increasing the risk of chafing and making a cold day even colder.
What to wear: Aim for two to three strategically chosen layers depending on the temperature and activity level. For your base (next-to-skin) layer, choose a lighter moisture-wicking material, typically a synthetic fabric such as polyester and nylon, often labeled Coolmax or Supplex. These come in different weights to be used in different temperatures. Many brands and styles are available for between $20 and $50, but they’re all very similar in quality.
Your second layer is your insulating layer, which will help preserve body heat while allowing perspiration to dissipate. Try wool or synthetic fleece, which is warm. There’s a wide price range, from fleece T-shirts at Uniqlo for $15 to fleece crew neck long-sleeve shirts at LL Bean for $40 to REI wool shirts for $120.
For a third layer—especially if it’s snowing or windy—add a water- or wind-repellent top layer made with a breathable fabric, such as Gore-Tex, which will keep the heat in and the wind and moisture out.
For: Walking and running
Besides staying warm, when on the move, you need to protect your muscles from overexertion and fatigue so that you don’t get sidelined by injuries. For this, many athletes and trainers have taken a page from the medical world, by using compression technology to help recirculate blood and oxygen more effectively.
What to wear: Once the domain of professional competitors, compression leggings, socks and arm sleeves now are being worn by everyday athletes looking to get more out of their workouts. Not everyone agrees that they make a difference but there is mounting evidence that recovery is faster with them. These leggings and socks feel snug—far tighter than traditional leggings but not as tight as the medical compression stockings commonly worn for varicose veins. Compression leggings promote better venous return, the flow of deoxygenated blood from the muscles back to the heart. Blood and oxygen circulation is improved throughout the lower body and/or arms, which can make workouts such as walking and running feel easier. Recent finding: In a 2019 study, subjects walked for 30 minutes on a treadmill without compression leggings and a week later while wearing ones with 20 mmHg to 30 mmHg. (The degree of compression is measured in mm, millimeters of mercury, or Hg. The higher the number, the tighter the fit.) Wearing the compression garments led to a reduction in perceived exertion, meaning that you can work out longer.
Look for a very snug but not uncomfortable fit—the goal is to squeeze blood from your legs back up toward your heart. It should be difficult to pinch the fabric and pull it away from your body, but the pants shouldn’t dig into your skin or cut off your circulation.
Note: People with varicose veins or other preexisting conditions should consult their health-care provider before wearing compression gear.
For: Strength training
Look around the weight room the next time you’re there. Most people are in running or cross-training shoes. But these actually may put you at risk for injury. Cushiony running shoes absorb impact when running. But when worn while executing, say, a squat or a standing shoulder press, the squishy sole can throw you off balance.
Here’s why: In strength training, you receive feedback from the ground through your feet. Your feet basically act like data receptors, feeling the ground beneath you and sending messages up through your nerves and muscles, telling your brain how to stabilize your body as you lift the weight.
If you have a half inch of rubber between your feet and the ground, you lose out on that important feedback. Watch someone squatting in running shoes with a barbell across his/her back, and you’ll notice his feet wobbling side to side and back and forth. That also forces you to expend more energy than necessary, so you’ll tire out faster. Running shoes in particular tend to have an elevated heel, pitching your body slightly forward—helpful when running but not when strength training. The tilt places excess pressure on the muscles in the front of your lower body while neglecting your hamstrings and glutes. This forward pitch also increases knee injury risk when strength training.
What to wear: Buy minimalist shoes specifically made for weight lifting, or look for a flat, lightweight, flexible shoe with a minimal heel drop (the difference between the height of the heel and the ball of the foot) and comparatively thin sole. You want a wide toe box that allows your toes to spread out, so your feet can mold to and grip the ground.
If you’re one of the more than 35 million Americans trying indoor cycling, you know what an intense, exciting workout it can be. But if you’re wearing regular gym shoes, you may be cheating yourself out of the safest, most effective workout possible.
Here’s why: Cycle-specific shoes have a stiff shank, the supportive structure that sits between the insole and outsole, and cleats, a metal or plastic mechanism that secures your foot to the pedal. Both features help transfer more power from your body into the bike on the downstroke. You derive the majority of your power on the upstroke from being clipped in with your cleats. Without this, you end up working harder for the same momentum and speed. Also: Without the security of cleats, feet can cramp as your toes and forefeet struggle to stay on the pedals.
What to wear: Special cycling shoes with cleats. In some cycling classes—such as those offered at SoulCycle—these shoes are a requirement. (If you don’t have your own, they will rent them to you). Flywheel provides free shoes, or people can bring their own. Both companies’ bikes are compatible with Look Delta cleats. If you’re taking at least two classes a week, it’s worth it to invest in your own cycling shoes.
Look for a shoe that’s cycle-specific, with cleats built in.
Try: Shimano IC5 Indoor Cycling Shoes for women ($125) or Flywheel Sports Indoor Cycling Shoe ($128)…Gavin MTB Mountain Bike Mesh Indoor Fitness Cycling Shoes for men or women ($64.95).
The Way to Stay Dry Down There
Up to 20% of women have reported quitting their physical activities because of bladder leakage caused by bouncing, jumping or other high-impact moves. But a new generation of undergarments, called leak-proof underwear or absorbent underwear, uses innovative materials in the gusset (crotch) to absorb leaks while feeling dry to the touch. These materials often are antimicrobial, moisture-eliminating and odor-resistant.
Try: The Speax brand, which comes in multiple styles, from hiphugger to thong, sizes XS to 3XL (and in some styles, bigger) and can hold up to eight teaspoons of urine without feeling wet ($28 to $39).