A Guide to Women's Athletic Wear

by Paula Carvajal

The right apparel will help you look good at the gym and perform better.

Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

There's nothing stopping you from wearing that oversized T-shirt and those frumpy pants to the gym. They’re easy to throw on. They may be comfortable. But are they really the best choice for your exercise program?

Different physical activities require specific types of athletic apparel. Sometimes a garment needs to resist moisture; other times, it should allow for stretching.

“You should always feel comfortable,” said Jen Ator, fitness editor of "Women’s Health" magazine. “If you're constantly worried about your shorts riding up or your top being too tight, you won’t be fully engaged in the workout, your intensity will drop and you won’t get the results you’re looking for.”

Comfort and functionality are important when looking for exercise gear. However, feeling fashionable doesn’t hurt, even when you’re on your way to working up a sweat.

“When you feel good about yourself, you’re much more likely to get out there and be active,” said Jeanine Detz, fitness director of "Shape" magazine. “So splurge on a flattering outfit or two for your workouts.”

You should always feel comfortable. If you're constantly worried about your shorts riding up or your top being too tight, you won’t be fully engaged in the workout, your intensity will drop and you won’t get the results you’re looking for.

Jen Ator, fitness editor of "Women’s Health" magazine

Running

Running is one of the most rigorous activities to engage in, and proper attire is a must for safety and endurance.

“For running, don’t skimp on shoes and a sports bra,” said Detz. “They’re crucial for injury prevention and comfort.” She suggests finding a good pair of running-specific sneakers that are designed for forward motion and have cushioning in the key areas where your feet make impact with the ground.

Shorts, pants, tanks and T’s are all suitable for running. The key is to find what is most comfortable to you so the clothes do not interfere with your stamina. “Make sure all your clothing is made of moisture-wicking, breathable fabric,” said Detz. “This type of material will keep you cooler and more comfortable. Avoid all-cotton garments, which hold onto moisture, making you feel wet and cold.”

If you are going straight from errands to run or vice versa, Detz suggests opting for a running skort. “It’s super flattering on nearly all body types,” she said. “And if you pair it with a cute hoodie, you can go from a run to running errands stylishly.”

Hiking

Hiking is a great way to combine exercise with time outdoors. However, the great outdoors can present unpredictable terrain and varying weather conditions. The proper attire will keep you safe from the elements and free to enjoy the hike.

“Dress in layers so you can adjust to the changing conditions. Also, look for fabrics that wick moisture away from your skin and are fast drying,” noted Ator.

"If you’ll be hiking through narrow trails, opt for lightweight pants made out of ripstop fabric, which is designed to prevent tears caused by small pricks from sticks and burrs," said Detz.

Go for long pants, which protect your legs from insects. But Detz says you don’t have to wear bulky hiking pants. She suggests taking advantage of the newest styles that have a little bit of Lycra in them, to stretch and hug your curves. “They are still comfy and stand up to the trails,” she said.

Up top, you want to safeguard from the sun and be able to warm up or cool down. Detz suggests wearing a wide-brimmed hat that has SPF and a tank or T-shirt with a wind- and water-resistant jacket.

Finally, as rugged and uneven terrain may lead to a fall, proper shoes are key for keeping your footing steady as you make your way. “A lightweight trail-running shoe will provide enough traction and support for easy hikes,” said Detz. “If you’re going on a trek that will last a day or more, opt for hiking shoes or boots, which typically offer more ankle support.”

Yoga & Pilates

Yoga and Pilates allow you to stretch your way into a healthy mind, body and spirit. But with all the movement involved, you need to make sure to have clothes that easily allow you to go from the Cobra to a Warrior position.

“There’s a lot of twisting, bending and balancing in this workout, so you want clothes that are comfortable and nonrestrictive,” said Ator. “Pants and capris made of a comfortable, stretch fabric usually work best, since they move with you and don’t limit your range of motion.”

While most stretchy pants are great for yoga, consider yoga-specific workout gear. Ator points out that most yoga pants and capris have slightly higher waistlines to accommodate bending-over poses and keep you comfortable during your workout. "Make sure your top hits a little past your waistline, so you won’t have to worry about your underwear peeking out when you’re in a Downward-Facing Dog position,” said Detz.

Because yoga and Pilates are low-impact workouts, you can forgo the traditional sports bra. Detz suggests opting instead for a tank with a shelf bra.

Swimming

The right goggles, swim cap and swimsuit will allow you to make a stylish splash in your swim lane.

“Wear a suit with straps that crisscross in the back, so they stay put,” said Detz. “Also, there’s no rule that says you have to wear a plain one-piece to do laps. If you feel great in a bikini, rock one! Many brands like Oakley and TYR make two-pieces designed for action; they won’t ride up or fall off.”

Keep your goggles handy for swimming laps. They protect your eyes and allow you to see the lines so you can stay in your lane. And while not all pools require a swim cap, Detz recommends wearing one. It provides some chlorine protection for your hair and keeps your hair from getting in your eyes.

Biking

Sitting on a bike for several miles can be uncomfortable (and that's an understatement). To avoid pain while cycling your way to a more fit body, wear biking-specific apparel.

“The most important thing you can wear is a pair of padded shorts,” said Detz. “Biking-specific bottoms have a built-in chamois, which puts a much-needed layer of cush between your seat and your tush.”

If you feel self-conscious in cycling shorts, Detz suggests opting for shorts made for mountain biking. “They’re often baggier with a tighter short built in,” she said. “You get the benefit of biking shorts without showing every bump of your thighs.”

Cycling shoes are meant to offer comfort during your ride. “Shoes are very important,” said Detz. “Cycling shoes have hard bottoms, so you don’t feel the bike pedals as much. They also allow you to clip into pedals.”

Tennis

Tennis anyone?

“You have to be able to move quickly in any direction when you play tennis,” said Ator. “Wear something that’s comfortable and nonrestrictive.”

Detz says a tennis dress or a tennis skirt paired with a tank will allow you the range of motion you need in order to make your best serve. “A skirt or dress that hits an inch or two above the knees is a flattering length,” she said. “Any shorter, and you’ll spend the match worrying about your briefs showing.”

Along with the right clothes, shoes are also imperative to play a good match. “If you play tennis a lot, buy tennis-specific shoes,” said Detz. “Their soles are designed to help prevent slipping on the court. If you only play occasionally, wear a training shoe that provides support for lateral movement.”

If you’re playing outdoors, Detz says a visor is a must: “A visor will shield your eyes from the sun without heating up your head.”

Five Gym-Bag Essentials

  1. A busy schedule sometimes keeps you from eating a proper meal. Keep an energy bar in your bag to give your body the fuel it needs to get the maximum benefit from your workout.

  2. Whether it’s the locker room floor or the locker room showers, you want to keep your feet protected from fungus. Keep a pair of water-resistant flip-flops handy in your bag to wear once you’re ready to hit the showers.

  3. Hair ties are notoriously easy to lose. Keep a few extras in your gym bag to keep your hair out of your face during a workout.

  4. Dry shampoo is great if you don’t have time to wash and dry your hair after a workout. Just spritz it on for a quick, easy fix -- no water needed.

  5. Plastic bags are a must. They are a great way to store your sweaty gear or wet swimsuit and keep your gym bag from smelling, well, like a sweaty gym.

Photo Credits

  • Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

About the Author

Paula Carvajal has been a journalist since 2007. She has worked for "Malibu Magazine," "Us Weekly" and Cambio, covering major award shows and events such as the Oscars, Golden Globes, Grammys and New York Fashion Week. Carvajal received her B.A. in communications and Spanish from Santa Clara University, as well as an M.A. from the University of Westminster.