Search on-line or walk through any major clothing outlet and you will soon be overwhelmed by the mountains of Tee Shirts, Sweatshirts, Hooded Jackets, Trousers, Shorts, Tracksuits Bibs and Bras, Tights, Baggies, Hats, Gloves, Shoes, Socks and Wet-proofs; all claiming to be Sports Clothing. You soon realise though, that most of this stuff is not designed for sport but for casual, everyday wear – remember shell suits?
What is more, as is always the case, you can pay a heck of a lot for the brand and the latest colours or style than will necessarily represent true value or suitability for wearing whilst training.
What is Technical clothing?
Let us consider a tee shirt for ease of reference. Many of my peer group have a preference for natural materials such as wool, cotton or silk for example and will shun any clothing of synthetic or man-made material. I think this is mostly due to memories of the awful stuff that school shirts, trousers and even bed sheets were made of back in the day; you know the slippery shiny stuff that often smelled and often brought you out in a rash (or was that just me)?
During my many years of searching for clothes that can keep me cool and dry when it is hot and warm and dry when it is cold and wet, I have absolutely no doubt that there has been a revolution in sports clothing and major advances in comfort, performance, personal hygiene and even safety that most of us want.
So now when we refer to technical clothing in whatever sport you care to mention, it will invariably be mostly of man-made materials:
- It is lightweight and will keep its’ shape when wet
- It dries quickly and easily and will “wick” sweat or moisture away from the skin
- It is likely to be ventilated
- In my experience, colours will not fade or leech so it will machine wash safely
- Sometimes it will hold your muscles tight in places and in other places be a looser fit
- It often has odour protection and therefore less likely to smell
- Generally it is more expensive than a cotton version
My advice here is that if you are serious about your sport or fitness training, it is worth spending the extra money and investing in clothing designed for your particular activity. For example, a top for cycling is likely to be tight fitting with a zip down the front, longer in the back and with pockets over the kidney area. You can wear it for running whereas if you wear a running top to cycle in, you may find it too short at the back as you lean forward in the saddle and it flaps about a bit in the wind because you are moving faster than when running and not moving your arms.
Running shorts tend to be short and close fitting whereas cycling shorts will be longer, usually more durable and with a reinforced seat area over the backside and inner thighs.
Here than are my top tips for choosing clothing appropriate to your sport or training activity:
1. Footwear – Choosing the right sport shoe
Perhaps the biggest money spinner in the sports clothing industry is in footwear. The big brands will spend thousands in sponsorship of athletes and sports men and women. They also hold up the same brands to woo the next generation of superstars by equipping them with a shiny new pair of trainers.
Consider the status if you are the only kid in a village to own a pair of the latest trainers when your peers run around barefoot!
It is generally recognised that Nike were the early pioneers of what we recognise as a standard wedge profile in running shoes and yet were one of the first to go almost full circle in hedging their bets ( and protecting their profit) by also promoting zero profile, lightweight and “barefoot” feel– essentially flat, running shoes.
No wonder beginners looking for a training shoe will soon be overwhelmed by choice and invariable make a selection based on colour and price. For every expert who recommends shoes that support and protect there is another who will insist that a shoe should only offer protection from abrasion and in my opinion, there is no “one-style-fits-all” solution
There are a few general rules that apply though that can help you make an informed choice and first and foremost I recommend that you always go to a retailer who can offer relevant expert advice. They should be able to take accurate measurements for size and gait and have a range of products so that you can choose for comfort and price as well as your sporting needs.
So for Training Shoes in particular, here are my five top tips:
- Fit for Purpose
By this I mean choose Court Shoes for tennis and badminton, Walking shoes for walking, Football Shoes for football and Running Shoes for running.
- Choose for your footfall action and the cushioning you need
In particular for Running Shoes, you have shoes to suit the angle and force that your feet connect to the ground and then roll inwards to disperse the impact forces. This is known as pronation. You may be an over-pronator, under-pronator or neutral pronator and to get that wrong can cause discomfort, pain and injury. You may also need more or less support or cushioning dependent on your level of fitness and especially your body weight. Runners World has this to say about pronation
Understanding your personal pronation type is crucial to choosing the proper running shoes
If you have a normal arch, you’re likely a normal pronator, meaning you’ll do best in a stability shoe that offers moderate pronation control. Runners with flat feet normally over-pronate, so they do well in a motion-control shoe that controls pronation. High-arched runners typically under-pronate, so they do best in a neutral-cushioned shoe that encourages a more natural foot motion.
- A comfortable fit
Retailers often recommend that you get a size bigger than your regular shoes on the basis that feet will sometime swell up when running. In my experience this is frequently not the best advice. Generally, I would say to heed this if you notice that your ankles and feet tend to swell up if you are standing or walking for any length of time or if indeed you have noticed that your hands and fingers tend to swell when walking for example. Otherwise I suggest you look at the most comfortable fit so that you can slip you shoe on and off easily (like slippers) for normal use but that you can tighten if necessary when running on a muddy track for example.
- Price & Colour
Personally I am not usually bothered by designer label or this year’s colours but I do have a favourite brand and even I am aware of committing social suicide by wearing something just too odd. My advice here is all the things above being equal, chose for comfort, labels and colours within your price range.
- Finally a word about Barefoot
I’ll tell you upfront that I am a fan of the barefoot running technique and I believe that we should use our bodies as close as possible to the way we were designed as a running animal. That does not mean that I think it is suitable for everybody and certainly I still wear low profile shoes to protect my feet from the abrasion of the road, track or trail surface. I do think at some point though, if you are serious about running, you should do your research and get some coaching in the barefoot running technique, give it a go and then form your own opinion.
More about my barefoot running style and experience here
2. Underwear often referred to as Base-layer
Your choice of base-layer or underwear, the clothing next to your skin that covers your most intimate and sensitive bits, is arguably to most important set of clothing. Badly fitting or the wrong fabric that rides up, from a seam that rubs or from lack of support causing a rub, escalates rapidly from an irritation to being sore, very sore and then a real painful distraction where you are literally rubbing salt into a wound from your body sweat. Have you ever seen/had runner’s nipple? errrggh!
So before slipping into your big pants, lacy bra and woolly socks consider the very basic requirements for underwear:
- Technical fabric to wick moisture from the skin
- Technical fabric to keep you warm when it is cold or cool when it is hot
- Breathability for air circulation
- Flat seams and seams placed to avoid sensitive areas to reduce rubs
- Light weight but supportive
- Sometimes with compression
Now, I do not admit to wearing a bra myself but I can attest to the number of women I have spoken to have really suffered due to a lack of support from their bra. Bouncing boobs cannot be comfortable and an essential item of clothing for any woman has got to be a specialist supportive sports bra. An extra tip if you have heavy breasts could be to wear two bras for training. Here is a sports bra retailer with a catchy name http://www.boobydoo.co.uk/
Yes even your choice of socks is important. The same rules apply here to avoid rubs tuning into blisters. Technical running socks will sometime have two layers; a soft wicking inner layer and a more durable outer layer. Decent running socks usually have as minimum different materials with different properties to cushion to wick to warm or cool. Again I class decent running socks as essential.
3. Compression clothing
A newer trend in sports clothing is to incorporate “compression” where either the whole or part of the garment is designed to fit tightly enough to hold your muscles tightly in the correct anatomical position.
The fitness industry has adopted compression clothing as a way to improve muscle recovery and (in some cases) physical performance. Companies such as Skins and Sub4 boast benefits including reduced exercise-related discomfort from muscles bouncing increased performance, a reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness (sore muscles) post exercise leading to faster muscle recovery because of improved circulation.
I can tell you that athletes and regular people I know who use compression gear are generally fans but I am not always sure that is not just a placebo effect. Whether it works or not, compression clothing often makes people look good and feel comfortable. For some, that is enough although I would not add compression gear to a list of must have clothing, especially for beginners.
4. Wet Weather
No doubt you have noticed that it rains quite a bit here and even though this year (at last) we had summer sunshine, it is inevitable that you will be rained upon when training at some point.
I will always remember the miserable day we had for the first Milton Keynes marathon in 2012 when thousands of runners lined up shivering in the pouring rain and gusting winds that drove the rain horizontal. How glad I was that day, as a supporter in my wet proofs.
Have you noticed though that no wet-proof is truly wet-proof and perhaps the only true wet proof is called a dry suit and you probably would not want to run or cycle in that!
The effectiveness of water resistance tends to be reflected in the price. Starting with a black bin liner to the cheaper shower proof jackets which are often adequate for a short session in light rain to the all singing and dancing breathable, snug fit stretch fabric with taped seams and pockets.
When it comes to choosing wet weather clothing your budget is probably second only to the type of sport or training you want to use it for. Once again a sport specific garment will usually be the best choice but, as many of those MK marathon runners would tell you, sometimes you just got to man up and face the elements rather than surrender to restrictions and limitations of wet weather gear; Your call.
I have a really expensive wet weather jacket that I usually don’t wear because I don’t want to damage it during training!
5. Luminous clothing
Last on our list is clothing that will reflect light and make you stand out in the gloom. Not just because you are a proud warrior peacock athlete but actually so that you can be seen in the dark or in bad weather.
Luminous clothing in a surprising range of colours is easily available from accessories – hats, gloves, armbands, wristbands, bibs and straps etc to more conventional jackets and trousers.
My advice here is to not overdo your luminous clothing but have just enough to keep you visible and safe in bad light. Of course, sports clothing manufacturers will incorporate the luminosity into the normal range of clothing to and again that has to be a personal choice.