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We ask a lot of our activewear. We want it to keep us warm in winter, cool in summer and dry through all seasons. We want garments to be lightweight but hold up through multiple washings. We want gadgets to be state-of-the-art but teeny-tiny. Good news: the latest innovations from activewear manufacturers accomplish all of that, and make us look fabulous while we exercise. So, if you’re still working out in a T-shirt from Super Sunday 1998, shorts with holes you hope no one sees, and a pair of cotton socks — it’s time to upgrade your gear.
Start with something simple but critical: socks. “When someone tells me that their feet are sore or they have blisters,” says Ryan Callahan, a sales associate at Philadelphia Runner in Center City, “the first thing I do is ask about is their socks. Nine times out of ten, their socks are wrong for exercise.”
What makes them wrong is that they are of the wrong material. “Cotton is your enemy,” Callahan says. “It makes the foot sweaty and leads to blisters through rubbing. The best exercise socks are made of synthetic material. They wick away moisture and reduce blisters and sores.”
There are two kinds of sock people, says Meaghan Hobson, a sales associate at City Sports in Ardmore’s Suburban Square. “Some people like thin socks that are made of dri-fit material,” Hobson says. “Other people like thicker socks with more padding in the toe and heel, like Thorlos. But Thorlos are too heavy for some people, who say that they make the foot too sweaty.”
And while she’s talking about sweat, Hobson points out the new shirts, shorts and pants from Nike, Mizuno, Craft and Under Armour. They are made of water-resistant textiles that wick sweat away from the body. And, some of the men’s shirts have new features: mesh-like vents sewn under the arms and on the upper back.
“The thing about sweat is that it gets heavy,” says Hobson. “Cotton absorbs sweat, so a cotton T-shirt is the last thing you should be wearing during exercise. If you are exercising in clothes that are soaked with sweat, those clothes are weighing you down and slowing you down.”
What might make you go faster is the latest innovation in treads: the minimalist sneaker. “It’s the Vibram effect,” Callahan explains. “Traditional brands saw the interest in Vibram’s ‘barefoot running’ shoes and created their own versions of minimalist, lightweight sneakers.”
In 2011, Brooks launched four versions of minimalist sneakers, Reebok introduced its RealFlex and Nike debuted its Free 5.0. By far, the most popular minimalist sneaker seems to be New Balance’s Minimus, which has a Vibram outsole and a fitted upper. But, Callahan voices a note of caution. “We don’t recommend minimalist shoes for everyone,” he says. “Most people, even experienced runners, need the cushioning that traditional sneakers provide. Without it, you get sore feet and can do some real damage that can stop you from running.”
If you are running — or walking, biking or swimming — a GPS wristwatch is a nifty gadget to have. Callahan says that the Nike+ SportWatch, with TomTom technology, is the most user-friendly and the nicest-looking of the GPS watches. But Garmin’s GPS watches have more features. “The latest version is the Garmin Forerunner 610,” Callahan says. “It does all of the things that GPS watches do — time, distance, pace, calories, etc. — and it has a touch-screen interface. You don’t have to look down — and slow down — to hit the buttons. You can keep running.”
The next generation of the Forerunner is the 910XT, coming this spring. It is geared towards multisport athletes and will include metrics on running, biking and swimming.
Another nifty gadget: the VITABand. Because outdoor exercisers are notorious for wanting to run light and not carry too much “stuff,” VITABand created a wristband that acts as personal identification, medical identification and debit card. “VITABand comes with a chip that you go online and register with, then input your data,” Hobson explains.
If we’re using these innovations to make us go faster, longer and safer, we might as well go in style. Activewear company lucy specializes in clothing for women. New for 2012: the Walkabout Pant and the Race Me collection. They carry the same design ethic of lucy’s beloved yoga pants. “We use the same flex fabrics that are lightweight and water-resistant,” says Kelly Hunyet, store manager of the lucy in Suburban Square. “One of the reasons the pants look great on women is that they have an elliptical waistband and a rise that is higher in the back and lower in the front, which not only stays put during exercise but makes a woman’s torso look leaner.”
The new Walkabout pants have a flat waistline with the drawstring on the inside, and come in straight- or wide-leg styles, capris and full-length. Both have zippered back pockets that are great for holding keys and cards. The Race Me collection is made of lucy truetek, a moisture-wicking, compressive material that keeps sweat out while providing muscle support.
The athletic clothing titan lululemon athletica has a devoted following of men and women who would wear the company’s clothes 24/7 if they could. Founded in Canada in 1998, lululemon’s clothing uses several proprietary textiles, namely luon, a wicking material with four-way stretch but enough Lycra to prevent bagging and stretching. “There’s also luxtreme, a fast-wicking fabric that we use in our running line; CoolMax, which is similar; and Silverescent, an anti-odor material,” says Amanda Casgar, lululemon’s area community manager for the eastern United States.
Like Lucy’s pants, lululemon’s have flattering rises and waistbands. “The other thing is our seams,” Casgar says. “They are flat seams, which eliminate chafing against the skin. And we have other design elements, like the crotch that prevents camel toe, and well-placed pockets.”
One other thing that has pockets: lululemon’s caps for women. Tiny, zippered pockets, perfectly sized for keys, are on the sides of the bonnets and baseball-style hats, which are made of moisture-wicking material that does not stain with sweat. And, the hats look really great. “We design them for women’s heads, which might sound strange until you realize that men and women have differently shaped heads and wear their hats differently,” Casgar says. “The brims of our hats are wider and extend further than an average baseball hat because women typically want more of their face protected from the sun. Also, there’s the very important goal of making sufficient room for a ponytail and making sure it’s not pulled into an uncomfortable position, which is why the hats sit lower on the nape of the neck.”
“I will say that fashion is second to function for lululemon,” Casgar says. “But if we can look great while we exercise, why shouldn’t we?”
Mimi James is a leading advocate for looking great while exercising — and while doing whatever other activities you do.
This article originally appeared in Perfect Fit, a special section of the Exponent.