Don't lay down your hard earned cash before making sure the athletic apparel you're buying meets all these performance mustsBy: David L'Heureux and Alyssa Wells
Anybody who exercises has go-to gear. Runners have comfy tops and tees that pull perspiration from their bodies. Cyclists use wind- and waterproof jackets to shelter them from the elements. Cold-weather warriors use base layers, hats, and shells to manage heat and moisture transfer when exercising in the winter. To craft this high-end apparel, manufacturers use a variety of quality materials, and the R&D teams at top outdoor apparel brands spend countless hours designing these products and even longer testing them in the field with amateur and professional athletes. But how can you tell a premium piece of gear from one just designed to look "technical"? We spoke with leading apparel-makers to find out what features to look for in your workout clothes to ensure you end up with the highest quality options and get the most bang for your buck.
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Whether you're out for a midday run in the scorching summer heat or snowshoeing on a frigid winter morning, your apparel should warm or cool your body accordingly. If you prefer natural materials, merino wool is tops for temperature control. New Zealand brand Icebreaker offers a variety of apparel made from the islands' locals: sheep. "Merino sheep in New Zealand need to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. We've taken a natural fiber (merino wool) that has evolved over time in an animal and put it to use for performance apparel," says Kurt Foster, Icebreaker's global merchandiser. The company's running tops, jackets, and base- and mid-layers are available in a variety of weights for different seasons and uses.
Craft Performance Apparel uses synthetic micro-fiber combinations that excel in either situation. The Swedish company's patented hexagon-shaped polyesters and hollow-core fibers work together in its baselayers to keep the body warm when it's cold and cool when it's hot. If you're unsure what's right for you, ask. Most retailers and websites have amazing customer support to help you figure out what suits you best and why. Looking for materials that are lightweight and not 100 % polyester are good rules of thumb. Lycra-polyester blends and innovative proprietary fabrics (like FlashDry from The North Face and Real Fleece from Icebreaker) are also good bets for temperature control. (Wondering what to wear on your next run or ride? Click here).
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Thick materials can slow you down, inhibit moisture transfer, and affect temperature control. In recent years, space-age synthetic fabrics have allowed designers to make gear that's lighter weight than ever before. Professional cycling team Radio-Shack Nissan rides in the Craft Elite Attack Jersey (pictured), which is made of Craft's mesh superlight material. It excels at moisture transfer and temperature control, but the garment weight is the true jaw dropper. The Elite Attack Jersey weighs just 86 g (or .19 pounds), the lightest on cycling's Pro Tour. Arcteryx uses its proprietary Luminara fabric on lightweight shells for running and XC skiing. It's inherently stretchy and durable and also wind and water repellent. The company's packable Celeris jacket tips the scales at a mere quarter pound. Keep weight in mind and research performance gear online before you buy. Most companies' websites have an exhaustive amount of product information available.
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Sure, cotton is soft and breathable, but add water-aka sweat-and it's like running around wearing weights. Cotton fibers are hydrophilic, meaning they readily absorb water and take forever to dry, says Gwyn Wiadro, Vice President of Women's Apparel at Under Armour. To give consumers a comfy cotton feel with the added benefit of moisture control, Under Armour created Charged Cotton, a unique cotton fabric that drives moisture out over a greater surface area so it dries more quickly-rather than pooling around your sweatiest spots. The North Face is another brand with a new quick-drying fabric: The FlashDry line of base and outer layers in their 2012 collection is made with "a hollow core fiber [that] traps warm air and draws moisture off the skin to the outer layer," says Kevin Joyce, performance product director for The North Face. The merino wool outer layers spread moisture across the surface to speed up evaporation and drying.
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Most companies like The North Face, HellyHansen, and Arcteryx have their own proprietary materials that are both water- and wind-proof and allow sweat to evaporate. GORE-TEX is the best known and an industry standard that many companies, including The North Face, still use. In addition, waterproof synthetics are often treated with DWR (durable water repellent) to enhance waterproofing. (Water will bead up on any good jacket or shell and keep it from getting saturated). "Our soft shell jackets and midlayers use a material called Coreloft with a natural water resistant insulation," says Carl Moriarty, the design manager for Arcteryx. "The outer face of the jacket has a rip stop nylon to prevent tears and an additional DWR treatment for added water resistance." The bottom line: water and wind outside plus dry inside equals happy no matter what your activity du jour.
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Protecting exposed skin with sunscreen isn't enough to keep the scorching sun at bay. Unfortunately, dangerous UVA and UVB rays can also penetrate your clothing, putting your skin at risk even if you're completely covered. Dense, tightly woven fabrics minimize the amount of UV light that passes through your clothing, as do darker colors, certain chemical treatments, and dyes. Most types of UV protection are impossible to see with the naked eye, so it's helpful to check labels for a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor), the rating system used for apparel. Oakley's proprietary O Form fabric, featured in a majority of their training line, is engineered to protect from UV rays and black-colored items boast a UPF of 50+, the highest rating of protection. Brands like Craft, Pearl Izumi, and Under Armour offer UV protection in a variety of different apparel products. Under Armour uses their signature technology called Coldblack, a heat management treatment that also gives fabric a 30 UPF without affecting the feel of the apparel. So whether you're running a marathon in the desert or just playing 18 holes in the summer heat, you stay cool, dry, and protected.
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If you're not sweating, you're not working hard enough. Unfortunately that sweat can lead to some funky odors. Antimicrobial treatments limit the growth of bacteria-the gross reason why you smell. "This technology helps fight the germs that come from sweat," says Amy Olson, director of women's merchandising at Oakley, whose O Form fabric has antimicrobial fibers woven in. "It not only fights odor, but also helps keep the garment a little bit cleaner while you're working out." To battle bacteria, Under Armour harnesses a unique anti-odor technology, which uses non-toxic chitosan, an element found in the exoskeleton of crustaceans. Many brands also incorporate silver threads, which are naturally antimicrobial, into their training apparel. Merino wool products, like those from Icebreaker and SmartWool, naturally prevent bacteria from forming on garment fibers and prevent dirt from penetrating into the fabric to preserve longevity and cut down on repeated washings. There are plenty of options available so it shouldn't be difficult to find a germ fighting fabric that keeps you fresh while you sweat.
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When you're working out the last thing you want to think about is the bra strap digging into your shoulder, or the fact that the gym's weight room just got a little too chilly as far as modesty's concerned. To deal with all the woes that go along with sports bra wear, Under Armour's Armour Bra, which features removable molded cups along with a bevy of other essential bra features, will be available this February. Rather than force you to suffer somewhere between a too-tight medium and a baggy large, Armour Bra features real sizes (band + cup size) to give you the custom fit you'd expect of your everyday bra (the one you aren't running, jumping, and competing in). Armour Bra also features heat-bonded edges to prevent chaffing, supportive sling technology, and under arm power mesh for a smoother line. What's more, some of the bra's key design elements are altered based on cup size. For example, while an A cup probably won't have a problem slipping something over her head, a D cup needs a hook-and-eye back closure. And it's even better when that back closure is gel-padded (it is) so you're comfortable doing situps or Savasana.
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Performance-based features like waterproofing, temperature control, and moisture transfer are the main ingredients in the perfect garment cocktail. But a nice finishing touch is the straw that stirs the drink. Look for stylish design elements and colors that suit your personal taste. Other items like easy-on, easy-off removable sleeves, MP3 wire ports to route earbud cables, and "smart" pockets for phones, money and keys are svelte, add ons that make a good piece of gear great. "We spend a lot of time in the field with consumers and athletes tailoring these features," says Foster. "We ask about optimal fit, pocket location, and if people are using MP3s and how." Finally, pay attention to safety features like reflective striping on sleeves and front and back panels. If you exercise at night or early in the morning, bright neon colors are usually available in most outer-layer garments.
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