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How to Wash Your Workout Gear

by Mackenzie L. Havey
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How to Wash Your Workout Gear

Remember the iconic scenes from the “Rocky” movies when Sylvester Stallone runs up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, pumping his fists in triumph as he reaches the top? Now, do you remember what he was wearing? Allow me to jog your memory: a full cotton sweat suit. While Rocky remains an inspiring character, when you consider the advances made in the materials used to construct workout wear, his choice of ensemble would be questionable at best in today’s world.

In 2015, you’d be hard-pressed to find any serious workout gear made from the same fabrics Rocky relied upon. To be sure, there’s a saying in the fitness industry, “Cotton is rotten.” This is a result of the fact that cotton absorbs and holds sweat during (and long after) workouts, making you feel heavy, hot and wet during exercise and then chilly when you stop moving.

The newest class of workout gear made from “technical” fibers will wick sweat away from your body and control temperature close to your skin. This means you’ll be more comfortable while working out, rather than lugging around heavy, sweat-soaked cotton. You’ll pay more for the performance wear, of course, but once you switch, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

Just because today’s workout wear is high tech, however, doesn’t mean it’s stink-free. Some brands tout special antimicrobial properties, but, in most cases, a single workout will leave your duds rank and in need of washing.


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Since tech fibers can be more delicate than those of Rocky’s famous sweat suits, there are some general rules you should follow when washing them if you hope to preserve them. If you’ve ever washed your workout clothes only to find that they still stink after the fact, you’ve probably already come to this conclusion. Not only can washing them the wrong way mean they don’t get clean, but it can also degrade the fibers and shorten the lifespan of some very expensive exercise ensembles.

Here are the do’s and don’ts of washing your workout gear:

1. DON’T USE FABRIC SOFTENER

Fabric softener can often be blamed for keeping workout clothes from getting totally clean when they are in the wash cycle. Since it tends to coat these types of fibers, fabric softener prevents them from being able to absorb the water when being washed.

2. DON’T USE TOO MUCH DETERGENT

In the same way that fabric softener can keep water in the wash cycle from penetrating fabrics, so can detergent. Use slightly less than you would for your regular clothes, and this should limit the viscosity enough to do the job.

3. DO USE SPORT-SPECIFIC DETERGENT

There are a number of special detergents on the market formulated for washing workout clothes. If you find your duds are particularly stinky, this is a good thing to try.

4. DON’T LET YOUR GEAR SIT AROUND

Mold and mildew can begin to grow on workout gear that is left in a gym bag or laundry basket. Be sure to get those items in the washing machine sooner rather than later to prevent the buildup of nasty stenches.

5. DO SOAK STINKY ITEMS

By soaking the worst-smelling garments in a nontoxic sport-specific detergent and cold water, you can often eliminate anything that’s particularly pesky when it comes to odors. Throw them in a bucket or sink for a half hour prior to washing.

6. DO USE COLD WATER

Since technical fibers are generally on the delicate side, in most cases it’s best to use cold water to wash them. This will help maintain any special performance properties for many workouts to come.

7. DON’T COOK YOUR CLOTHES

Consider hanging your gear on a clothes rack to dry, or try line-drying outside. These approaches prevent you from drying out spandex, Lycra and other similar fibers.

8. DON’T SUBMERGE YOUR KICKS

Unless you’re ready to turn your workout footwear into lawn-mowing shoes, don’t put them in the washing machine. You can degrade the midsole cushioning and render them less protective when it comes to pavement pounding and other active endeavors. Instead, use a sports odor spray to neutralize odors. For best results, remove the insoles and spray both sides and the bottom of the shoes.

9. DO READ THE LABEL

Performance fabrics often require special care beyond these do’s and don’ts. Always check the label to ensure you’re maintaining the integrity of the performance fibers and any special attributes, like UPF, anti-odor or compression.

Written by Mackenzie Havey, a freelance journalist and coach based in Minneapolis. She holds a master’s degree in Kinesiology from the University of Minnesota and is a USA Track and Field certified coach. When she’s not writing, she’s out biking, running and cross-country skiing around the city lakes with her dog.

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  • Confused sports gear

    Do I need specific detergent for specific sports?
    I play volleyball and basketball, am I able to put them in the same wash or should I do two seperate wash cycles?

    • Queneshia Granger (BraidedScor

      No, sweat is sweat, you can wash them together unless the garments specify different wash cycles. You should wash them seperated from regular clothes though, in order to use the right amount of detergent and fabric softener.

  • Alexandra

    Soak your clothes in salt or add a tablespoon to the wash, helps get rid of odors without special wash. I have also found freezing some of my tops before washing even works…

  • 3LittleBirds

    Any tips on getting out sweat stains from my husband’s workout t-shirts? I’ve tried just about everything.

    • Doc Holliday

      Try Oxi clean. It works very well. Or, as the late Billy Mays would say: “TRY OXI CLEAN !!! IT WORK’S VERY WELL !!! – Ok, I’ll show myself out.

    • Vicki C

      I had issues with this as well and used Oxi Clean, too. I made a paste with the oxi clean powder and water, then used a scrub brush and scrubbed it into the stain and let it sit for a bit (hour or so) then washed it normally. Be careful to wash it alone or with clothes that won’t matter if they get oxi clean on them. That took most of it out. If it didn’t, then I repeated it or I put it in an oxi clean bath in a pail with more oxi clean and water and left it overnight and washed the next day. It was a lot of effort for his old nasty shirts, so will probably pitch them and buy new next time. haha

    • Julie Meadows

      Underarm sweat stains are often not caused by sweat, but by a build up of the aluminum in deodorant. To remove, mix crushed baby aspirin and water and spray on stains. Let sit for a while, then wash as usual. I am sure you can google the specifics.

  • peppery422

    I use Sports Suds as a pre-wash (my machine has a setting for it) or soak, and then “wash” with white vinegar. Line dry. Works great (and my gear REEKS)

  • Mystica

    You forgot ‘Don’t use front loading washing machines, aka mold machines’ if you don’t want your clothes to smell worse going out than they did before they went in.
    Front loaders are disgusting.

    • Doc Holliday

      I love my front loading machine! Most people don’t know that you have to leave the door open when it’s not in use so it can dry out. Granted, it makes my OCD rage a little bit to see the door hanging open but it does a much better job of cleaning the clothes by having the water passing through them instead of the clothes just soaking in the water. Kinda like giving your gear a shower instead of a bath.

      • Ellen O’Loughlin

        Use powder detergent , not liquid, in front loading machines

        • Doc Holliday

          My machine specifically says to use HE liquid detergent only. It works REALLY well too, but I have been know to throw a little Oxyclean in there too when needed. (Gotta remember: White shirts are for grown-ups)

          • Ellen O’Loughlin

            Thanks Doc. My machine said the same thing. Upon a friends advice I tried HE powder. I no longer had any smelly workout clothes or an occasional smelly machine. Use whatever works best. Yes keep the washer door open when not in use.

    • Master V

      Any machine is only as smart as its user.

  • jtwizz

    I generally wash my workout gear in the delicate cycle with my other delicates (and use a delicate fabric detergent that is specific to lycra, spandex, and rayon)… No fabric softener and lowest heat setting on the dryer. No stink issues, but i do have these odd greasy looking spots on some of my tops. Anyone ever have anything similar?

    • Jennifer Matlock Sager

      I have a few greasy looking spots on a few of my tops as well. Mostly my lighter colored ones. Any suggestions on what might cause this and how to get it out?

  • cactusjack

    Dont forget to make a simple task as complicated as possible :S

  • Chrisski

    I find washing workout clothes with vinegar added to wash works wonders

  • Christin Seegers

    Heavy wash cycle to shake out the gunk with Ivory detergent. Tumble dry low. Some times the load dries before due time, so I take out the load so it don’t get hot.
    The rest of my workout gear: neoprene belts, knee straps and phone arm straps, they’re hung on the towel handle in the shower while I shower then left to hang dry.

  • AC

    For a really bad set, we soak in baking powder prior to washing and it eliminate everything. For lighter smells, we just add baking powder to the watching machine load. Using a front loader.

  • I disagree that you can’t wash your kicks. This is all dependent on the style of shoe. I use Skecher GoWalks for my walking routine and have washed them with zero repercussions. I toss a half scoop of Nellie’s in each shoe and place each in a lingerie bag. I wash on delicate and let them air dry. They come out like new every time.

    And ditto on vinegar. Not only does it eliminate odors, it prevents static cling, so you don’t need dryer sheets either. It’s an all-natural softener that leaves no residue.

  • Cathy Paper

    Perfect timing. We were just wondering why our workout clothes smelled. Thanks for the vinegar tip!

  • ctsmithiii

    Just travel with one set of dry fit. When you’re through working out, get in the shower with your clothes on, wash with shampoo, rinse and air dry. It’ll be fresh and ready for your workout the next day.

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  • bill

    I got all the latest high-tech workout gear, then couldn’t afford the entry fee for the race!

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  • Deborah

    What are the suggestions for water aerobic gear (swimsuit & water shoes) ? Should the water shoes be washed after each session?

  • Jarin Hutchison

    Another good option? Wear merino wool. Naturally anti microbial, it absorbs odor and kills bacteria, and you can wear it more than once before washing. Plus it’s temperature regulating- keeps you cool, but is warm even when wet. Icebreaker is my fave, but Smartwool is another good option.

  • Truman Handy

    I have found that using some ( about a quarter cup) borax with much less HE detergent (I use about a third of the recommended amount, remember, the manufacturer wants you to buy LOTS of their product) with cold water in my front loader does a great job of removing stink & dirt from my gear. Also, leaving the door open in between washes is mandatory to allow the machine to dry out and prevent mold and mildew stinks from occurring.

  • Thanks for the amazing write-up! The best and quick way to help kill any bacteria and freshen your clothes is to soak them in a vinegar & water mixture. Try one part vinegar and four parts water for about 30 minutes right before washing.

    • Sophie King

      I put vinegar in the bleach dispenser of the washer and do an extra rinse so that I don’t smell like salad dressing.

  • rbfx4x

    Washing mine is easy. My wife does it for me <3

  • Suzanne Elvidge

    I use ordinary eco laundry liquid with a tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) in the wash, and fill the fabric softener dispenser with white vinegar. If it’s bad, I also add soda crystals to the wash.

  • Sophie King

    I tried the Tide with Febreze and it caused an awful rash.

  • braidedscorpio

    I tried the laundry sanitizer by Lysol its ok I didn’t notice a rash.