How to wash running clothes

Today, I am airing my dirty laundry in public.

I run and work out anywhere from 6 to 9 times a week. That adds up to a lot of fitness apparel to launder. For me, it is like a secondary level of my training log. Confronting a hamper full of dirty running clothing is a three-dimensional reminder that I put in the work and sweat.

We spend a chunk of our hard-earned money on running gear. We buy the best apparel we can afford and look for apparel properties that make our workouts more pleasurable: moisture-wicking, cold-resistant, heat-resistant, water-resistant, Gore-tex, blister-resistant, anti-chafing, reflective, you name it.

And of course, we want to look stylish – or at least not dated. My dad used to jokingly say, “A clean car runs better.” I think a runner who wears clean, stylish (eg, not outdated) running clothes probably feels better about him/herself and therefore, runs just a little bit better. You rarely see anyone these days running or working out in a big, oversized T-shirt and ratty shorts or Rocky-style grey sweatsuits, like you did 10 or 15 years ago. (Unless you live in Philly and are doing the Rocky Run.)

But this stuff does not clean itself. At least not yet. Since the recent cold snap meant having  to wear two and even three times as many layers as usual, runners were probably doing more laundry than usual. I know I was. During the apex of the intense cold snap a few weeks back, I washed a load of workout gear every two or three days.

To make sure our exercise gear lasts as long as possible, it’s important to launder it properly. So if you – yes, you! – are nonchalantly tossing your singlets, shorts and headbands in the washer and dryer with your jeans, I advise you to read on.

Running gear in hamper
A tisket a tasket, a runner’s laundry basket


What causes running clothing to wear out?

Washing – not wearing – your running clothing wears it out – the friction of the clothes rubbing together in the machines, plus the heat of the dryer causes logos to rub off, pills to form, fabric to break down, and elastic to lose its spring. The better quality gear should last longer, theoretically, but this is not always the case.

Running gear drying
A common sight at my place: running top and heart rate monitor strap air-drying

I take extra-good care of my workout gear and running clothes. Some of my running bras lasted as long as 10 years and some shorts and capris lasted almost 7 years following my methods, which include the following tips:

  • Use the gentle cycle: A no-brainer, but important to note. I always use the gentle or delicate cycle for fitness clothing.
  • Use cold water for everything.  Not only does it save money, but it also keeps fabrics’ colors intact. Plus, hot water “sets” stains, whereas cold water does not. If you are worried that cold water will not get your clothes clean, don’t. Today’s washers are designed to perform well at every temperature.
  • Wash clothes inside out, especially treasured race shirts. This will prevent pilling and fraying, as well as keep friction from wearing away logos, silkscreens, etc.. I don’t turn all my laundry inside out, but I do I wash my most treasured shirts this way – such as my Boston Marathon shirt and my NYC Marathon shirt.
  • Avoid using too much detergent. Follow the package instructions. If you have soft water, you may need less than you think. Too much detergent can actually leave a residue on your clothing.
  • Air dry anything with elastic and your favorite items. The high heat of the dryer makes the elastic on running bras, tights and shorts wear out more quickly, plus the friction rubs off logos and wears down fabric. You can use a line or a dry rack. I simply drape items like tights and long-sleeved shirts over the shower rail and hang smaller items like running bras, head bands and shorts on a hooked rack in my bathroom. I dry running jackets and vests on a hanger. They usually dry in less than a day – sometimes within a few hours. Bonus fringe benefit: air drying saves money on electricity. I throw socks, cotton shirts or shirts that I do not care about, most hats, gloves, and running buffs in the dryer with abandon.
  • Wash odd bulk items into a lingerie bag. Then air dry them. These include items like baseball hats, visors, fanny belts, arm bands for cell phones, heart rate monitor straps, etc. It helps further protect these delicate items. If you are really worried about a treasured race shirt or other favorite piece of clothing, you could also put that in a lingerie bag.
  • Read laundering instruction labels. Sometimes, we are quick to cut them running gear off so they don’t irritate our skin. But please read before you snip. If an item says “hang to dry,” you’d be wise to comply.
  • Concentrate your efforts on your favorite items. Between working, running and trying to maintain a social life, no one has time to take pristine care of every single item So spend your effort on your favorites only. Shirts that I care less about, like the throwaways that I accumulate from racing and that I wear as base layers, go into the dryer for example. I have so many that I would not be heartbroken if they frayed or if their logos faded.

What detergent to use?

There are plenty of anti-stink laundry detergents, made specifically for washing workout clothing. I sampled a few via Stridebox, including 2 Toms Stink Free Detergent, and they all work swell. I recommend them if perspiration stink lingers on your gear.

Truth be told though, my clothing does not really get *that* stinky, so I just use my regular, eco-friendly, cruelty-free brand (Seventh Generation laundry detergent) on everything and it works just fine. It gets everything clean and keeps my running gear smelling sweet. Experiment and see what works well for you.