Help! My perfect women’s athletic wear actually stopped fitting

women's athletic wear - perfect fit

Why??

It used to fit, it was perfect like exercising naked except better! But now it’s all wrong. My bra is rubbing, my knickers have crawled to where the sun don’t shine, my socks are somewhere around my toes and everything is digging in everywhere! What has happened to my perfect fit women’s athletic wear??

women's athletic wear
Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

It’s such a frustrating feeling, especially after you’ve found (and splashed out on) what you thought was the perfect combination of underwear, mid-layers, and top-layers. They feel perfect for a bit, and then something changes and it’s all wrong again! But what is it?

The Elements of Fit

As we’ve previously discussed, the fit of athletic clothes is super important because they tend to be designed from wicking materials. Wicking materials work most effectively in close contact with your body. Because of the fit requirement (which my boyfriend hates by the way – he can’t stand to wear any tight clothes), most athletic wear is made from technical fabrics. These elements of clothing are often designed with sport-related desirable characteristics like 4-way stretch, breathability, wicking, odour resistance, temperature control etc.

You can read all about the technical fabrics used in athletic clothes in our guide to sports fabrics.

Due to the close fit of most athletic clothes, but particularly underwear (or panties, knickers whatever you want to call them), sports bras, and socks the placement of tags, seams, and elastic can be key to their longer-term comfort. So, before you give up completely on the athletic wear that used to be comfortable and consign it to the bin (or the recycling bag) let’s explore the elements which can change the fit of your athletic wear.

Body Shape Changes

Believe it or not, small changes to your body shape or composition can have a big impact on the perfect fit clothes. If you recall all of the athletic wear that you’ve had in your life, you’ve probably had some that felt amazing from the beginning and some that just never felt quite right. It could be something as simple as the cut of the fabric or the positioning of the seams which initially define how that particular bra, socks or shirt feel to start with.

There are a number of reasons why your body shape might change, and some of them might surprise you!

Hormones

You know how sometimes, depending on where you are in your cycle your favourite jeans just don’t feel right or your breasts look amazing in that one particular dress? Welcome to hormone-related body changes.

Period bloating and swollen breasts occurring one to two weeks before your period could be a culprit for the “all of a sudden poor fit” of your workout clothes. The changes in hormones during this time can also contribute to water and salt retention culminating on day 1 of your period. If your athletic clothes seem to have intermittently poor fit, it’s often worth tracking to see where you are in your cycle, you might just have to align your clothing choice to your hormones!

There is further information on body changes relative to hormones on these sites that you might find helpful:

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319579

https://www.msdmanuals.com/en-gb/home/women-s-health-issues/biology-of-the-female-reproductive-system/menstrual-cycle

https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/your-brain-your-menstrual-cycle

Muscle versus Fat

You’ve done all the work, you’ve started building a fantastic base of muscle following your training plan, but what? Now your workout clothes don’t fit?

Unfortunately, you can find this happening, and although annoying and expensive it shouldn’t be something that you find dishearting. There are multiple potential causes for what you’re experiencing.

Building Muscle under Fat

One of the most common things to happen, you’ll notice that you’re getting bulker but not necessarily seeing the definition that you’re after. This happens when you are eating and training to gain muscle (perhaps a slight calorie deficit but not enough to quickly strip off the fat. This will result in everything (including your jeans) getting tighter.

I really notice this with my thighs and arms mainly when I step up the weight training – sometimes I can barely squeeze my thighs into my jeans. On the upside – it’s often just a phase. Your body will reach a point where the extra muscle will assist in burning the fat and your clothes will start fitting again. Alternatively, you could try a program that is specifically balanced to help you build muscle while burning fat (these are hard work – there is a lot of food and exercise tracking as well as trial and error involved here to get the balance exactly right).

Building Muscle in General

If you poke all that nice muscle that you’ve built you’ll find it feels different to the fat – it’s firmer to start with and doesn’t give as much. Sometimes this may actually mean that the elastic that sat nicely before, now actually rubs or digs in uncomfortably. I’m afraid if that’s the case, you’re going to need to go up a size, the only other way around it is to suffer the chaffing and indents.

Weather

Weather is the one that usually catches me out. Beautiful and hot, you want to be doing hot weather activities like swimming, beach volleyball, golf, tennis, etc. But the worst underarm chaffing I’ve ever had came from a 2 piece athletic cut Speedo swimsuit. The issue? I’d bought it at Christmas when the weather was cold (and it fit) and first used it for a hot July beach swim. Your body swells a bit in the heat!

The other place I find it particularly bad is my feet – they change a whole shoe size between winter and summer which means I have to change my running shoes (or buy the in-between size and change between thicker winter socks and thinner summer socks).

Diet

Did you know that there are things in your diet that can change how your clothes fit?

women's_athletic_wear_water
Image by Jana Wersch from Pixabay

It all comes back to water retention. You know that impressive initial slimming that comes from starting on a keto or very low carb diet? That’s because your body stores water with each glycogen molecule (what the body converts carbohydrates into as a stored energy source). When you reduce the glycogen stores the body drops the associated water too – leading to a slimmer appearance and looser fitting clothes.

The same thing can occur if you change the amount of salt in your diet – with a higher salt diet the body will store more water, with a lower salt in won’t. But please be careful with salt, while too much isn’t healthy neither is too little! The right amount of salt is necessary for essential body functions. Please consult your doctor for advice on altering your salt intake.

Clothing Care

You knew it was coming, but how you care for your clothes can have a big impact on their fit. A lot of the technical fibers used in the manufacture of athletic clothes are a bit picky about how they’re treated, so the best thing you can do is follow the care instructions to the letter to prolong their useable life.

Heat Cycles

Most athletic clothes contain some small proportion of Lycra (also known as spandex or elastane) to give them that stretchy yet tight fit. Now, Lycra can stretch up to 500% of its own length without losing its original shape. But it is one of the fibers that really isn’t fond of heat – so it should be washed and dried in cold or warm temperatures – never hot, and use of the tumble drier is usually a good way to reduce its useful life.

Age

Did you know that running shoes are designed to have a life of 1000 km (approximately 620 miles)? Or that experts suggested that runners replace their sports bras 3 times for every pair of running shoes?

Now, these are, of course, guidelines and there will be some differences depending on how hard you are on your shoes and bras… but how do you know when the uncomfortable feelings that you’re getting from your athletic clothes aren’t to do with your body, rather to do with the clothes themselves?

Wear and Stretch

So, how do to tell if your athletic clothes are just past it?

  1. If you offer up old and new of the same brand they should be obviously the same size. If they’re not, then the clothes are probably the problem.
  2. There should be no disolouration, thin spots, holes, or areas where it looks like the fabric has stretched and not gone back to its original shape. These are all bad signs.
  3. If there are any areas where you can see the fibers peeking through – I find this seems to happen particularly on socks – that’s it for them, banished to the trash!
  4. Feel for any rough spots that correspond to areas of chaffing on your body, these are usually the result of wear and may indicate the death of the clothes.

What to do??

So, consolidating it all together – for optimum comfort you should be wearing athletic clothes that are the right size for your body shape today. You might find that means that you need to have a couple of different sizes to correspond with changing hormones, seasons, or levels of hydration.

If you are in the process of body composition changes, you’ll be very lucky if your athletic wear maintains its level of comfort throughout the transition. You may need to suck it up and invest in some new clothes to support the new shapes and densities.

And finally – check your athletic clothes for wear regularly and care for them appropriately. Follow the care labels, and if they’ve been lost in the mists of time try the brand website. If you have no luck there, in general, you want to wash at no more than 40 degrees Celsius (some will be less), without fabric softeners or chlorine bleach (try a cup of white vinegar to kill any lingering odours) and hang to dry away from sources of direct heat.

So, does this help? I’d love to hear your comments below!

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6 Responses

  1. Sharon says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Really informative post, as always – thanks for sharing. Often people think that if they put on a few pounds on the scales that it’s due to fat. The same concept applies when people try on clothes and they start to fit a bit snugger than usual. As you’ve alluded to above, there’s a long list of explanations for that, not purely fat gain. For me personally, the cleaning and wear and tear sections resonate with me, and with my jeans that have a habit of loosening in the wash, to my frustration.

    Definitely need to pay more attention to the washing instructions for my clothes, so I better start reading labels more!

    • Lisa says:

      Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for your comments!

      I know for me personally, I do use my clothes as a gauge to whether I’m at a comfortable level of fitness – but you’re correct in that there are two areas that feel good and two that feel bad – but counter-intuitively, one of each of them is a positive and one a negative.

      My jeans fit when:
      – I have my desired balance of muscle and fat (and ladies, you need some fat on your body – it’s the way we’re made – and what your breasts are made of too)
      – when I have too little muscle and too much fat

      My jeans don’t fit when:
      – I put on a bit more muscle , as muscle helps in burning more calories – which can, in turn, lead to fat loss
      – I put on a bit too much fat (maintaining my exercise but also overindulging excessively)

      Cleaning and care of athletic clothes, in particular, are key – but on the jeans front – both excessive cold (the freezer) and excessive heat (the tumble dryer) will cause the fibres to contract. The freezer is better for preserving the life of the jeans though 🙂

      Thanks,
      Lisa

  2. Cornelia says:

    Hi Lisa, my excuse for not fitting exercise clothes is too much munching in lockdown. 🙂 I really enjoyed reading your article, it is interesting that our hormones can play such a big role. Thank you for the tip to kill any lingering odours. The good news, I will definitely have to go buy some new exercise clothes [ha ha]. Thanks for sharing.

    • Lisa says:

      Hi Cornelia,

      Thanks for your comment! I’m munching (and baking) and playing with kettlebells while my remote working setup tries to save files, it’s a very good thing that I don’t have to put my jeans on anytime soon!

      It is a great excuse to go shopping for new sports clothes though, and I have to admit, I often struggle with the idea of buying new ones until I’ve exhausted why the old ones aren’t working for me anymore (hence the post); but knowing what I know now, I am giving myself a lot more slack when the clothes don’t actually fit.

      Thanks,
      Lisa

  3. Glenn says:

    Lisa,
    I am not a woman and when I work out I generally wear loose fitting sweat pants and t-shirt, but I found the information you provided very interesting. Men sometimes experience the body shape change as well, maybe not the same as women do, but some of these challenges are similar. Building muscle under fat is a big issue for me and drinking lots of water as well. I do a lot of motorcycle riding and it turns out to be physically demanding sometimes and keeping in shape helps alot, not only for the physical aspects but also for the clothing (gear) I need to wear that needs to fit well and be comfortable. Thank you for your insight to these challenges.

    • Lisa says:

      Hi Glenn,

      Thanks for your comments! I had a boyfriend who raced motorcycles and he definitely found similar issues with the compression (or thermal) layers that he wore under his leathers – or even on occasion, the leathers themselves depending on his body composition at a particular time.

      However, the solutions are the same regardless of gender – although you are lucky with fewer hormone fluctuations to deal with!

      Cheers,
      Lisa

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