Spring has finally - finally - arrived in Chicago, and after one of my first outdoor runs of the season yesterday, my thoughts turned to what I reach for these days when pulling on exercise apparel.
Everyone exercises differently, so of course I mean only to share my own philosophy, not dictate one for you. I mostly do a mix of yoga, pilates, and running. For the former two, I wear leggings, a sports bra, and a cotton sleeveless tank. For running, my attire depends on the season of course, but I usually wear athletic shorts, a sports bra, and whatever old high school or college t-shirt comes first to hand.
The rule I try to keep to for purchasing activewear is: if I'm buying it secondhand, it can be synthetic. If I'm buying it new, it should be mostly made from natural fibers. Because synthetics are made from plastic, tiny microfibers shed from clothing in the washing machine and enter the water stream, winding up in drinking water, fish bellies, and many other places they shouldn't be.
Whether you can make space in your wardrobe for a few pieces of cotton workout apparel to replace synthetics depends on your feelings about wicking materials. You may be devoted to them, in which case, congratulations: the majority of secondhand sportswear out there is made of these quick-dry types of fabrics. You'll be walking into a bonanza of wonderful options.
If you're hoping to phase out a few of your synthetic pieces and replace them with cotton, the secondhand market is a bit harder to navigate. I either purchase these pieces new, or repurpose apparel from other categories where cotton is more commonly used. For example, most of my yoga shirts are secondhand sleeveless tops like this one - not officially intended for exercise, but perfectly suited to it nevertheless. Many of my yoga leggings are pulled not from the rack of exercise gear, where synthetics abound, but from a selection meant for everyday wear, where cotton is more common.
Cotton without any elastic or spandex tends not to hold its shape, instead fitting more loosely than cotton with synthetic fibers added for stretch. So while you'll find that t-shirts are often one hundred percent cotton, fitted apparel like leggings and sports bras tend to have at least a small percentage of synthetic fibers to allow them to mold to your shape when wearing them. Still much better than nothing, I say.
Below, where I look for secondhand exercise gear, and a few brands to keep an eye on. (Note: some of the links in this post are affiliate links).
As usual, I recommend ThredUp, Poshmark, and your local secondhand stores as good places to start your search. Look for the brands you already like and know work for you. For me, I search out secondhand sleeveless tanks by Everlane, mostly-cotton leggings from any brand, and sports bras by Patagonia. Although I'm always open to a stellar find from another source, I don't want to spend all of my days seeking out secondhand athletic wear. Knowing what I like, and searching mostly for that, helps narrow the field and speed up the task.
A few specific places to consider searching:
-Patagonia WornWear: Though their selection tends to fall more on the spectrum of outerwear and travelwear than activewear, this is a good place to look for used Patagonia items - you'll find jackets, shorts, vests, backpacks, and lots more for whatever activity suits your fancy. Items are sold directly by Patagonia, not an individual seller, so you can trust that they'll be fairly clean and of useable quality.
-REI Used: Find secondhand outerwear and sportswear, especially great for camping and hiking enthusiasts looking to replenish their supply. They sell more than clothing as well, like tents, shoes, yoga mats, foam rollers, and more. REI checks over each item before re-selling it, ensuring that though your purchase is secondhand, it's still high-quality.
-eBay: The place to turn to when you're in the market for especially specific secondhand pieces, or for sports items beyond clothing. Since no one is checking the quality the way they are on sites like Patagonia's and REI's, carefully reading the description and peering closely at the photos helps ensure that you'll get an item in good condition.
-Local secondhand sports stores: Growing up, the one near me was called Play-It-Again-Sports. There might be a similar option near you, too. These local spots tend to emphasis gear over clothing, so search for balls, rackets, nets, and all manner of sport-y things. Bonus: this is especially great for finding deals on gear when you're tired of constantly buying your kid a larger tennis racket as they grow.
If you play a sport or prefer an activity with a specific set of gear or clothing, of course, where you look will be different. I'm not sure I've ever seen a rack of secondhand swimsuits, for example, but my partner is a cyclist and often sells and buys secondhand jerseys online (he recommends eBay).
In case secondhand exercise clothing skeeves you out - understandable - or you can't find things you like, a few brands to turn to to for new gear:
-Conscious Clothing: Working in Michigan with natural fibers, these folks make lots of different types of clothes, including exercise basics that don't scream exercise. They generously sent me a pair of their leggings and sports bras to test out - pictured here - and the cotton feels cool and comfortable against my skin; I also love the unconventional shape of the sports bra. For yoga enthusiasts especially, this is a lovely place to shop for ethical, made-in-the-USA sportswear.
-Patagonia: Whether new or secondhand, I try to prioritize buying from these guys. When you no longer need your Patagonia garment, they'll take it back for resale, repair, or recycling. Plus, a portion of their profits goes to protecting wild lands. Many of their items are made from synthetic plastic fibers, but a few are made from natural materials.
-Everlane: A good spot for affordable cotton basics; many of their cotton and linen tanks would do dual duty as exercise gear (and are easy to find secondhand on ThredUp); their recently launched cotton bras have a sports-bra vibe that could be a good option.
-Girlfriend Collective: Though the cute tops and leggings here are synthetic, they're made from 80% recycled plastic. If wicking material is your jam and secondhand shopping is not, this is a good possibility for you. I'll be looking for a secondhand version of this pretty set; in the past, I've bought a few pairs of their black leggings on ThredUp. (If you're interested in buying a brand-new piece, you can get $10 off using this link, if you'd like).
Since winning a perfection prize isn't the goal, do whatever you need to do to exercise comfortably and happily - even if that means you don't have a single piece of secondhand gear in your arsenal. In that case, your focus can turn to maintaining your clothing's longevity: scrupulously taking care of your swimsuit, goggles, watch, climbing shoes, or whatever you use most.
Questions? Suggestions? Other brands doing good work in the athletic wear space?