The 5 Worst Mistakes You Make When Washing Your Running Clothes

From ignoring the garment care labels to using the dryer, these missteps can wreak major havoc on your stuff.

After walking in the door from a long, detoxifying run, it’s all too easy to shuck off your sweaty gear and toss it into the hamper – where it sits for several days before you do laundry.

But that’s just one of the several mistakes you could be making when it comes to washing and cleaning your running gear. Over time, these missteps can cause real damage to your shorts, tights, bras and leggings, especially those made with high-performance synthetic materials.

We tapped several pros at cleaning and laundering to share their insights on the common missteps when washing running gear, and how to fix them.

Mistake One: Not checking the garment’s care label

Manufacturers pack some critical information onto that tiny little tag, so it should always be your first stop before a wash. “A lot of them have requirements – don’t use heat, don’t use bleach – so it’s always important to check first, because these things aren’t cheap,” says Melissa Maker, a cleaning expert and author of Clean My Space: The Secret to Cleaning Better, Faster, and Loving Your Home Every Day.

Maker also recommends paying special attention to what the label says for heat settings – and, when in doubt, err on the cold side. “High-performance fabric is not designed to handle hot water, so it will often weaken many of the nylon or latex fibres, “ she says. “Lukewarm is max. Any hotter than that, you run the risk of ruining your clothing.”

Mistake Two: Waiting three days to wash sweaty garb

In the closed, dark environment of the hamper, the bacteria that cause those nose-wrinkling odours in your clothes can flourish, marinating the smells into the fabric. But the real culprit, says Dr Karen Welch, a senior scientist at Microban, is the moisture from your sweat. “When you have something that has moisture in it, you promote microbial growth,” she says. “And the longer they grow, the more odours they produce.”

According to Lindsey Boyd, cofounder of The Laundress, a line of eco-friendly detergents and cleaning products, leaving your wet clothes in a pile is one of the worst things you can do for your gear, and “if you keep doing it over time, the odours will be much harder to get out.”

In other words, you may soon find yourself dealing with “permastink” – the built-up odour that accumulates in workout gear over time. Explains Welch: “These are not terribly water-soluble compounds, so the water in the sweat just pushes them into the air again.”

However, Boyd recommends a simple preventative fix: hanging up your soggy stuff immediately after a run. “Once it’s dry, then you can put it the hamper and wash it whenever you need to,” she says. Those few extra minutes it takes to hang up your gear will go a long way in helping keep it odour-free for the long term. If you have space, go ahead and invest in a collapsible drying rack – you’re going to need it later anyway.

Mistake 3: Not using detergent designed for sportswear

In recent years, detergent manufacturers have introduced products specifically designed for high-performance sportswear. And it’s not just a sales gimmick: cleaning experts say such products can effectively combat odours and stains – like those perennial ones under your armpits – by using enzymes (protease, mannanase and amylase are a few common ones) in their formula.

“Similar to what they do in our bodies, they break down soils and tough buildup like body oil and sweat, and that’s really important when you’re caring for sports clothing,” Boyd says. “It’s really important that you use a detergent that’s meant to go after these kinds of odours and stains.”

There are several brands to choose from – HEX PerformanceTide, and a sports-specific detergent by The Laundress, just to name a few. A favourite for Catherine Moloznik, head buyer for Fleet Feet Sports’ seven retail stores, is Nathan, which she recommends to customers who come into stores lamenting about stinky sportswear.

However, whichever brand you choose, resist the urge to add extra detergent to combat tough odours. “All that does is leave more residue from surfactants and fragrance remaining in your fabric,” explains Drew Westervelt, founder and COO of HEX Performance. “These residues become food sources for ‘stuff’ –  bacteria and mildew – which create odour. And at the end of the day you are actually worse off.”

Experts also note that while using sports-specific detergent can help reduce the baked-in odour that accumulates in gear over time, you may have to go an extra step if the stench remains. Runner Jon Salas swears by using a mixture of a quarter cup of baking soda and a cup of vinegar to combat extra-tough odours. “When you combine them both in the washer, you have natural Oxyclean that is cheap at cleaning and protecting your clothes,” he says.

Mistake Four: Using the dryer

Dryers inflict damage on high-performance sportswear, especially at a higher heat setting, because it breaks down the synthetic fiberes. At the same time, the dryer can also cause shrinkage. “It’s such a killer for expensive sports bras and running pants,” says Boyd. “It really reduces the elasticity.” (And when running tights are no longer, well, tight, that can lead to reduced performance from you.)

Boyd also notes that features like pockets and zippers don’t hold up well in the dryer. A final word of warning? Dryers heat up whatever existing bacteria remain in your clothing, which can cause it to come out smelling like it hadn’t been washed at all.

Experts highly recommend line drying your gear whenever possible – yes, it’s more time-consuming, but worth it to preserve fit, performance and longevity. To speed up line drying in a pinch, Devin Donaldson, founder of The Optimist Co., a line of natural cleaning and laundry products, suggests setting up a fan nearby.

Finally, if you must use the dryer – and the garment’s care label says it’s okay – be sure to use the fluff or no-heat cycle, which blows cool air, says Maker. Toss in a couple of dryer balls, which help circulate air and reduce static. (Which also brings us to our next no-no.)

Mistake Five: Using fabric softener

While it makes towels and sheets deliciously fluffy, fresh, and static-free, fabric softener – whether it’s in liquid, bead, or sheet form – can wreak havoc on sportswear. “What’s really important with workout clothing is that it has the ability to breathe, and all that technology can actually work,” Maker explains. “But fabric softeners clog all that material up, so that it’s not wicking moisture, it’s retaining odours, and it won’t perform the same.”

Here’s where vinegar again can save the day. Maker recommends adding a half-cup to a cup, depending on your wash load, into the fabric softener cup of the washer. The vinegar acts as a natural softener without any negative effects on your clothing (and it helps cut odours).

Subscribe to Runner's World

Related Articles