Picture: Stella McCartney for Adidas


Is expensive workout gear really worth it?

There’s a big difference between whether pricey sweatpants make you run faster or just feel better, says Alexandra Heminsley. The question is, what message are we being sold?  

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By Alexandra Heminsley on

The athleisure market won’t go away – no matter how much we hate the word, we enjoy wearing elasticated clothing enough to tolerate it. Selfridges has just launched its Body Studio, a mecca for all things tight and stretchy; Beyoncé recently presented us with her Ivy Park range and athleisure pioneers Lululemon’s fortunes are showing no immediate signs of waning. We’re a long way from the sports industry’s old maxim that to sell to women simply meant ‘shrink it and pink it’.

But is the high-end kit really worth it? Is £90 for Nike “Tight of the Moment” going make our workout better than if we were wearing a comparable pair from GAP? Are Stella McCartney Pure Boost X trainers going to improve our 10k time over the regular pair? And will splashing out on a £140 tulle skirt from Ballet Beautiful give us the edge at barre class… or merely get us put on a list for wearing an adult tutu in public?

In short, our answer depends on what we consider “worth it” to mean. It is three years this week since Running Like A Girl was published and there is yet to be any study published that overrides the advice I gave then regarding trainers: simply buy the ones that don’t make you feel crap about yourself. That, dear reader, is worth it.  

There is a tendency with running-shoe manufacturers to “medicalise” the new runner’s gait, diagnosing “problems” that can only be solved by pricey footwear. These “problems” are often mere symptoms of being a new runner, more easily solved by squats than cash. Sure, if you find yourself running 30+ miles a week and developing a very keen sense of what your gait is doing, you might end up wanting a specific type of shoe. Until then, buy the pair that will cheer you up on a grey Monday. 

Similarly, there is very little evidence that top-of-the-range brands are “worth it” in terms of performance. The best compression socks I ever owned were from Lidl, the wicking fabric used by H&M that moves sweat from your body feels just the same as any other brands and I wear my husband’s old T-shirts to Pilates. If you’re buying for a specific type of exercise, it’s the details that matter: you definitely want a pocket when buying leggings for distance running, but it’s just another seam to lie on when buying them for yoga. You don’t need the most expensive wetsuit for swimming, just as long as you buy one that is horrifyingly skintight: anything else will let constant cold water in and leave you with hypothermia. And a well-fitting sports bra should be prioritised above all else, regardless of style.

There is yet to be any study published that overrides the advice I gave then regarding trainers: simply buy the ones that don’t make you feel crap about yourself. That, dear reader, is worth it  

But – and it’s a big but – buying decent workout wear is absolutely worth it if it’s going to make you exercise more, and make you enjoy that exercise more. We shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to spend what we can afford on colours, shapes and fabrics that please us any more than we should about buying make-up in shades and scents that make the daily grind more bearable or home accessories that make dreich Sunday evenings a cosy joy. 

Some brands use better fabrics than others, nipping in an unruly waist or hoiking up an otherwise flat arse. And some create prints which simply lift the spirit. Taking the time to find which brands suit your shape and indulging when you can afford it is one of the great pleasures of exercise – and I will happily practise my nascent Thai boxing skills on anyone who says that these moments are not. 

There is however a fine line between feeling like a superhero in your new running tights and being sold infinite unnecessary kit under the guise of nebulous ideas around female confidence - particularly by brands run by men. The cat was somewhat let out of the bag in 2013 by Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, whose blurted response to complaints that their yoga pants fabric was pilling horribly was “Frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t actually work, for Lululemon yoga pants”.

In recent years athleisure came to realise that we were bored of being told that we needed to look ‘slimmer’, leading to a near constant stream of messages about being ‘badass’ or ‘strong not skinny’. The trouble is, the accompanying images are rarely of anything other than women dewy with sweat, bending seductively, lips slightly parted … suggesting that for many, the goal remains encouraging us to look traditionally hot. I have not bought from Lululemon since Wilson’s 2013 comments: there’s too much good stuff out there to be talked down to because my thighs touch in the middle. 

It’s over six months since Skit Box’s sketch ‘Active Wear’ went viral, and these women understood best why decent work out gear is worth it: it’s where looking good and being ridiculously comfortable meet, so we want to wear it all day regardless of what we’re doing.

Click here for the workout gear edit


The Pool is hosting a talk called Do We Need To Rethink What Fitness Means To Us? on 27th April at Selfridges Body Studio. Click here for details.

Picture: Stella McCartney for Adidas
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