Running to work every day is a great way to avoid the hassle of a congested commute while keeping fit and healthy. Stinky running gear, however, can start to make us a little unpopular in the office. Why do our running clothes start to stink and how can we stop it?
Top tips to help keep your running clothes stink-free
- Wash your running clothes as soon as possible after your run
- If your workplace has anywhere to dry your clothes, use it. Then wash them when you get home
- Have enough sets of running gear to give each shirt a few rest-days before it’s used again
- Use a sports specific washing product
- White Vinegar is a secret weapon against sports stink
- Add in some of the other tips at the end of this article
- Needing to quickly dry your running shoes, read The Fastest way to dry running shoes to avoid stinky runners!
What causes running clothes to smell?
We often blame our sweat on being the cause. However, studies suggest that oil-loving bacteria transferred from our skin onto the fabric are the real cause the smell. Sweat is essentially just a transportation system for the bacteria to move from our skin to the material in our running clothes.
As well as producing sweat, which transfers bacteria to our clothes, our running also creates warmth and moisture to create the bacteria equivalent of a holiday in Hawaii.
Winter running can be more challenging than summer as running clothes get wet more frequently and we can end up leaving them a day or two before washing them.
Which bacteria are involved in makes our running clothes smell?
Quite specific types of bacteria cause an unpleasant smell. Researchers at Ghent University, the University of Manchester and the University of Alberta suggest that that the most common bacteria present in the fabric after exercise are Staphylococci, Corynebacteria and Micrococcus.
In terms of stench causing, Staphylococci is the most innocent participant, more of a background lurker than its companions. We can move along to the next candidates.
Corynebacteria must take a significant part of the blame for causing an unpleasant odour. During Swedish research published in Microbiome, 24 people underwent testing, 13 of which were asked not to use deodorant/antiperspirant ahead of the research. The test group included both men and women.
Corynebacterium was recorded in high amounts in the smelly candidates, and in larger quantities in the males who were part of the test. Lower levels Corynebacterium were found in the research participants that were permitted to use antiperspirant.
Micrococcus is a particularly unpleasant-smelling bacteria. Micrococcus was found by researchers at the University of Ghent to prefer synthetic fabric. The outcome of that research is mixed news for our running wardrobe, stinky-bacteria love the synthetic polyester mix. However, cleaning products can target that specific bacteria.
Are natural or synthetic fabrics better for minimising the smell of running clothes
As we discovered above the two main culprits for gear stink, have a preference for synthetic fibres. Synthetic fibres have a knack of repelling water and absorbing fats. The absorption of oils keeps the bacteria close to the surface of your running shirt digesting the fats, leading to a more instant smell. The absorption of fats and oils into the fibres creates a perfect home for Micrococcus to digest and reproduce in the synthetic fibre.
Synthetic fibres don’t work well with hot or boil washes. This leaves much of the oils and any bacteria that survive the wash intact. The cycle of odour build-up can be recurring before you hit your next run!
The mix of low washing temperatures and oil-absorbing properties of synthetics can quickly lead to ‘perma-stink’. Perma-stink results in running clothes that start to smell almost the moment you put them on. Perma-stink is hard to remove as the oils that are encasing the bacteria won’t wash out in the low temperatures synthetic clothes need.
Natural fibres absorb water into the fibres, which helps hide the odour. The lack of water-repelling characteristics is one of the reasons natural fibres have become less-popular as running tops and shorts.
How do I stop my running clothes from smelling so much
Commuting to work in the morning means we stash our running clothes in a bag for about 8 hours before any chance of being washed. Stashing our running gear while it’s damp, with a good amount of oils from our skin in a warm environment is bacteria heaven.
Micrococcus is aerobic, like a long-distance runner it thrives best with easy access to oxygen. Removing some air by placing your running clothes into a tightly fastened plastic bag may help slow the odour-causing bacteria from reproducing in the office.
Depending on your place of work, keeping your running clothes laid out somewhere with access to sunlight can help quickly reduce the available moisture. Damp running clothes from the previous run to work can increase chaffing if you are susceptible to chaffing.
Read of in-depth running to work tips article for more information on managing your work commute.
Products that help remove the smell from my running gear
There is a good range of sports clothing-related cleaning products available now. These typically use enzymes to breakdown the oils and fats that harbour and feed the odour causing bacteria.
Follow the washing instructions with these products and avoid the temptation to add more than required into the washer. Best to try to do full complete washes of the correct amount of product if that favourite shirt won’t give up its stink. Adding more than is needed to a single wash will leave residue on the sports clothes, making it more challenging to wash next time around.
WIN Active fresh is an effective sports detergent, specifically targeting the oil build-up that other detergents struggle with at low-temperature wash. WIN also helps retain the moisture resistance/wicking of sports clothing.
HEX Performance is another excellent product for sports clothing. HEX also have cleaning products for the rest of your sports equipment, and bundled offers can often be found to save cash!
Sport Suds Sport Detergent is a top-selling and effective detergent for sports clothes. Sport Suds is particularly suitable for compression-wear.
Other techniques for removing the smell from my running gear
White vinegar soak
Many bacteria are ph sensitive. White vinegar has an acidic ph. A regular soaking of your running shirt in a bucket of warm water with a couple of cups of white vinegar can help remove any persistent stink and help as a preventative. White vinegar has a softening properly too, so leaves your shirts feeling good too.
Wash, bag and freeze
Another top tip is to wash your running clothes and then tightly bag them. Place the bag of clothes in the freezer for 24 hours. This approach seems to reduce the underlying bacteria count that persist even after washing. Remember to defrost before your next run!
Sunlight and UV
If you are lucky enough to enjoy a sunny climate washing, then drying your running clothes in the sun can knock back the amount of surviving bacteria. The ultra-violet (UV) in sunlight acts as a natural disinfectant.
Sunlight also damages many synthetic clothes over time, so essentially we have to determine which is the lessor of the two evils.
Top tip here is to dry your running shirts inside-out. Drying inside-out helps reduce fading. Most importantly, the UV light can’t penetrate the material, so drying inside-out gives the UV direct access to the material with the most bacteria.
Don’t use fabric conditioner when washing your running clothes. Fabric conditioner coats and fills the fabric to give a smooth and soft feel. Synthetic fabric doesn’t need conditioner and leaving the fibres more open will allow quicker drying and easier future washing. Adding a cup of white vinegar instead of fabric conditioner will result in the same soft feel.