Wicking Material: What's the Big Deal?
Updated: Sep 2, 2022
Written by Ally Bowersock, Ph.D., CSCS
Perhaps you wore that cotton race shirt to a 5K in August only to have it stick to your skin the rest of the day? Maybe you had chills all day after a long run in December? The longer you are whatever environment you're in, whether it's hot or cold, at altitude or sea level- the more these factors can influence your performance, recovery, and readiness for the next workout.
In hot and humid temperatures, some textiles such as cotton traps moisture on the skin, impeding the body's ability to cool itself. Therefore, the "moisture management" properties of the athlete's clothing are imperative for promoting both sweat evaporation and transfer of moisture to the environment. (1). During high-humidity outdoor workouts, the moisture content in the air is already high relative to the sweating athlete, so core temperature maintenance is impeded and performance can be negatively impacted. Thus, attention to the type of clothing worn can play a significant role in simply completing a workout in hot and humid temperatures.
In a recent study of competitive cyclists, power output and cycling speed was significantly higher among cyclists wearing synthetic moisture-wicking fabric compared to their cotton-wearing counterparts while racing in a temperature-controlled laboratory (2). In addition to influence on performance, wearing wicking fabric improves athletes' sensation of comfort during a workout as trapped moisture on the skin can lead to feelings of stickiness, wetness, and overall discomfort. (3). The type of synthetic material does not seam to impact performance or perception of comfort as much as the air permeability of the athlete's clothing. Ultimately, as long as the material promotes evaporation by allowing moisture to evaporate from the skin, core temperature is better maintained (or lowered in some cases) and both actual performance and perception of performance outcomes improves. (4).
While some people significantly scale back their outdoor walking and running in hot and humid months, others trudge forward in any weather. If in the latter group, you will encounter the aforementioned circumstances. In fact, it is assessed that as many as 1/4 of all running races take place in hot and humid temperatures (5). The "no such thing as bad weather" group, therefore, will fall prey to humid running conditions. Be prepared with the proper clothing and suffer just a little less on race day!
1.Basuk, M., Choudhari, M., Maiti, S., & Adivarikar, RV. Moisture Management Properties of Textiles and its Evaluation. Current Trends in Fashion Technology and Textile Engineering. 3(3), 2018. DOI: 10.19080/CTFTTE.2018.03.555611
2. Ferguson, J., Hadid, A., Epstein, Y. & Jensen, D. Effect of Clothing Fabric on a 20-k Cycling Performance in Endurance Athletes. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 3, (2022). https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.735923
3. Di Domenico, I., Hoffmann, S.M. & Collins, P.K. The Role of Sports Clothing in Thermoregulation, Comfort, and Performance During Exercise in the Heat: A Narrative Review. Sports Med - Open, 8(58); 2022. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-022-00449-4
4. Sousa, J., Cheatham, C., & Wittbrodt, M. The Effects of a Moisture-Wicking Fabric Shirt on the Physiological and Perceptual Responses during Acute Exercise in the Heat. Applied Ergonomics, 45(6); 2014. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2014.04.006
5. Mantzios K, Ioannou LG, Panagiotaki Z, Ziaka S, Périard JD, Racinais S, Nybo L, Flouris AD. Effects of Weather Parameters on Endurance Running Performance: Discipline-specific Analysis of 1258 Races. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2022 Jan 1;54(1):153-161. doi: 10.1249