SparkPeople Blogs  •  fitness  •  winter

6 Good Reasons to Work Out in Wool

By , SparkPeople Blogger
It was my five-days-without-a-shower (TMI?) trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon that taught me about the amazing properties of wool.
Most of us think of wool as the fabric for our winter sweaters or hats, but as I shopped at outdoor and camping stores for my trip, wool was everywhere. Wool underwear, wool hiking socks, wool base layers, wool running tights, wool everything. "What's with all this wool?" I wondered?
Since then, I've learned (and experienced) what an extremely versatile material wool really is. Beyond winter fashion, wool is one of the best materials for exercise clothing—and not just in the winter.  I now have a wool neck gaiter, wool base layers for running, and socks, which are not only the socks I wear every day but also the only socks I'll wear while running.
Still not convinced? Allow me to share the six amazing reasons you should be adding more wool to your workout wardrobe (plus tips for choosing the right wool).
  1. Wool doesn't stink. I'm not a wool or fabric scientist, so I can't explain why this is the case, but it's the truth. When I wore the same pair of socks for 5 days of hiking, my feet didn't stink at all—and neither did my shoes or socks. Although performance workout clothes do tend to get a little stinky after they've been sweated in several times, the wool clothes that I work out in have never taken on that stinky workout smell. For me, that's more bang for my buck because I can wear wool clothes longer (and more times between washes) without them smelling rancid. And for people who do hike or camp, you can get away with packing less and wearing more of the same clothes without offending your nose.
  2. Wool lasts a long time. I wouldn't say that wool costs any more than my other workout apparel addiction (ahem, Lululemon!), but when I buy wool clothes I know I'm making a sound investment. Because they don't stink over time and because they're strong materials, they don't get holes in them or wear down or wear out as quickly as my other workout clothes do. "We have clients who have had their apparel since we stared in the early 1990s," says Lee Weinstein, a representive from the wool-apparel company Icebreaker. I've punished my wool workout clothes in regular workouts for many years and they still look, smell and perform as well as they did on day one.
  3. Wool warms…and cools. What's so interesting to me about wool is that it almost adapts to your needs. Wool is a very insulating material, which makes it great for winter workout layering. At the same time, like high-tech performance wear, wool is also breathable. It keeps you cool and allows for air circulation. It's a pretty amazing duality. I can wear the same wool top when it's 40 degrees out and be and be equally warm against the weather, but cool despite the fact that I'm working so hard. At the same time, I can wear that top as a base layer when it's 20 degrees out and still feel cool yet warm. You can find thin wool tops designed for summer workouts and hot weather, as well as products that are thicker and made for much colder temperatures. Merino is "great in the heat and humidity," says Weinstein. Lighter wools "offer the same no-stink, no-itch moisture wicking properties as heavier weight merino apparel," he adds.
  4. Wool wicks moisture. Like your favorite performance workout clothes, wool wicks away moisture keeping you dry while you exercise. Here's a case in point. I can go running in a total downpour, sloshing through puddles for miles. But when I wear my wool socks my feet feel and stay dry and I never get a blister. I wear wool socks for every run, especially long runs or half-marathon race day and I've never once had a blister. Weinstein adds that, "Wool socks can also be worn for days without a wash because they, too, don't hold odor, and you can even wear merino underwear and running bras." (I might have to try those myself!)
  5. Wool is easy to care for. I don't have to do anything special when laundering my wool workout clothes. I pop them in the washer with regular detergent and everything else in the load. I do hang dry them (but you don't usually have to), and I don't have to be delicate with them or do multiple washes on a separate or gentle cycle. Wool is simply easy! You should refer to the care instructions on your garment; some merino apparel should be laid flat to dry.
  1. Wool is natural. Some would even say it's eco-friendly (a renewable resource that's also biodegradable!). I seek out natural ingredients for my food, natural cleaners for my home, and natural materials for my clothes. I almost never buy clothing that is synthetic or acrylic, but I always make an exception for workout clothes. Synthetic materials give performance wear its moisture-wicking power, and I'm not about to tromp about in a sweat-soaked cotton T-shirt. While synthetics are made from petroleum-based plastic (weird, eh?) and in far-away countries, wool naturally has those same properties (and then some) and is often constructed from fair-trade yarns that are sustainably harvested (for lack of a better term) and/or sewn right here in the USA. I'm not going to trade in all my cute performance tops for wool, but I have purposely been adding more wool to my exercise wardrobe over the last couple of years—and I can feel good about those purchases.
Intrigued? Do it right, as not all wool is created equally. That wool sweater you bought at the Gap or received from Grandma isn't the same as performance wool. Work out in that and you'll find yourself overly sweaty and super itchy/uncomfortable. Regular wool is much too thick and scratchy for working out. What's the difference? Weinstein explains:
"First off, there's traditional wool, like granny wore, and then there's merino wool. Merino insulates naturally because it comes from the sheep. Icebreaker's merino wool is grown in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, where it must work for sheep in extremely hot days, yet be insulating and warm when temperatures at the 12,000 foot level drop below freezing. Merino wool comes from a much smaller fiber, as a result it doesn't itch, and feels wonderfully soft a supple against your skin. It's fantastic for exercise -- it naturally wicks moisture, plus it doesn't hold odor like synthetics or cotton. You can literally wear your Icebreaker merino workout apparel for days or weeks without a wash, saving you on detergent and more."

The two biggest names in wool workout apparel are SmartWool and Icebreaker (pictured above), both of which use soft merino wool in their products. (I'm sure there are many more brands that I'm not mentioning, so please share your favorites in the comments!). You can find some wool workout clothes at big-box sporting goods stores, but specialty workout/running stores along with camping/outdoor stores (especially REI) generally have the best selection.
You'll definitely spend more money for wool apparel than you will on non-performance clothing (think cotton T-shirts or socks) and performance clothing alike, in my experience. Wool socks will set you back $12-$20 per pair on average, which may seem steep but when I think about how many pairs of cotton socks I would have bought and replaced the last three years, I realize I'm probably spending less on the wool ones, which I can wear multiple days in a row. The long-sleeve wool running shirts I recently purchased were about $85 each, a little more than I'd spend on a brand new performance shirt for winter layering. But I don't need additional shirts because I can re-wear the same one several times in the week. Plus my experience tells me that the wool product will last years longer and be more versatile overall (I also wear merino not working out!), so I consider it worth the higher cost. If anything, it's a nice splurge every so often when I want to treat myself.
Curious about trying wool but don't want to pay the high price tag? Late winter and early fall are both great times to buy the merchandise that retailers want to clear out. I just say a summer tank top on sale at my local running store for 75% off, which made it less than $20, and now is the time to look for sales on the thicker wool layering pieces designed for winter.

Photo Credit: (Everything on the model is wool workout clothing by Ice Breaker.)
Have I convinced you? Would you (or do you) work out in wool?

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints


KOALA_BEAR 6/12/2020
I was told yeare ago by my doctor to stay tom woolen items, sweaters & blankets were aggravating my eczema. However lanolin lotion did too. Recently saw an ad for a item made from merino wool, also addressing the lack of odor when worn a often between laundering such as during travel. I may try that first & see how it goes since higher cost is fine provided I'll be able to wear it. Report
KOALA_BEAR 6/12/2020
I was told yeare ago by my doctor to stay tom woolen items, sweaters & blankets were aggravating my eczema. However lanolin lotion did too. Recently saw an ad for a item made from merino wool, also addressing the lack of odor when worn a often between laundering such as during travel. I may try that first & see how it goes since higher cost is fine provided I'll be able to wear it. Report
KOALA_BEAR 6/12/2020
I was told yeare ago by my doctor to stay tom woolen items, sweaters & blankets were aggravating my eczema. However lanolin lotion did too. Recently saw an ad for a item made from merino wool, also addressing the lack of odor when worn a often between laundering such as during travel. I may try that first & see how it goes since higher cost is fine provided I'll be able to wear it. Report
I have heard so many different points of views, it can get confusing. Report
Useful info, thanks Report
I am willing to give this one a try. Report
I would like to try this one. Report
This one was a real "eye opener", thanks, Coach! Report
Give me synthetic! It's so much easier to clean. Report
Thank you Coach Nicole! I learned something! Report
Having read a LOT of articles here on SP over the years, I was surprised to run across a POV I'd never considered before. Thanks for writing this article. Report
This article has good reasons to work out in wool, but I am not wearing it for any reason, let alone working out. Report
I just now saw this article - but I had seen another article elsewhere about the benefits of SmartWool socks. I did buy some but I think I accidentally shrunk the socks because they aren't as comfortable. I introduced them to my husband and he loves them. We're trying to buy more SmartWool as we find them on sales (who cares if it is "last year's colors" etc.). Because of edema I find it better for me to go ahead and find the mens larger socks and just deal with having the extra length (fold them up over etc.). Report
Hi All
I buy 100% wool products at where they have Dachstein Woolwear 100% wool socks, gloves,, mittens, tees, and sweaters at

Thanks and love the spark program Nicole Report
I knitted wool helmet liners for our troops in Afghanistan (can't spell anymore). Any way the yarn had to be 100% wool because if wet, it is still warm. Also,while not flame retardant, wool resists burning like other yarn does. The young men wearing these garments stated the fabric did not itch. Pure wool will not rub blisters on feet as do acrylics. Don't sell wool short. A good pair can be purchased at Walmart for around $4. If you are worried about itching, you might try rinsing the socks in hair conditioner. Report
I have 4 pair of smart wool socks from REI that I have worn year round for 7 years,and not just for work outs. They don't shrink or stretch. After reading this article I am ready to try more wool apparel. Report
Many people who think they are 'allergic' to wool ARE experiencing irritation, but are not actually allergic. Sometimes what you are reacting to is the quality of the wool, the direction the staple was when spun into yarn, or the finishing chemicals used. Merino is particularly noted for being soft and very tolerable to people who otherwise say wool is too itchy. So it's worth giving performance wool a second look, and maybe you'll find it wearable. (Side note, I always hated linen because it was so scratchy, but turns out it's NOT, it's the chemicals added to make it look a certain way. Unstarched linen, for example, does wrinkle like mad but it gets softer and softer and more comfortable with each washing. It's also hard wearing and wicks sweat better than cotton.)
I love wool performance socks and hope to have other wool items some day. These socks are not the same as the wool that makes you itchy. They truly are soft and last a long time. I give them to every one in my family every Christmas. One of the local retailers has a sale every fall on the Smartwool socks and another brand, "Darn tough" are made right here in VT so I get a pair of those as well. Another benefit to the socks seems to be that feet are not inclined to blister. Report
If money was no object, I would own everything Smartwool makes. I love their stuff! I started buying their socks when I was training for a mid-winter half marathon. The half was in Florida, but I trained in Michigan, so winter running was the my thing. On one run, I accidentally stepped in a very slushy puddle. Even though that foot was a little more wet and a little more cold, it was not such a huge difference that I needed to stop running and change my socks. My Smartwool PhD running socks kept the worst of the cold and wet from my skin for the remainder of my run. Love them! Report
My only problem is that I am allergic to wool. I itch like crazy if I wear it. Report
I love wool, but I need to keep it a safe distance from my skin. I am trying to experiment more with silk which seems to have a number of the same properties but isn't as easily available. Report
I can't wear wool. My skin is too sensitive. The idea of wearing socks more than one day is kind of gross. Report
Just reading this made me break out in hives. Lol. No wool for this girl, I'm allergic. :( Report
reading this story made me itch all over

I like smartwool socks but I wear them with liners. Report
Very informative! I stayed away from wool for years, after (as a young bride) I washed the matching sweaters my mom-in-law knit for my hubby & me and dried them in the dryer. They came out too small for anyone we knew! Now (many years later) hubby has some merino wool socks for skiing that are every bit as great as you say. Gotta get me some! Thanks, Nicole! Report
As a spinner and weaver, I've been wearing wool for years and it still hurts to pay the money for Smartwool socks, but they are the best. And, of course, this is the year that Polar Max will stop manufacturing their merino wool base layers, so get them while you can. Report
This is very interesting and I have learned something new. I plan on purchasing wool socks tonight. Report
I'm gonna check it out. I had no clue it was that versatile. Thanks Report
I adore smartwool socks: warm, breatheable. When I do have to part with a pair after several years, it's like saying goodbye to an old friend. Report
I didn't need convincing! I've avoided synthetics for all my clothing for decades now--partly b/c they make me itch, and a lot b/c their manufacture is TERRIBLE for the environment. I wear cotton, wool, silk (sometimes) as my main fibers.

Wool also holds color better than other fabrics. It's just great stuff. Report
You've convinced me! I will definitely be buying some as I can, probably one piece every six months as my wardrobe budget is about $100 per year. Report
I've never found woolen anything that didn't make me itch, but I'd be willing to try the wool socks. Report
I have worn Smartwool and Darn tough socks for years and am convinced they are great! and buy them for everyone for Christmas, and have wanted to try some other exercise wear. Report
As a reward for completing C25K, I treated myself to some proper exercise clothes. For the tops I ended up picking a long-sleeved zip neck and a short-sleeved merino tops. They are incredible - flattering, comfortable, temperature-regulating and never whiffy. They look nice enough that they could be worn every day too. They are by far my best buys - am keeping my eyes open for sales so I can buy more!
We took a cross-country skiing class many years ago, and the instructor said "cotton kills!" (telling us not to ski in cotton, because it would get wet and stay wet, unlike wool). We like to make that joke in lots of situations. Report
I am very allergic to wool. Start scratching just thinking about it. The Pigrims wore wool without washing it for quite awhile. Guess they knew something , huh? Report
When we walked the English Moors as kids in my era did. We were always told to take along a woolly Jumper(Sweater in US) if we were wet and wore wool we still stayed warm. If we wore cotton we would feel really cold. That original wool smelled like wet sheep, it shrank and we needed MOTH BALLS to protect if from being moth bitten, which caused very large holes.
This new generation of wool is so much different. It is EASY care for sure. My Smart wool socks from LLBean have made a major difference to me. having warm feet in Maine winters. I used to wear 2 pairs of socks and still often cold feet, these are standalone socks and work really well.
Merrino is not itchy, I am allergic to wool but wool itchiness is not a real allergy for me. The old wool had many short hairs poking out and tickling the skin. The finer merrino actually behaves more like the silks I used to wear in winter. These are about to be replaced with merrino as soon as the winter mark downs are in the sales. Pat in Maine. Very informative Blog Thanks Nicole Report
A client of a shoe store, just gave me some Smartwool socks and told me I "had to try them, I'd be amazed". He was so right! I loved them so much I didn't take them off for 2 days, and you're right -there is no smell and my feet stayed dry and comfy. Just bought 4 pairs for hiking, once you go wool, you won't go back! LOL I'm going to have to try the clothes now. I'm definitely a believer in wool! Report
I never knew that I could wear my Smartwool socks several days in a row. I have several pairs because I wear them every day during the winter months. Not washing them so frequently will definitely help them to last longer. I LOVE them! Report
I recently bought a wool top, wool running tights, wool undies and socks! I love them all! I got them in the late fall to be able to continue running outside as it got cold. I will buy more but you are right, they are not cheap! The odor part is amazing too! Report
I've been using wool socks but after reading your rave review I'm going to have to spring for a wool top too! Report
I love wool, but it doesn't love me. Even a little wool in something makes me itch after a few minutes, though I do have wool socks that I can wear for a bit longer.

Is the wool being used in these workout clothes treated or processed in some way to remove the itch factor, or is it a particular type of wool (merino, cashmere, etc.)?

Ha, ha, answered my own question by clicking on the SmartWool link in the blog: it's merino wool! Report
I love wool! Report
This is a fact!
during long workouts on the trail, it would take a long time for my
hands, feet and head... to feel warm.
So, being a knitter, I fashioned a snug pullover hat,
socks, and mittens in bright red merino wool.
Now I am so warm, I often pull off the hat and mitts
as my work out warms down.
But absolutely: the warmth maintained is excellent,
there is not stink factor,
it wicks moisture,
and it is so cozy and longlasting.

AND I save $$$ my knitting my own!
Next winter: I plan to knit on overvest to wear
over a turtleneck but under my fleece.
Works, and its all organic too! Report
Awesome. Have learn a lot about wool and how good it is to wear year around. Thank You for the information. God Bless You and Have a Wonderful Week. Report
Interesting blog... Thanks!!! Report
I love working out in wool! Report
Interesting & helpful blog, thanks. Report
Darn it! (no pun intended)
You just outed my SmartWool secret!
Now I'm going to have to pay top dollar..... Report