Before 2012’s Steamtown Marathon, held in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Mirna Valerio, author of body-positive memoir A Beautiful Work in Progress, had purchased what she initially thought were the ideal pair of running tights. Jumping around in them in the store’s fitting room, they seemed perfect.
Steamtown is a popular Boston Qualifier for runners because the course drops 955 feet, with much of the downhill coming in the first half. Little did Mirna know, her race strategy would also go downhill that day. For the first eight miles, she ran with one hand holding onto her tights’ waistband to prevent them from slipping down.
“Of course that affected my gait,” she said on a call over Zoom. “I had to keep thinking about my pants. I wasn’t really able to enjoy this amazing downhill because I was worrying about my pants falling down.”
Wardrobe malfunctions like this were inconvenient but not uncommon for Mirna. As a plus-size runner, her apparel choices were limited.
Fit and Functional
Brands have finally realized that plus-size athletes need more options and that, for a runner like Mirna, who participates in marathons and ultras, comfortable and functional clothing is a necessity. Since becoming a Lululemon ambassador in 2020, she has taken on an advisory role testing plus-size samples.
“Just talking to Mirna about the things she wanted to see in the market, not necessarily as an athlete but as a human, the lightbulbs started going off,” said Kate Williams, vice president of Lululemon’s women’s design. “It’s about choice. It’s about having the choice that everyone else has.”
When Mirna shopped for activewear 10 years ago, she mostly wore gym clothes from the men’s department.
“I could hardly ever find anything to run in,” she said. “There was never any women’s clothes that fit me unless they were not technical clothing. They were usually cotton tights or sports bras that may have looked cute but didn’t offer any sort of support.”
There’s more to the formula than just adding dimensions and material to a smaller-sized garment. On Lululemon’s website, you’ll see “Plus Size” under the women’s tab but not the men’s. That’s because women’s bodies have special needs. They have curves.
“A woman’s needs, and what she runs in, requires more pattern engineering and different types of construction for boobs, tummies, butts, hips, all of the jiggly bits,” said Williams. “Whereas for men, it’s a simpler proposition, especially if you consider that all they need to wear is a T-shirt and shorts.”
The Comfiest Activewear for Curvy Runners
These pieces are supportive, breathable, and available in colors other than black.
When designing running tights, for example, Williams’s team contemplates the level of compression, stitching, and how the wearer will actually feel moving in them: Do they want to forget they’re running in tights or feel just a little squish to know they’re doing their job? Elements like internal drawcords, mesh, and whether the waistband can fold over are considered by the design team and then assessed by testers, who check for durability, chafing, colors and patterns, if the tights will roll up or if they’ll fall down.
“We’re not making clothes for robots,” said Williams. “We’re making clothes for people that are in movement all the time and they all have different experiences.”
Besides Lululemon, mainstream brands like Athleta and Old Navy, and specialty brands like Skirt Sports and Oiselle, also include plus-size clothing in their collections. A brand that exclusively makes activewear for plus-size athletes, Superfit Hero, was launched in 2015 by CEO and founder Micki Krimmel.
“I created Superfit Hero as an alternative to traditional fitness culture,” she said to RW. “A truly inclusive fitness brand that celebrates bodies as they are, not as they ‘should’ be.”
Superfit Hero sells only plus-size clothing, offering L to 7X. According to Krimmel, an issue plus-size runners face is access.
“Runners of all shapes and sizes participate in endurance running events even if you don’t see them represented by the mainstream running industry and apparel brands,” she said. “Plus-size runners have always been a part of the running community.”
The product development process involves listing runners’ product requests for consideration, and having fit models wear-test the entire size range. All of the models on the website are plus-size so customers can see themselves represented. It also makes it easier to visualize what the product will look like when they wear it.
Even though more brands are including plus-size options, Krimmel thinks there’s still plenty of work to be done. “Brands shouldn’t assume because they know how to make ‘straight size’ clothing that they are experts at plus-size clothing,” she said. “Hire experts with experience designing for plus-size bodies. Hire plus-size models. Fit, test, and fit again on as many body types as possible. The plus-size customer has been burned by the false promises of many brands. Plus-size shoppers are savvy, and you will have to earn their trust.”
RW+ Members Chat About Plus-Size Clothing
We asked RW+ members what brands can do to make apparel more accessible for plus-size runners. Here are some of their answers.
“There is not much gear available for large runners. I cannot find a running hydration pack that fits me. After trying many things, I ended up modifying the straps on one.”—Nick K.
“A five- to seven-inch inseam is perfect. Just because I am larger does not mean I need Bermuda shorts!”—Dani E.
“If you want to get something other than black leggings and T-shirts, you’re sort of stuck with only a handful of choices. And some brands don’t carry 14/16 in their stores, so you have to order online and then return online.”—Kate N.
Amanda is a test editor at Runner’s World who has run the Boston Marathon every year since 2013; she's a former professional baker with a master’s in gastronomy and she carb-loads on snickerdoodles.