There was a moment about 3k into practising for my first 10k run when it happened: I realised that my blowout, soft, flowing and fresh from this morning had begun sweating out at the roots. I am not a vain person but at that point my focus switched from making sure I nailed the next mile to, ‘Do I have a straightener at work to flatten my edges?’ or ‘Will the gym hairdryer have a heavy-duty comb attachment like mine at home to be able to get this back into shape?’
Black women and their hair is such a complex subject, there isn’t enough space here to go into the realms of articles and documentaries that have been done on the topic. But whether you have chemically straightened hair (been there), curly, natural hair (where I’m at now) or braids (a whole period at university where I thought I looked like Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice) hair becomes even more of a factor when you start to increase your fitness game.
For example, if you swim you need to plan how to deal with chlorine because when it mixes with a chemical relaxer it can seriously damage your hair. Meanwhile, a sweaty, morning run can leave even the bounciest of curly natural 'dos looking limp and flat. Then there are all the new fitness classes to try – from underwater spin class to Barry’s Bootcamp and Speedflex, all of which are designed to make you burn as many calories as possible in a short time and sweat. So, how do you fix your braids so they don’t weigh you down? How do you maintain a blowout while smashing your PB on the treadmill? And how do you perfect a gym to workout hairstyle that stays in all day? I contacted the fittest curly girls out there to ask for their advice.
Hannah Bronfman, DJ and founder of fitness and wellbeing website HBFit.com, New York
'My favourite workouts are definitely hip-hop classes. I love them because they don’t feel like work at all. I get into a groove and totally forget that two hours have passed, until I’m soaked in sweat. I’m not afraid to sweat out my blowout, but to maintain my hair I like to keep it in place with a cute French braid when I work out and a colourful headband by Scunci.
I’m mixed race, so my hair is naturally curly. I’ve tried everything from surfing to hot power yoga and the outcome with my hair is always the same. Anytime my hair gets wet, whether it’s sweat or salt water, it curls immediately — can’t fight it! My go-to hair products are: Oribe Dry Texturising Spray, Purely Perfect Cleansing Crème and Ouidad Climate Control Gel Heat And Humidity Gel. The main thing with my hair is that I don’t let it get in the way of my workouts; I love being able to share my personal journey with wellness. Being a role model for young girls is my main priority and of course repping brown girls is another responsibility that I take very seriously. There aren’t too many brown girls in the fitness space, so I hope I’m doing them proud!'
'If there is a shower at the gym I’m working out in then I will pack a little kit, which includes leave-in conditioner. It’s a great way to keep my hair hydrated and soft, plus keep my curls maintained throughout the day.'
Sanchia Legister, member of Run Dem Crew and Swim Dem Crew, London
'I’m hard to miss when I’m running. I just completed the Hackney Half Marathon and I ran with my full curly afro out, in colourful leggings, with my jewellery on. A little mixed race girl was running with her mum and she spotted me, and said ‘Mummy, look!’ and smiled at me. It was very sweet, because she was at that age where you start recognising self and people who look like you. We also have the Run Dem Crew youngers crew and I love that the group is a mix of ethnicities and full of young women who will ask me about running. I’ve also just started swimming with Swim Dem Crew, which is so fun. I love my hair but I definitely don’t let it get in the way of what I want to do and achieve with my fitness! For swimming I put organic olive oil on my hair the day before, which acts as a barrier for the chlorine. Co-washing has really helped too. '
Takeaway tip: 'I love Speedo swimming caps. When you are putting one on, I advise making your bun as small as possible. The great thing about afro hair is that it’s so versatile you can make it big and small. So I make a small bun and then compress it to put my cap on. Having your ears outside of the cap is not as attractive, but it provides a snug fit and lets less water in.'
Cantara Armah, fitness, health and lifestyle blogger at gymbagsandgladrags.com, London
'My blog is about my personal journey with fitness and I love being able to share what I’ve been up to. I enjoy lifting weights the most, as I love feeling stronger and getting muscle tone. As much as I like cardio, high intensity workouts wreak havoc on my hair when I've straightened it. I have afro, curly hair with a mixture of curl patterns. It is on the coarser end of the scale yet it straightens really well.
A topknot is my trusty gym hairstyle. When my hair is straight I try and maintain a blowout by tying my hair up in a loose topknot with a soft hairtie to minimise kinks and I wear a headband. Post workout I'll blow dry my roots to remove the sweat and the frizz, having my hair tied up means the ends of my hair don't get sweaty. That said, I've started straightening my hair less and less, partly because I'm trying to minimise heat damage and partly because it became ridiculous having to plan my workouts around my hairstyle or vice versa. When it’s curly I default to the topknot style too. It's quick, easy and having my hair up and out of my face means I can get as sweaty as I want. If my hair is curly then I won't even attempt to straighten my hair post-workout as it will take well over an hour and I'm sure other ladies in the changing rooms will complain! Instead I prefer a wash-and-go, so I'll pack a leave-in conditioner and my trusty Classic Wet Brush.'
Takeaway tip: 'I love the The Classic Wet Brush by The Wet Brush, which a hairdresser introduced me to. Before this, I would detangle my hair with a wide toothed comb, parting my hair into small sections and it would take ages. The bristles of the Wet Brush adjust so it glides through my hair easily without pulling. Detangling is a breeze now.'
Tamu Mcpherson, editor and founder of All The Pretty Birds, Milan
'I alternate between workouts and get in about 25 sessions per month when I'm not travelling. My favourite workouts are running and strength training; I’m currently training for the Nike 10k in Milan. Right now I have natural tight curls. When I had relaxed hair, I would visit my hair stylist on a weekly basis and enjoy an amazing hairstyle for a day or two before my workout schedule ruined the look. This is absolutely not an issue with natural hair; I've had very few days where I've had a hair crisis after working out. Wearing my hair cropped short in a TWA (tiny weenie afro) style is totally workout friendly. With my website and Instagram feed, I didn't set out to be a role model. I just want to encourage a balanced lifestyle. The key to maintaining our health is through solid nutrition habits and physical activity. I just want to communicate that the benefits of putting good things in our bodies and being active helps prevent disease and promotes longevity.'
Takeaway tip: 'I moisturise my hair every day, and I don't do anything in particular when I workout. I use natural oils like jojoba, coconut, argan and castor. They seem to do the trick all year round.'
Alexandria Williams, triathlete, sports nutrionist and co-founder of SportyAfros.com , Dallas, Texas
'I love running beyond the health aspects; I am a member of the National Black Marathoner Association. I've seen what this group of runners has done in the community and organisation to help change lives in the community. It’s also great watching myself get fitter and also encouraging others through fitness. I also love medals, as well as beer and tacos, which are provided at most races so it’s a great motivation, not to mention all the great friends I've made. I learned very quickly with my natural hair that creating a regimen is key. Just like having a 10k training plan, your hair needs a routine too. Know what days are wash and blowdry days, and what days you’ll rock your natural curly style. Once you find a regimen, keep your hairstyles and product stash simple, to keep your hair in good shape and decrease stress while training. For my triathlon training I had products I used specifically before and after a swim, as well as hats for my running days. When training for my triathlon, my love of wigs was also born!'
Takeaway tip: 'Before and after exercising, spray hair with a hydrating spray and secure with headbands, a hat or scarf. UnderArmour has some of the best headbands and Boni Bands are a good alternative too. Also be aware that jumping and running with heavy weaves or box braids overtime can cause friction on the hair, so always keep hair secured in a hat, headband or your go-to preferred hairstyle.'