It’s important to not ignore the offputting fact that hair is one of the main reasons Black women will avoid working out. A study conducted in Detroit revealed that 45% of Black women admitted to avoiding the gym because they didn’t want to ruin their hair. Obviously, something has got to give. It’s already alarming that the CDC reports over 55% of Black women who are 20 and older are obese. This ongoing issue in our community may stem, in part, from the endemic belief that there’s no way to maintain natural hair while exercising. And that’s false.
Unfortunately, many Black women perpetually avoid the gym due to their attachment to their hair, which contributes to a larger, societal epidemic when it comes to health in our community. Be honest—has a fresh flatiron ever stopped you from working out? We’re all guilty of it. But contrary to popular belief, there are ways to maintain your natural hair at the gym. It’s all about giving your hair the time and attention it deserves. We scouted out SoulCycle instructor Taye Johnson, who also happens to be a natural hair guru, and fellow naturalista and fitness influencer Robbie Darby (who's also the creator of a motivational wellness movement called the RAD Experience,) to share their best hair-saving gym tricks. You’re going to want to take notes on these tips and send them to a curl friend—they’re that good.
Read on for the natural hair secrets they swear by that don’t keep them from sweating it out at the gym.
Leave-In Treatments and Essential Oils Will Do Your Curls Justice
“The key is to moisturize,” says Darby. "Sweat is a combination of your body exuding salt, which can be drying on your hair. Natural hair is already naturally dryer than other textures. You don’t want your sweat to add to that, which is why you have to keep up a moisturizing routine. I deep condition every week without fail.”
If you’re not sure how to incorporate super-hydrating products into your routine, try Darby's method: “Before I go to the gym, I put my hair in a high ponytail and spritz a DIY moisturizing concoction that works like a leave-in conditioner. I fill up a spray bottle with 3/4 natural spring water, a dollop of my go-to conditioner, and a few drops of essential oils like lavender or witch hazel. I spritz enough on to get my hair damp, not wet. Then, I’ll lather my edges with coconut oil. I’ll follow that up with a hat or a scarf. Post-workout, my hair has this messy, big curly look that I love because it’s been treated with all my intentional haircare steps beforehand. The coconut oil, the leave-in conditioner, and the essential oils mixed with a little bit of sweat are the perfect combination for my natural hair.”
Johnson also swears by keeping moisture in her hair when she’s sweating 24/7. Similar to Darby, she has a quick three-step regimen for her hair before she works out to keep up the hydration. “I always apply a leave-in spray, Moroccanoil, and essential oils to keep my hair hydrated. When you’re working out, your ends will get brittle because they’re always wet. It’s best to coat your hair with oils when it’s already damp,” Johnson says. “I love rosemary oil because it helps my hair grow and thoroughly cleans my scalp. When you’re sweating, you want to keep a breathable and healthy scalp. I’m working out, like, three times a day, so when my hair’s not smelling as fresh and I want a good rinse, I cleanse my scalp with 100% pure rosemary oil.”
Shampoo Less, Co-Wash More
Johnson skips shampoo altogether in her routine. “I don’t use shampoo. Shampoo strips away my hair’s natural oils, and I want to retain those oils to keep my hair growing, shiny, and moisturized,” she explains. “I co-wash my hair every morning with conditioner. It gives my curls this springy bounce-back that I love. While I sweat and work out, I don’t want all the toxins to dry out my hair, so I keep it oiled and hydrated by co-washing.”
Darby also doesn’t shampoo her hair often. Like Johnson, she reaches for her favorite co-wash instead. “On Monday, I won’t shampoo because I don’t want to strip my hair’s natural moisture. But I’ll co-wash my hair and apply a creamy cleanser once a week for hydration,” Darby notes.
Find a Go-To Gym Hairstyle
One of Johnson’s favorite styles is a middle part slicked back into a low bun. “When I work out, I don’t really like a lot of things on me,” she says. “I’m a ‘sports bra and slicked-back hair’ type of girl so I can just get it in. I use a pomade mixed with water to lay down my edges, which is why I always keep a boar bristle brush in my bag. My hair is naturally curly so I like to keep it pulled back to avoid oils and hair in my face.” When she’s not wearing a low bun, Johnson likes wearing braids. “I just apply leave-in conditioner and cornrow my hair. After I work out, I hit my braids with a blow-dryer on cool and take them out. Then I’ll have this cute, crinkly wavy style set,” says Johnson.
Darby likes her hair to be fashionable and functional for her workouts and her style switches up depending on the workout. “If it’s a lower-impact workout, I’ll keep my hair out in a wash-and-go style. If I want to get a good burn and my workout’s more intense, I’ll pull my hair back. My hair is pretty long right now, so it gets in the way. When it’s shorter, I’ll leave it out.” Her method is to make your sweat work for your hair by embracing big, frizzy curls. “Natural hair is the easiest version of hair to have when you’re working out,” explains Darby. “The frizz is welcomed in the natural hair family. The longer I’ve been natural, the more I’ve grown to appreciate bigger hair.”
Darby continues: “If your hair pattern is still problematic after you work out, try doing three buns in your hair, and rock a cute bun mohawk,” Darby suggests. “It’s a sporty yet feminine style. When I let my buns loose, it leaves my hair with a nice wave and volume. Some women with tighter curl patterns will work out with twist-outs in their hair and take them down afterward.”
Turn to Protective Hairstyles
“I love wavy extensions,” says Johnson. “When I’m working up a sweat in the gym, wavy extensions blend in with my natural curl pattern. When extensions are wavy, it’s easy to style your hair without having to use heat because all you need is mousse. Just spritz your strands with water, shake, and mousse.”
Box braids are also one of Johnson’s go-to protective styles. “I just wrap them up into a bun on top of my head. This way, my braids are never in my face when I’m working out, and I can let them down after I cool off.”
Darby never thought she would, but she recently invested in a wig. “They’re functional,” she says. “On the days I don’t have the energy to blow out or do my hair, I just throw my wig on top.”
To Control Your Hair's Buildup, Use Clarifying Products
“Twice a month, I use a clarifying product,” explains Darby. “When you’re not using shampoo and only conditioning your hair, it can result in a lot of buildup. Deva Curl Buildup Booster ($37) is a cleanser that doesn’t sud up like shampoo, but it cleans my hair from all the buildup. I make sure to do this twice a month.”
No matter what your hair type, exfoliating your scalp is a key step to removing product build-up. Using a clarifier with peppermint oil will help your scalp feel refreshed.
Schedule Your Workouts Around Your Hair
Darby is a huge proponent of sticking to a strict regimen to manage her hair and workouts. “I like having big hair, so I’ll do my wash no-go’s at the end of the week because my weekend workouts are moderate. As the weekend goes on, by Sunday, my brunch hair is so big due to the sweat I’ve had during my workout,” she says.
Steam Your Hair to Cleanse and Rejuvenate
If you have access to a gym, Darby suggests applying a leave-in conditioner and going inside of the sauna to let it seep into your strands for 15 to 20 minutes. “When I do that, I feel like I just left the salon because my hair’s so soft and moist,” she says. “You can get the same effect in your home bathroom, too. Turn your shower all the way up to make it really hot, and close your doors and windows. Put on conditioner with a shower cap to trap the moisture. Steam is really good to loosen up your muscles as well.”
Afterward, she rinses with cool water and dries her hair with an old T-shirt. “It’s better to use T-shirts rather than towels on natural hair, especially after a workout. The cotton from the shirt is going to absorb moisture and tame frizz. The older the T-shirt, the better. Your hair will be so soft.”
Adjust Your Routine to Fit Your Surroundings
“I just moved to Los Angeles from New York and find that with the climate change, my hair needs a bit more moisture,” explains Darby. “So now I co-wash twice a week instead of once a week. It’s like a relationship, once you stay in it, the longer you learn it—I’ve been in a relationship with my hair in its natural state for eight years, so I can tell when it’s about to dry out or needs a little more TLC when I’m working out.”
How To Preserve Your Freshly Flatironed Strands at the Gym
There’s a huge myth that working out will ruin your natural hair. And in some cases, when you don’t protect your hair, it can. However, if you follow these crucial steps, your strands will stay straight even after you sweat.
“Depending on how long your hair is, start by pulling your hair into a tight topknot or a low ponytail,” explains Johnson. “Then, put a silk scarf on top of your hair like a headband. Tying down your hair with a scarf produces more tension to lay your hair down than with a gym headband. With sweatbands, they’re usually not strong enough, and your edges will wave up. A scarf is a good barrier between your sweat and your edges. After you work out, cool down first. Then, release your tight topknot or low ponytail. Take a blow-dryer on its coolest setting, and hit your roots and edges with it.
“When your blow-dryer is on cool, you’ll seal your hair’s cuticle layer that opened up due to sweat. Next, wrap your hair around your head in circular motions, and tie it down with a silk scarf. Sometimes after I work out, I’ll wear my hair smoothed back into a tight ponytail for a few days. It’ll be back to normal in no time.”
Darby’s method is similar, but she makes sure to first identify where your hair’s central sweat spot is. “I sweat at the top of my head, so I pull my ponytail right up to the exact spot I sweat,” she notes. “I pull my ponytail up tight enough so that my roots won’t curl up, but loose enough so that I won’t pull my edges out. Then I apply coconut oil to my edges and wear a cotton band to absorb the moisture and soak up the sweat. If my edges get too sweaty after working out, I take a blow-dryer on cool and let the air hit my hair so it doesn’t curl up. I’ll keep the ponytail in as long as I can so my hair fully dries from my workout. When I have a blowout, my workouts are planned out.”
Don't Let Your Hair Stop Your Sweat
“It was always pretty discouraging and a mystery to me why my fellow sisters weren’t sweating with me,” says Darby.
"I realized all of the people working out with me didn’t look like me, and I knew it was because of our attachment to our hair," she says.
“You can’t let your hair disrupt your health,” Darby says encouragingly. “We can wear our hair in so many ways, so let that be empowering. There’s a psychological breakdown that’s happening where Black women are choosing beauty over their health. The bottom line is, no one wants to work out and sweat out their blowout. When women realize the positive effects working out has not only on their bodies but their entire psyche, they’ll get hooked. Fitness will transform your entire life.”
“You have to be willing to commit and take time for your hair,” explains Johnson. “Our hair comes in many different textures and styles, which take a lot of dedication to keep up. This stops Black women from working out because it’s frustrating. There are ways you can keep it sexy while looking sexy.”
In the middle of transitioning to natural hair? Read up on the best natural hair transitioning products.
Gathers RC, Mahan MG. African american women, hair care, and health barriers. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014;7(9):26-29.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health of Black or African American non-Hispanic population. Updated May 7, 2021.