woman with braids smiling

“How I keep my braids and scalp healthy while working out”

Posted by for Workouts

When writer Florie Mwanza starting working out, she noticed it was affecting her braids and scalp health. Here’s how she learned to maintain both. 

I’ve had my hair manipulated into every braided style imaginable, but thick, long, ropey braids remain my go-to when I want to take time away from the rigours of daily styling. Since the first summer I was allowed to graduate from twists and cornrows to big-girl box braids, they’ve come to represent the perfect marriage between decorative and protective. But over the years, a break from styling my hair thanks to having braids also led to a break from properly caring for my scalp.

Box braids are one of those styles that you’re taught not to wet too often because water equals frizz, and the frizzier they get, the closer you get to waving goodbye to them. It’s no surprise that over time, I developed a habit of prolonging washdays to ensure that my braids looked freshly done for as long as possible.

When I got my first gym membership, my new love for all things cardio and my go-to hairstyle seemed like a match made in heaven. I could be utterly undone by a 45-minute spin class and walk out with my hair looking exactly as it did when I walked in – but my scalp was another story.

While fitting running, spinning and yoga into my weekly schedule, I was washing my hair every two weeks and hoping that oiling my scalp with an astringent oil such as tea tree would do the trick. It didn’t, and I quickly developed a flaky, itchy scalp that still becomes inflamed at the slightest show of neglect – even years later.     

How to take care of your scalp while working out

How frequently you wash your hair varies depending on personal preference, but if you work out, you have to be intentional about scalp care. According to Anabel Kinglsey, trichologist at Philip Kingsley, “for the sake of your scalp’s health, try to leave no more than three days between shampoos, although coarser hair textures can stretch this a bit longer. However, if you leave too long between shampoos, it’s likely to have an adverse impact on your scalp health.”

Exactly how much longer can you leave between washdays if your hair is on the coily end of the spectrum and you wear it in braids? Hair stylist at Maison Style Andrée Marie says, “I always advise my clients to wash their braids every seven to 10 days because regular cleansing is essential to a healthy scalp.”

woman smiling and showing her hair
How to keep Black hair healthy while working out: writer Florie Mwanza's fitness journey forced her to be more mindful about scalp health

Over the few months of non-existent hair care, not only was my scalp inflamed, but I also started to experience hair loss around my hairline – made fragile by bearing the brunt of heavy braids during high-impact cardio workouts.

I’d lean over my bike during an uphill ride in spin class and instead of focusing on a mind-muscle connection with my hamstrings that were powering me through the climb, I was hyper-focused on how my braids were pulling at my hairline every time I leaned over my handlebars.

How to take care of your braids while working out

Instead of tight, long, heavy braids, I now opt for shorter box braids with less meticulous partings – the former means they don’t pull at my scalp and the latter has freed me from my misguided attempts at trying to preserve the “neatness” of a new set of braids.

As for my scalp, I now shampoo my hair every five days with an anti-itch shampoo that targets any impending inflammation. Between washdays I run a warm damp flannel over the parts in my braids that expose my scalp to cleanse any residual sweat and grime. 

Scalp care is specific to each person, but if you’re in doubt about how to care for yours, Anabel Kinglsey suggests that you, “draw a correlation between hair care and skincare. Your scalp is simply skin, and it benefits from similar care to the skin on your face.”

This is easier said than done if your hair is finer and more suited to daily washing. But, while you figure out a wash schedule that’s suited to your hair and scalp needs and lifestyle, the trichologist says “If you are unable to cleanse your scalp more than every couple of days, use an astringent scalp toner between shampoos to sooth and help soak up excess oil.” Standout ingredients that can soothe a scalp on the verge of revolt include, “calming aloe vera, soothing bisabolol (a chamomile derivative), cooling methyl lactate, and anti-microbial zinc PCA.”

As for what styles to opt for if you work out and rely on braids, Andrée Marie, suggests that “knotless braids” are the best alternative, but whatever your preference, she insists, “stay away from anything too tight, as over time this could damage the hair.” 

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IMAGE: Florie Mwanza 

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