The North Face Ambition ¼ Zip is an extremely versatile long sleeve running shirt that is ideal for winter running or cool mornings in the spring or fall. Made partially of recycled polyester and incorporating The North Face's FlashDry technology, it dries extremely quickly, while also giving the option to vent easily with the "1/4 length" zipper, which is actually more like a ½ zip. The Ambition has more features than any other running shirt, including a small zippered chest pocket with a media port that is perfect for carrying a phone and listening to music as you run. The features, drying speed, and added warmth of the heavier weight fabric make this shirt incredibly versatile — not only for running but for just about anything! For these reasons and more we are happy to recommend it as our Top Pick for Winter Running.
The North Face Ambition 1/4 Zip Review
Cons: Fabric feels rough and artificial against skin, chest pocket is small
Manufacturer: The North Face
Our Analysis and Test Results
The North Face Ambition ¼ Zip is a more versatile layer for winter running than the similar Nike Element ½ Zip. Describing one as quarter zip and the other as half zip is a bit misleading, as both have pretty much the exact same length of zipper, running down to lower sternum height on the chest. The only grading metric where we like the Element better is comfort, as its fabric weave is super soft and snuggly against the skin, whereas the polyester fabric of the Ambition, while not uncomfortable, feels slightly rough and artificial by comparison. For this reason, we typically wear another short sleeve tech shirt underneath the Ambition, which is also nice to have if you get too hot and want to strip down.
The Ambition easily outperforms the Nike Element in all other categories though, especially drying time. While they weigh roughly the same, the Ambition is a bit thicker and heavier feeling, and does a slightly better job at cutting the wind if you don't happen to be carrying a windbreaker. It also has more useful features and can easily be worn as a base layer for any outdoor activity at all, regardless of season.
Comfort is the only metric where the Ambition ¼ Zip struggles compared to the competition. We should preface this comment by saying if you purchase this shirt, you will likely think it is plenty comfortable. It's only by comparing it to every other shirt, and by being incredibly nitpicky, that we give it a lower score for comfort. It is made of a blend of polyester and recycled polyester fibers in different percentages depending on the different breathable panels it is made of, and this fabric simply feels less comfortable against the skin than that of the Nike Element, which is softer.
This shirt uses relatively few seams, and they are sewn flat in a way that doesn't create an abrasive ridge that rubs against your skin. Once again, though, the thread used isn't as soft and downright un-noticeable as the seams on the Arc'teryx Motus Crew, let alone the flat taped seams on the back of the shoulders of The North Face Better Than Naked. In terms of fit, we feel that it could stand to be slightly longer in the torso, but this problem is not egregious. While we sometimes wore it over bare skin, we preferred to wear it over a simple, short sleeve running shirt.
The Ambition ¼ Zip is made up of panels of two different fabric weaves, both of which allow a considerable amount of air to flow through. There is no arguing that this shirt is quite breathable. Panels found on the upper back, on the undersides of the arms, and along the sides of the torso allow the most airflow with their double knit pattern but are also slightly thicker.
The ¼ length zipper on the front of the shirt splits the collar and comes down to the middle of the chest, ending directly over the sternum. We aren't exactly sure why this is termed "1/4 zip", as it seems a fair bit longer than that to us. This zipper allows for immediate ventilation and relief by allowing you to quickly expose the bare skin on the chest to onrushing air. With these breathability features, it reminds us a lot of the Salomon Agile SS Tee and breathes about the same too.
We are often a bit skeptical of marketing terms used to define clothing features and their performance, as we have seen countless high tech fabrics fail to perform as advertised over the years. However, we have no doubts at all when it comes to the FlashDry fabrics used by The North Face. We have tested the drying speeds of many different garments that use this proprietary technology, and have been very impressed by how much faster they actually dry in real life conditions than the competitors. In our dedicated drying speed tests, the Ambition was no exception, drying as fast or faster than all other competitors, except for the much thinner North Face Better Than Naked.
It isn't clear to us exactly what is different about these garments that make them dry quicker, except that the marketing hype is no exaggeration. The speed of drying is the single biggest difference between the Ambition and its closest competitor, the similarly long sleeved Nike Element, which takes ice ages to fully dry by comparison.
The Ambition is an extremely versatile layer. Obviously, with long sleeves and a high collar on the neck, you would not want to wear it in any sort of warm weather, but when the temperatures drop beyond the point where it is comfortable to have exposed arms, there is no better shirt than this one.
Like many other online customer reviews, we found this shirt to be good for far more than just running. It can be thrown on virtually any time over another shirt, and so we enjoy using it while hiking, climbing, or even as a base layer for skiing. We suspect there are countless other ways to use it, and also appreciate that it comes in relatively mild colors that allow it to be worn around town as well, in contrast to the bright oranges, blues, and yellows that we are used to in our tech running wear.
Running shirts are relatively simple items when it comes to features, but the Ambition packs in the most usable features of those we have tested. Like the Nike Element, it has twin thumb loops at the ends of the sleeves, an awesome feature for helping to keep the hands warm on days when you forget to bring gloves, and the sleeves are long enough to wear it like this comfortably. As we already mentioned, we also like the fact that there is a zippered chest pocket with a media port to allow a headphone wire to run from a phone up to your ears inside the shirt, but must point out that this pocket is small — a tight fit for an older, smaller iPhone, and with no chance of fitting a newer, larger smartphone.
While it doesn't purport to have an odor controlling agent, the Ambition does come certified with a UPF 30 rating, giving you greater protection from the UV rays. It also has a reflective logo on the front that adds to visibility if running at night, but we could complain that it doesn't also have one on the back or sides. All in all the features on this shirt greatly add to its function and versatility, and so we scored it quite high.
The sky is your limit when it comes to dreaming up uses for this very versatile shirt. We used it primarily for running on winter days in the 40s and upper 30s when it was nice to have coverage on the arms, but when the body heat generated by running kept us from getting too chilled. We also loved it as a thin shirt for climbing on cold days, and wore it as a base layer while ski touring. All of these uses and more are great applications.
Full retail price is $70. While this is not cheap, it is only about $5 more expensive than the comparable Nike Element, and it performed a lot better. For the versatile layer you are getting, we think it is a great value at this price.
The North Face Ambition ¼ Zip is our Top Pick for Winter Running because it is very fast drying, provides great coverage of the arms and neck on colder days, and because it is so versatile it can be used for any cold weather activity. It presents great value if you love having clothing that works well for all outdoor sports instead of only working while doing one thing.
— Andy Wellman