Are you looking for a new running jacket? In this article, we'll help you select the best model that suits your running style by walking you through the process of identifying your needs as a runner and which jacket will satisfy those needs. We'll evaluate the different features to look for as well as the similarities and differences between specialized running jackets and other types of outerwear.
After testing dozens of the top-rated and most popular models throughout the past several years, through rainstorms, freezing temperatures, and high wind, we have a clear idea of the best products available on the market. We tackled hundreds of miles across both urban and backcountry environments in order to bring you the most helpful information possible. Continue reading to learn what to look for when hunting for your ideal jacket.
A lot has changed in running jacket technology over the past decade. Surely we all remember the matching bottom/top tracksuits from back in the day. They were heavy, stiflingly hot, had no weather-resistant treatments, and couldn't breathe. Fast forward to 2020 to the advent of ultralight single layer windproof and highly weather-resistant materials, and nowadays, there is no reason to suffer because of your jacket choice; there are so many ultralight and breathable options on the market. You just need to figure out which one is best for you.
Charicteristics of a Running Jacket
While there is certainly a bit of overlap between different outerwear categories that share many of the same features and characteristics with running jackets, there are a number of specific qualities to look for in a layer that makes it ideal for running.
Venting and Breathability
Breathability is likely the single most crucial aspect of any piece of running equipment. Running is a high-intensity exercise that will usually cause you to sweat after building up a high level of heat and moisture. No matter how well a jacket may protect you from the elements, if you are wearing a layer that restricts airflow or doesn't allow heat and moisture to dissipate, you're undermining your running efficiency and performance. Since the majority of your running will probably be done in milder weather, and your goal is to remain as comfortable and dry as possible, your jacket must be breathable and able to control excess heat and moisture.
A jacket's breathability depends on its materials and construction as well as any additional built-in ventilation features. Some materials, like the DriLayer Seal material on the Brooks Canopy, are very breathable and help wick away moisture and provide constant air circulation within the jacket. In addition to lightweight and breathable materials, other jackets like the Editors' Choice Arc'teryx Incendo provide mesh panels in strategic areas, which is an efficient method of venting moisture. Other models provide extra ventilation with integrated vent flaps that overlap the fabric, double zippers that allow for a controlled opening of the jacket, or a chest snap that keeps the jacket from becoming a parachute when venting the zipper.
A jacket that doesn't provide any protection from the elements undercuts your goal of being able to remain as dry as possible throughout all types of weather conditions. If you don't have the option of running when it's drizzling outside because, for example, you only have a fleece to run in, you're missing an opportunity to maximize your training.
Most of the jackets that we tested provide a Durable Water Repellant (DWR) coating to resist light drizzles and early morning dew. This technology performs reasonably well and has the benefit of adding weather protection to a single layer of fabric; however, it requires some maintenance. After some time, a DWR finish will wear off, and it's up to you to use a special wash and then reapply the DWR coating (which can be found as a spray-on or wash-in product). Some pieces use a combination of DWR coating and uniquely designed fabrics to accelerate evaporation time. There are even fabrics that use the runner's body heat to aid the already accelerated process further.
The most weather resistant jackets in our lineup have fully waterproof membranes, like the GORE-TEX Shakedry on the Arc'teryx Norvan SL and the H2No material on the Patagonia Storm Racer. These options perform much better in wet weather than jackets simply treated with a DWR coating, but sacrifice a bit of breathability to do so.
Another important goal for a running layer is to find a jacket that buffers the wind and keeps it from battering you. However, a completely windproof jacket will most definitely sacrifice some breathability, so there is always a balance to be found. We recommend checking out our wind breaker jacket review if you are looking for something that is completely windproof. While offering substantial wind resistance is desirable, the real goal with a running layer is to find something that pairs wind resistance with breathability and venting. Strategically placed vents are the key.
Comfort and Mobility
Comfort and fit are unquestionably going to be different for each individual user. During our review process, we looked at basic attributes that all jackets should have to as a minimum standard. Things like comfortable materials and gusseted body mapping panels are indicators of both quality and a high potential for comfort. Initial indicators of discomfort are points that cause any pressure with arms outstretched or overhead. Tight wrist cuffs or arms that aren't long enough are easy indicators of a jacket that will cause you more misery than protection from the elements. The lightweight Patagonia Airshed Pro is one of the most comfortable models we tested with its soft materials and performance fit design.
Since running is such a high-intensity activity, the fit of a running layer is very important. Some jackets offer snugger performance fits and some offer more generous and baggy fits. We've found that a semi-fitted design somewhere in the middle is usually the most versatile, comfortable, and mobile.
Being able to pop your jacket on and off quickly and without excessive effort is critical. Many of the jackets we tested like the ultralight Patagonia Houdini, pack into cleverly sized-and-shaped storage pockets with double-sided zippers, making them easy to hide away in a running pack or backpack. Other jackets, with less portability, neglect double-sided zippers or have ill sized pockets. Obviously, finding a jacket that suits your running style and needs is critical, but portability can mean the difference between actually bringing the jacket along or not.
Some of the lowest scoring jackets in this metric are cold weather-specific softshells, like the Arc'teryx Trino. The multi-layer, highly breathable material just doesn't pack well and is quite heavy compared to single-layer jackets. This isn't all bad, as there are many situations where these jackets will likely never be taken off for the duration of whatever activity you're doing. When running in the heart of winter, fat biking, or cross-country skiing, we keep our softshell on the entire time, making poor portability irrelevant. The moody shoulder seasons when weather can change in an instant necessitates a higher level of protection than portability.
Running Jackets vs. Other Types of Outerwear
Running-specific jackets have several features that overlap with other types of outerwear categories. Theoretically, you could run in any type of jacket, but you'll be sacrificing comfort and performance. Other types of jackets may provide optimum performance in specific circumstances but won't provide the balance of protection, breathability, and lightweight comfort.
Running vs. Rain Jacket
Running layers are designed to optimize protection from the elements balanced with comfort, breathability, and lightweight design. This means providing adequate wind and water resistance while still being able to handle the considerable amount of excess heat and moisture our bodies release when on the run. Rain jackets will most likely do a better job of protecting you from the elements with heavier-duty materials, fully waterproof membranes, and more watertight construction, but will necessarily sacrifice the ability to vent and breathe and will usually come at a heavier weight. While the most weatherproof jackets we tested won't compare to the protection of a true rain jacket, today's top designs are able to combine impressive protection in a very lightweight package.
Running vs. Softshell Jacket
Softshell jackets are optimally used for running in colder weather and are typically warmer, heavier, and better-ventilated than lighter shell jackets, and are typically created from multiple layers of material. Our testing lineup includes a couple of softshell jackets that are some of our favorite choices for running in the winter. While softshell jackets can be very comfortable and breathable in colder weather, they are typically much heavier and may lack water-resistance compared to lighter models. As outerwear technology continually evolves, softshell jackets continue to get lighter, more breathable, and more protective, blurring the line between categories and making many softshell products ideal for running.
Do You Need a Running-Specific Jacket?
Depending on the climate in which you live and typically run, your personal comfort level in and tolerance of different weather conditions, and your running style and performance goals, you may be wondering if you really need a dedicated running jacket. After all, running is one of the simplest and least equipment-intensive activities that humans perform, and we theoretically could run in any type of clothing in any weather conditions.
If you live in a warmer climate where it's always t-shirt weather, or you're a casual or beginner runner that doesn't mind staying inside when it's raining, or if you opt for the gym or the treadmill when the temperature drops, then you may not need a running jacket at all. However, if you typically run in a less than perfect climate, or you're curious about expanding your training during all types of weather, running-specific jackets are incredibly versatile layers that can keep you surprisingly dry and comfortable in adverse weather conditions.
Likewise, if you're already a hiker, climber, or skier who only occasionally runs and you already have an assortment of base layers, mid-layers, waterproof jackets, and insulated jackets, you'll probably be ok running in whichever of those layers suits the current weather conditions. Remember that each of these individual garments probably excels as one piece of an overall layering system, and may not perform as well on its own. Running is usually done at a higher intensity than many other activities, and will expose any vulnerabilities of any piece of clothing or equipment.
If you regularly head out for your run regardless of whether it's windy, cold, raining, or snowing, then a dedicated running jacket will be the best option for keeping you comfortable. These garments do a great job of balancing weather protection, breathability, comfort, and mobility, and do so in amazingly lightweight packages that won't slow you down.
Are you looking for a running layer to wear nearly all the time during cooler weather regardless of rain or wind? You want a jacket that is equipped with a high level of breathability and venting. If the jacket isn't breathable to a high degree, you will remove it as soon as you start to sweat. After selecting a breathable jacket, take into consideration what your primary running climate will be. If you live somewhere like Seattle, you probably want the most water-resistant jacket you can find. Keep in mind, the more weatherproof, probably the less breathability and venting you will get — and vice versa. After selecting a breathable and weather-resistant jacket, you need to dial in the comfort and fit. Don't be afraid to send a jacket back that isn't right — if it doesn't feel good and isn't comfortable for your frame, you aren't going to wear it. Finally, if you have two jackets that appear equal and can't make a choice, pick the more packable option. When you do remove the jacket, having something that stows easily can go a long way in your overall satisfaction with the product.