How to Choose the Best Running Jacket
In this article, we will discuss how to select a running jacket that suits your needs and running style. After putting eleven of the top rated and most popular running jackets through a rigorous year-long testing period where we ran through rainstorms, freezing temperatures, high wind and tackled both urban and backcountry running environments, we had a comprehensive idea of what each of the products could offer.
We aim to walk you through the process of deciding what your needs are as a runner and which jacket will satisfy those needs. The running jackets we focus on offer some degree of breathability, weather resistance, and comfort to protect from the elements during high output aerobic activity when you're generating an excess of heat and sweat. Continue reading to learn what to look for when hunting for a running jacket.
We all remember the tracksuits of the 1990s. They were constructed from thick nylon and had no weatherproof treatments applied to them. Essentially they were just "warm-ups" that you would wear at the start of your aerobic exercise and then ditch before the main show. Another option at the time was to wear 'sweats' for your workouts. Ignoring the fact that sweats are/were extremely heavy, they also absorb moisture and refuse to let go. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that we the people needed a jacket that could offer protection from wind and rain, but also provide the breathability of natural fibers that aren't suitable for battling the elements while maintaining the lower weights of synthetic fibers.
Fast forward to 2018. We have synthetic fabrics that are so thin and lightweight there is potential for an entire men's size large jacket to weigh as little as one ounce. Through this evolution of fabrics, DWR treatments were developed allowing the fabric to become water resistant and retain breathability.
What necessitates a running jacket? It is impractical to carry along multiple jackets to handle different situations when running. A well-balanced running jacket should offer some degree of weather protection, significant breathability, and be easy to transport when you aren't wearing it. This is true if you're out for your morning jog or if you're on loop 3 of the 160-mile Barkley Marathons. Running is a situation where a "jacket of all trades" is necessary.
What sets a running jacket apart from other jackets such as rain jackets or soft shells? Running jackets are designed with one purpose in mind, and that is to protect from the elements while running. This means providing resistance to the elements while being able to handle the considerable excess of heat and moisture our body's release when in an aerobic state. Rain jackets do a similar job, but the ability to vent and breathe has been turned way down, whereas the water resistance has been cranked to eleven. Softshell jackets are tuned more towards breathing but are typically created from multiple layers and are suited for much colder environments than your run of the mill running jacket.
Venting and Breathability
Breathability is the single most crucial aspect of a running jacket. Running is a highly aerobic exercise which will cause you to sweat heavily. Even if you don't sweat much, the excess heat and moisture are being released. No matter how a jacket may protect you from the elements, if you are wearing a layer that restricts airflow, or doesn't allow moisture to dissipate, you're undermining the purpose of wearing a running jacket. We start with venting and breathability because the majority of your running will not be done in inclement weather; since our goal is to remain as dry as possible, our jacket must be able to handle the excess heat and moisture.
Throughout our testing process, we discovered that breathability depends not only on the jacket construction and fabric type but also on its ability to vent well. Some fabrics themselves are designed to wick away moisture, but not all. If the fabric doesn't do this, it's up to the ventilation design to provide enough air circulation to pull out as much moisture as possible. Mesh panels are a common method of venting moisture, as well as vent flaps that overlap the fabric. The placement of the mesh or breathable panels is critical for the breathability and ventilation of the jacket. Even if you don't sweat a lot in general, when you're traveling uphill and your heart rate is at its max, you will be surprised with the differences between a jacket that is properly vented and one that isn't.
During this test, the proper quantity and placement of ventilation and use of breathable material made a massive difference if the buildup of heat and moisture. Simply put, breathability and venting is a top priority in running jackets. Upon first glance, you might think the venting is excessive, but it isn't.
Purchasing a running jacket that doesn't offer you any protection from the elements undercuts our goal of being able to remain as dry as possible and run as much as possible. 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 performance.
Assuming your jacket offers you the necessary breathability whilst running, weather resistance is the next most important attribute to look for. Before we delve too deeply into weather resistance, know that none of the running jackets we tested are waterproof.
These jackets aren't a substitution for a rain jacket that would commonly be used for other outdoor purposes. If you go for a run in the pouring rain for more than a few minutes, you will get wet with any of the jackets we tested. That being said, most companies use a DWR finish added to their jackets to repel water. This technology does perform reasonably well and has the benefit of adding weather protection to a single layer of fabric; however, it does require some maintenance.
After some time, the DWR finish will wear off and it's up to you to use a special wash that is specially designed to not leave any residue on your technical gear 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 the evaporation time, sometimes using the runner's body heat to aid the already accelerated process further.
As far as wind is concerned, the goal is to find a jacket that buffers the wind and keeps it from battering you. Finding a completely windproof jacket would most definitely hinder the breathability of a running jacket. We recommend checking out our wind jacket review if you are looking for something that is completely windproof. While offering substantial wind resistance is desirable, the real goal is to find the jackets that pair wind resistance with breathability and venting. Strategically placed vents are the key.
Comfort and Mobility
While things like Fit and Mobility are going to vary for each runner, there are aspects to the comfort of the jacket that will be pretty constant. Things like incorporating stretch material into the design, as well as joining panels with seams strategically placed, so they don't come in contact with the skin in irritating ways. Throughout the testing process, it became apparent that some of the jackets were designed with movement in mind.
It's important to find a model that doesn't just feel good while you're standing in the department store; we found that one of the most important aspects of finding the best running jacket was deciding upon one that we didn't particularly notice while we were running. Those jackets typically had a semi-loose fit, and incorporated sewing patterns that had soft seams and stretch material. That's not to say that if a jacket doesn't have stretch material that it won't be comfortable, but as a general rule, those jackets that did have stretch material were more comfortable for all-day excursions.
The bottom line for running jacket portability is that we need to be able to bring our running jacket along on our run, deploy it at a moments notice, remove it, and repack it all without any drama. If a jacket doesn't meet these criteria, it just isn't worth the effort to bring it with you. For example, The North Face Better Than Naked is a fine jacket if we only look at the jacket's breathability and weather performance. Would we bring it with us on a trail run? No, because the closure system when the jacket is packed into its stuff pocket consists of a single-sided zipper pull and we have trouble opening and closing it. We require that our jacket be both functional and very easy to use. Many jackets tested this go-around did a fantastic job.
This brings us to the weight of the running jacket. Every ounce counts when you are running. Ten miles into a run, everything you have with you begins to feel heavier. That being said, our goal is to make sure that every ounce we are carrying has a purpose. Don't just get the lightest jacket because it is the lightest. Get the lightest jacket that retains all of the functionality that you need.
Day and Night Visibility
Safety is a primary concern when running both in urban environments and out on the trail. Ideally, your running jacket will be your outermost layer and thus will need to provide visibility. Even if you are alert, not listening to music, and aware of your surroundings, other people might not be. Drivers are more distracted today than ever. The brighter and more reflective your jacket, the higher chance that a driver with a minivan full of youth soccer kids will notice you crossing the street.
While there are many things, you should do and be aware of while running, wearing a bright and reflective jacket is a passive way to protect yourself from motorists. You should be looking for reflective material on all four planes. You need reflective material in front, back, and ideally wrapping around both arms. The movement and swinging motion of your arms help the reflective fabric stand out against other urban reflective materials.
During daylight hours, the sun washes out the reflective material on jackets, and we rely on having colors that stand out against the environment. Having earth tones is not advised as you will blend into your surroundings. One thing the 80s jackets did get right was their incredibly bright fluorescent colors and random patterns. While there is no way to be entirely protected while road running, bright colors certainly give you an edge.
Are you looking for a running jacket to wear nearly all the time during cooler weather regardless of rain, wind? Here's the deal. You want a jacket that is equipped with a high level of breathability and venting. As we stated before, none of these other attributes matter or will even have a chance to help you unless you are wearing the jacket. 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. Do you live in Seattle?
Your next step will be finding 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 doesn't fit. Again, if the garment doesn't fit properly 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.
If you aren't looking for an all-arounder that can be worn nearly all the time during high output aerobic exercise, an emergency weather resistant jacket is warranted. There are several excellent jackets to choose from. These are slightly less breathable but offer greater portability and decent weather resistance. While they aren't suited for prolonged running, they are very lightweight and in a pinch can be lifesavers.