We want to make sure you get the most out of your run and are comfortable while doing it. We researched over 40 running shirts before purchasing the top 11 of 2019, testing for dozens of hours over the course of three months. We measured breathability and drying speed in the lab, and also spent time out on the trails, putting them through extensive testing and side-by-side comparisons. From the desert west to Rocky Mountain National Park, to the extreme heat of Mt. Lemmon in Tucson, Arizona, we put these shirts through a wide range of climates and temperatures.
The Best Running Shirts of 2019
|Price||$49.00 at Backcountry|
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|$70 List||$44.99 at Backcountry|
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|$48.71 at Backcountry|
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|$19.99 at Amazon|
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|Pros||Highly breathable, lightweight, quick drying||Lots of features, very versatile, dries fast, awesome venting||Comfortable flat-locked merrow stitching, durable Phasic FL polyester fabric, lots of reflectors, UPF protection||Super comfortable fabric and stitching, sleek stretch fit||Dries quickly, versatile, affordable, soft material, odor resistant|
|Cons||Taped seams on shoulders less durable than sewn seams||Fabric feels rough and artificial against skin, chest pocket is small||Doesn’t allow direct air flow as easily as mesh shirts, holds lots of moisture||Dries very slowly, doesn’t have chest pocket||Heavy when wet|
|Bottom Line||Exceedingly comfortable and fast drying are the two top attributes for the best running shirt you can buy.||The best running shirt for winter or on cold days in the fall and spring.||A great running shirt, well-suited for any endeavors that require layering.||A versatile and comfortable winter running shirt.||An affordable and comfortable short sleeve running shirt.|
|Rating Categories||Patagonia Airchaser||Ambition 1/4 Zip||Arc'teryx Motus Crew||Nike Element 1/2 Zip||Brooks Distance|
|Drying Speed (15%)|
|Specs||Patagonia Airchaser||Ambition 1/4 Zip||Arc'teryx Motus Crew||Nike Element 1/2 Zip||Brooks Distance|
|Material||Recycled polyester||58% Polyester, 42% Recycled Polyester Double Knit With FlashDry||Phasic FL (100% polyester)||88% polyester, 12% spandex||85% polyester, 15% spandex|
|Weight (oz.)||3.1 oz.||9.4 oz.||4.0 oz.||9.8 oz.||5.5 oz.|
|Reflective material?||Yes - 2||Yes - 1||Yes - 5||Yes - 2||Yes - 1|
|UPF?||N/A||30||25||N/A||Yes, number not specified|
|Odor Control?||Yes - HeiQ Fresh durable odor control||No||No||No||Yes - DriLayer Burst fabric|
|Zip Neck Option?||No||Yes||No||Yes||No|
Best Overall Running Shirt
A shirt can have all sorts of fancy bells and whistles to set it apart from all the rest of the options, but at the end of the day, what matters most is comfort, breathability, and drying speed. The Patagonia Airchaser topped the charts in each of these critical categories, making it the obvious choice for Editors Choice. It incorporates an all natural fabric softener that effectively transforms itchy polyester into a fabric that feels as smooth as silk. This fabric is so soft against the skin that we often forgot to change out of it once we got home after our runs, something that never happens in other running shirts. To complete the comfort package, Patagonia has used ultra-low profile taped seams on the tops of the shoulders to eliminate the possibility of any sort of rubbing or chafing at the most likely place. Combined with highly breathable recycled polyester and the effective odor-controlling agent Polygiene, the Airchaser is also far and away the highest scorer in our comparative testing.
There are a few downsides, such as a lack of reflective logos for low light conditions and comfortable but fragile taped shoulder seams. These are small fry issues when put into perspective with how comfortable and breathable this shirt is. No running shirt is perfect, but the Airchaser is on its way.
Read review: Patagonia Airchaser
Best Bang for the Buck
Under Armour Tech 2.0
The Under Armour Tech 2.0 offers fantastic performance for the price. Not only is it breathable and quick-drying, but it's comfortable and versatile, too. We were happy to have this shirt on our regular trail runs and climbing trips; the freedom of movement, coupled with soft polyester material and relatively smooth seams, boosted the versatility of this super affordable shirt.
While it is one of the most versatile and affordable shirts that we tested, we were bummed to learn that it doesn't have any sort of reflector, limiting its use for low light urban running. In truth, this shirt is designed for any sort of workout activity and is not marketed as, or limited to, use while running. It's a decent option for virtually anything, and at such a low price point, has tremendous value.
Read review: Under Armour Tech 2.0
Top Pick for Layering
Arc'teryx Motus Crew
The Arc'teryx Motus Crew has some unique features that make it especially durable, comfortable, and high-quality. The root of this performance and versatility is in the high-quality flatlock merrow stitching, which allows for greater durability and comfort. The results are undeniable, as the seams are smooth and almost completely unnoticeable. Yes, taped seams are more comfortable, but their fragility is a huge factor when putting on a running hydration pack or backpack.
Since the Motus Crew doesn't have any vulnerable thin mesh panels, it can withstand a variety of uses. Yes, it is a bit less breathable than some, but this is made up for with durability, even when carrying a heavy backpack. The result of high-performance fibers, with durable yet comfortable stitching, is a fantastic running shirt.
Read Review: Arc'teryx Motus Crew
Top Pick for Comfort
The Brooks Distance is one of the most comfortable models we've tested, thanks to the soft material that comprises the entire shirt. When we initially laid our hands on the material, we could have sworn there was some cotton in the blend, but alas, it is 85% polyester and 15% spandex. This blend makes the relaxed-fitting shirt stretchy, and the high level of comfort made this one of our favorite shirts not only for running but for rock climbing, hiking, and mountain biking as well.
It's important to know that this shirt isn't as breathable as some of the other models in our fleet. The densely woven fabric made for a high level of comfort but just didn't allow enough air to flow through during sweltering hot days. If you're in a harsh climate and need the ultimate in feathery light breathability and quick-drying fabrics, the Distance is a bit too warm and insulated feeling. That said, it dries quickly and maintains good odor resistance.
Read review: Brooks Distance
Why You Should Trust Us
This review was led by Brian Martin, a senior reviewer at OutdoorGearLab. Brian has been steeped in the outdoors since he was a wee little child and continues to explore wild places through trail running, climbing, and, most recently, bikepacking. Brian's five years working with Yosemite Search and Rescue taught him the value of solid equipment and sharpened his eye for quality products that could be counted on when the going gets tough.
We took the burden out of wading through the massive selection of running shirts available on the market today and purchased the ones with the highest ratings and most promising features. This round of testing was especially rowdy, as it took place in the desert and alpine regions of Arizona, which pushed the shirts and our gear testers to the boiling point.
Related: How We Tested Running Shirts
Analysis and Test Results
The 11 shirts that we purchased for testing are primarily designed as running shirts, with the exception of one model, but can at times be worn as technical layers for other activities as well, such as working out at the gym, playing team sports, or for hiking and backpacking in the outdoors. Regardless of whether you prefer running on trails, roads, or want to stick to the gym, our fleet spans a wide range of potential uses, and there is likely one that will suit your needs.
Not only did we wear these shirts for all of our aerobic and outdoor pursuits over three months (for this round of testing), but we used them for day to day activities too. The only way to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of these shirts was to put in a ton of miles and hours living in them.
Related: Buying Advice for Running Shirts
While the shirts we tested span a large range of price points, you don't always get what you pay for. We took a long hard look at the performance of each shirt while also keeping the cost in mind. While we generally found that higher-priced shirts came equipped with more comfortable fabrics and flatlock or taped seams, this wasn't always the case. The Under Armor UA Rush and Arc'teryx Motus, for example, retail around the same price but represent very different levels of performance and comfort.
The images show an important detail in comfort and quality. The chunky and abrasive seams on the left are cheaper to construct but result in poor comfort. The merrow stitch on the right is a much higher quality seam, which produces a higher level of comfort and durability. Seam quality is a telltale mark of excellence, which is a huge indicator of value. If a shirt is sewn with chunky abrasive seams and has the same price point as a shirt equipped with more comfortable flatlock seams, this is a red flag and an indicator that the shirt with more detail to seam quality is likely a better value.
The Patagonia Airchaser and Motus Crew have the most comfortable seams of any shirt tested. The UA Rush was a functional athletic shirt but certainly represents a lower value, as it had chunkier seams and was significantly less breathable, which put it in closer competition with some much more affordable options such as the Russell Athletic Dri-Power Core shirt.
Fortunately, you don't have to shell out the big bucks for a functional running shirt. Our most affordable shirt tested, the Russell Athletic Dri-Power Core Performance shirt, was incredibly affordable and was perfectly acceptable in its performance. Additionally, our Best Buy winner, the Under Armour Tech 2.0 was only a bit more than the Russell and offers fantastic breathability and performance at that price point.
Comfort is hands down the most critical attribute when choosing a running shirt. If the shirt isn't comfortable the second you put it on, it certainly won't be comfortable ten miles into your run. We closely examined the feel of each fabric against our skin. We took notice of how restrictive the fit was, the seam type used, and how each shirt maintained its initial level of comfort throughout each run. If we had to boil this category down to one sentence, we'd want to know which of these shirts was the least noticeable while we were out for a run. If we noticed something, it was generally something we didn't want to be noticing, such as abrasive seams, chafing, or a restrictive fit.
The number, location, and type of stitching used to join seams of fabric together play a large role in how comfortable a shirt is. Running is a very repetitive motion, and seams provide a rough, protruding surface to rub or chafe against the skin over long distances. Three types of seams are commonly found on these running shirts: overlock seams, flatlock seams, and taped seams.
The location of seams is almost as important as the type of seam used. Cleverly placed gussets and panels that move seams to areas where less pressure is exerted over them can make a huge difference in comfort. If you're adding a running pack or backpack over a seam and that seam is already contacting your ribs or clavicle, it can be downright uncomfortable.
Fabric Type and Weave
All of the shirts we tested are made of polyester, although some are also blended with other materials like nylon or wool. Polyester is a synthetic fabric that, in general, is quite slippery and soft to the touch, making it a comfortable choice for most garments. However, the pattern of the weave of each shirt differs drastically, making some far more comfortable than others. The New Balance Ice 2.0 uses two different patterns of mesh polyester that are very comfortable against the skin. In contrast, the tight, Phasic FL (polyester) woven fabric found on the Arc'teryx Motus Crew is slipperier to the touch, but also very comfortable against the skin. The softest fabric is found on the Brooks Distance, one of the main reasons we identified it as being so incredibly comfortable.
Despite all being men's size large, each shirt was cut to a different shape. Fit is subjective based on body shape, so we do not grade for it too harshly. In general, these shirts are either designed with an "athletic fit" that is trimmer and fits closer to the body or are fairly loose and baggy for maximum mobility. For example, the Under Armour UA Rush hangs loosely on the upper body.
In addition to finding the fit that suits you best, it's important to pay attention to how much stretch is in the fabric. While the UA Rush was the right size for our gear tester, it did have a wild amount of stretch. A little bit goes a long way in making a shirt feel nonrestrictive.
With a great deal of similarity between the fit of running shirts, our side by side comparison gives you an idea of how tight or baggy each shirt was on our lead tester. An important attribute when it comes to fit is how long the shirt is. It seems easy to make a shirt too short, risking that it rides up, or too long, making it feel like a cape.
Let's face it; if you're running, you're going to sweat. These shirts are designed to make sure your sweat evaporates as fast as possible, cooling you quicker. Two important factors affect how quickly this happens: the ability of the shirt to breathe, assessed here, and the ability for the shirt to dry quickly, discussed in the next metric below.
The most effective way for a shirt to breathe, and therefore quickly transfer moisture away from your body, is through direct air transfer. This means that air easily travels through the fabric of your shirt to promptly aid in the evaporation process. Most commonly, this is accomplished by incorporating panels of thinner mesh in areas of frequent sweat buildup, such as on the back, shoulders, or underarms. Some shirts are made of "mesh" throughout, but the types and styles of air-permeable mesh differ from shirt to shirt.
The New Balance Mesh Ice 2.0 is very effective at breathing. The entire shirt is made from a pin-dot polyester mesh, which allows air to flow through freely. However, there are some downsides to making the entire shirt from mesh; for example, the Ice 2.0 feels a bit coarse against the skin compared to some of the softer polyester weaves. The Motus Crew took a more strategic approach in utilizing bicomponent fabric, which offers excellent breathability and superior moisture wicking.
How quickly a shirt dries is another important attribute that affects how cool it will keep you on your run. While some shirts aim to allow for the maximum amount of direct air transfer, assessed as breathability above, others aim to wick the moisture away from your body, moving it to the outside of the shirt where it is exposed to the air and can dry much faster.
Shirts that use this method of quickly cooling the runner typically do not feature mesh paneling, use slightly heavier fabric, and tend to be a bit more durable. For this reason, we often like such shirts for use as base-layers in the cold (like while backcountry skiing), or for hiking or backpacking, when the shirt needs to be able to withstand the abuse of pack straps rubbing over time.
The drying speed of a shirt is important because it affects how well the shirt works to keep you cool. A running shirt acts like a second layer of skin while you wear it. Your body sweats as it builds up heat, and the evaporation of that sweat is what cools you down. A shirt needs to have the same characteristics. Sweat needs to evaporate quickly from a soaked shirt to cool you down, and one that dries more slowly will cause your body to retain heat and not cool off as quickly.
To test each shirt, we put them all in the wash and weighed them after the spin dry; this gave us a "saturated" weight that we could then compare to as the shirts dried. We then put the shirts into the dryer individually and pulled them out to weigh them every ten minutes. This gave us a nice graph of how quickly each shirt would return to its dry weight.
The very light Mesh Ice 2.0 topped the ratings in this test. As you might hypothesize, heavier shirts have more fabric and surface area within the fibers allowing them to hold onto more moisture. While a heavier shirt doesn't mean it will dry slower, it can give you a general idea of what the drying speed might be. We found that those shirts made with mesh or mesh paneling, such as the Mesh Ice 2.0, dried quickly.
We also took these shirts out into the real world in a variety of conditions ranging from extremely hot desert trails around Tucson to much cooler high elevations in Rocky Mountain National Park. While most of what we experienced directly related to our standardized drying test, some comfort issues arose that we didn't expect. For example, the Under Armor UA Rush, a typically functional exercise shirt, became heavy and excessively stretchy when it was saturated with sweat. Other shirts, such as the Motus Crew seemed to hold on to just the right amount of moisture to improve evaporative cooling but not too much moisture to make us feel saturated.
Let's be real… versatile. We use our running shirts for all kinds of activities that aren't running. We do this because these shirts are effective at keeping us from feeling saturated; they wick moisture from our skin and generally dry quickly. These attributes make for excellent shirts while climbing, biking, backpacking, and even just working around in the garden.
In this category, our goal was to figure out which shirts worked best in a variety of situations, which often demands that a shirt be comfortable, allow for freedom of movement, and be durable for use as a base layer.
There are some critical differences when it comes to versatility. One of the most important to note is the difference in seam sewing on the shoulders. While some high end running shirts are equipped with taped shoulder seams, this does detract from the shirt's overall versatility. Taped seams are a bit more fragile than sewn, and thus making use of the shirt as a baselayer while backpacking might not be ideal. The Motus Crew, on the other hand, utilized a "merrow" stitch, which combines the comfort of a taped seam with the durability of sewn seams. These small details add a great deal of durability, and in turn, versatility to a shirt.
Another notable shirt for versatility is the Brooks Distance. The outrageously soft polyester material made this one of our favorites for all kinds of activities. While it didn't have the layering comfort and durability of the Motus Crew, it does have soft fabric; we would often pull it on first thing in the morning Saturday and leave it on for a bike ride to the farmers market, back home, and on an afternoon run before throwing it in the wash. We just didn't want to take it off.
In general, running shirts are made to be simple, yet functional, and are not highly featured pieces of equipment. Typical features to look for are UPF or Ultraviolet Protection ratings, odor-controlling agents, and reflective badges to make the runner more visible. A few of the shirts also incorporated fabric softening agents, which certainly boosted the comfort of polyester, a fabric not known for its softness.
While some of these features aren't critical, having several reflectors placed on the shirt is a crucial feature. Even if you mostly use your running shirt on trails or indoors, there will inevitably be a time when you're running around the streets, and reflective badging can be a lifesaver. Drivers are more distracted than ever, and a quick-moving runner in low light is challenging to see.
Finding a top-quality technical running shirt is a lot easier than shopping for a lot of the gear you will find on OutdoorGearLab. All of the shirts described here are effective and reasonably comfortable, do an adequate job of keeping you cool through evaporation, and have running-specific features. The one that is the best for you will depend upon your particular needs and how much you would like to spend. Don't simply settle for the ill-fitting printed shirt you were given at your last race; invest in a quality piece of clothing that is comfortable for your workouts, day after day. We hope that the information here is helpful, and happy running!
— Brian Martin & Andy Wellman