We've tested running shirts for a decade, buying and comparing over 34 unique models with 10 excellent options in this 2021 review. How do you choose between so many outstanding performance layers? We ran hundreds of miles through changing seasons to help you find the right fit. Over months, we tested the temperature range of each option on jaunts through the high desert plateau and slogs through variable temps in the mountains. Additionally, we noted how functional each layer performed on cycling, skiing, and climbing adventures. We put each option through standardized drying speed and breathability tests, tested compatibility with hydration packs, and conducted a blind panel odor test. This suite of running shirts is leagues ahead of previous testing fields. Read on to learn about our findings.Related: Best Running Shirts for Women of 2021
Best Running Shirt for Men of 2021
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|$16.99 at Amazon||$49 List|
|Pros||Incredibly soft, great fit, very comfortable, UPF rating||Highly breathable, good fit||Extremely comfortable, versatile, affordable, soft material, odor resistant||Inexpensive, comfortable stretch, durable, 360º reflective banding||Soft to the touch, breathable|
|Cons||Slow drying speed, no reflective accents||Plastic feel against the skin, perforated and seethrough||Heavy when wet||Heavy, not very breathable||Heavy, overbuilt, slow drying speed|
|Bottom Line||The most comfortable shirt we've worn and it has specific features for running||Highly effective for intense physical activity but see-through and lacking some quality features||A great running shirt that is as soft as silk but far more affordable||A comfortable running shirt with a full feature set for a fraction of the price||Designed for performance, but many of the features miss the mark resulting in a heavy shirt with overbuilt seams|
|Rating Categories||Vuori Strato Tech||Q Speed Fuel Jacquard||Brooks Distance||Baleaf Quick Dry||Nathan Rise Short S...|
|Drying Speed (20%)|
|Features & Versatility (20%)|
|Specs||Vuori Strato Tech||Q Speed Fuel Jacquard||Brooks Distance||Baleaf Quick Dry||Nathan Rise Short S...|
|Weight (size Medium)||4.3 oz||4.5 oz||5.2 oz||4.8 oz||5.5 oz|
|Material||96% polyester, 4% elastane||73% polyester, 27% spandex||88% polyester, 12% lyocell||90% polyester, 10% spandex||89% polyester, 11% elastane|
|Reflective Areas?||No||Yes - 2||Yes - 2||Yes - 4||Yes - 3|
|Seam Type||Flatlock and Overlock||Overlock||Flatlock||Flatlock and Overlock||Flatlock|
|UPF?||30+||Not Stated||Not Stated||Not Stated||Not Stated|
|Odor Control?||Yes - undeclared||No||Yes - DriLayer Burst fabric||No||No|
Best Overall Running Shirt for Men
Running shirts may seem simple with little difference between products, but after testing a variety of shirts, there is a clear spectrum of performance across comfort, breathability, and drying speed. The Patagonia Airchaser topped the charts once again as the most comfortable, breathable, and fastest drying shirt. 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 while wearing a hydration vest. Combined with highly breathable recycled polyester and the effective odor-controlling agent Polygiene, the Airchaser is easily the highest scorer in our comparative testing.
There are a few downsides, such as a lack of reflective logos for low light conditions and the delicate nature of taped shoulder seams. These are small fry issues, however, when put into perspective with how well the Airchaser performs and the outstanding comfort it provides. No running shirt is perfect, but this one comes close, offering protection while simultaneously being so light we hardly noticed it.
Read review: Patagonia Airchaser
Best Bang for the Buck
Under Armour UA Streaker Run
The UA Streaker Run offers best in class performance at a more approachable price. It performed in the top tier in every category; it's breathable, quick-drying, and a great fit paired with enough stretch to make it very comfortable. Across the board, this round of shirts was really impressive. While the Streaker wasn't the best we tested, it still stood out, and of the top-tier shirts, it is the most affordable. While we consider this shirt to be in the middle of the price range, it performs well above the middle of the crowd. We knew that it was comfortable and breathable right away but we were surprised with how quickly it dried and how well it worked with layers and a hydration pack.
The Streaker Run did have a few shortcomings, notably a lack of reflective accents on the sleeves. Additionally, the shirt uses a flap of fabric across the back to aid in ventilation. This strip of fabric hides the seam of the highly breathable diamond weave used on the lower back of the shirt and the horizontal striped weave used throughout the rest of the design. It merely adds more material to a potentially high friction area and positions more fabric on top of a flatlock seam. That aside, the raglan sleeves, a polyester stretch blend fabric, flatlock stitching, and a tagless comfort collar make this shirt stand out in all of the right ways.
Read review: Under Armour UA Streaker Run
Best for Layering
Black Diamond Rhythm Tee
The Black Diamond Rhythm Tee is the only shirt we tested with a merino wool/nylon blend, which is a delightful combination that performs extraordinarily well. It feels dramatically different than the other shirts, and while not the lightest in the test, it has an airiness and breathability that is unmatched. The flatlock stitching and merino wool are not abrasive or itchy; in fact, the fabric's stretch allowed for Black Diamond to reduce the overall number of seams. We found this shirt performs excellently by itself while running, but what set it apart from the rest is the comfort and breathability when we used it as a base layer.
Since the Rhythm Tee doesn't have any vulnerable thin mesh panels, it can withstand a variety of uses without pilling and doesn't retain the same odor as polyester competitors. The breathability, moisture-wicking, and odor control benefits of high-performance merino wool fibers drafted over the durability and stretch retention of a nylon fabric core make for a fantastic running shirt. This versatility does come at a higher price than some folks are looking to spend on a running shirt, but if you can swing it, we don't foresee you regretting the decision.
Read Review: Black Diamond Rhythm Tee
Best for Comfort
Vuori Strato Tech
Like a gentle breeze delivering soft silky comfort, the Vuori Strato Tech flows with movement. We have tested some incredibly comfortable shirts, with similar poly stretch blends, and this one washes them all away. The 94% polyester and 6% spandex blend makes the relaxed-fitting shirt stretchy, and the high level of comfort makes it one of our favorite shirts not only for running but for yoga, rock climbing, hiking, and mountain biking as well. And sleeping, don't forget that, as this shirt makes 900 thread count Egyptian cotton feel rough to the touch.
It's important to know that this shirt isn't as breathable or as lightweight as some of the other models in our fleet. The fabric weave is tighter, making for a high level of comfort but not as much airflow. Soft and slightly heavier means that it feels warm under other layers but may not be fit for high output cardio on sweltering days. That said, it dries quickly and maintains good odor resistance.
Read review: Vuori Strato Tech
Why You Should Trust Us
This review is led by Jeff Colt, a senior review editor with years of industry experience working with trail running brands and over two decades of competitive running including the last five years as an elite ultramarathoner. Jeff has worked as a first responder in the White Mountains and knows what gear he can trust in the field. The foundation for this review was laid by Brian Martin, another senior reviewer at OutdoorGearLab who spent five years working with Yosemite Search and Rescue.
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. The shirts we tested this spring were among the best we have ever tested, so we had to make sure to put them through a variety of rowdy settings, testing in the high desert and alpine regions of Colorado and New Mexico and in some heavy thick air along the Gulf in Florida. We primarily assessed versatility, durability, and comfort in our backyard playground, through the ever-changing weather and terrain of the Rocky Mountains.
Related: How We Tested Running Shirts
Analysis and Test Results
The shirts that we purchased for testing are primarily designed as running shirts or breathable activewear, 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, 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 running shirts we tested span a 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. We generally observed that higher-priced shirts came equipped with underarm gussets, more comfortable fabrics, and flatlock or taped seams, but we were delighted by some of the more affordable options too. The Baleaf Quick Dry is the most affordable shirt in this review. It wears well and performs admirably, but spending a little bit more gets you a different level of technical performance.
The Patagonia Airchaser, Black Diamond Rhythm Tee, and Arc'teryx Cormac Crew have the most comfortable seams of any shirts tested, but that attention to detail comes with a price. The UA Streaker Run hits a similar level of breathability and comfort and also comes at a very approachable price. It's not the cheapest in our review, but it's much lower than others while still offering excellent performance.
One of the main reasons comfort and quality usually come at a higher price point with these otherwise simple shirts is the seams. Chunky and abrasive seams are cheaper to construct but result in poor comfort. Merrow stitching, on the other hand, is a much higher quality seam, which produces a superior 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 better seam quality is likely a better value.
Fortunately, you don't have to shell out the big bucks for a functional running shirt. Our most affordable shirts tested, the Baleaf Quick Dry, UA Streaker Run, and Brooks Distance are all incredibly affordable and perfectly acceptable in their performance. We would trust these shirts on most any adventure and we are confident they will perform up to your expectations.
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 plays a large role in how comfortable a shirt is. Running is a very repetitive motion, and seams that have a rough, protruding surface that rubs or chafes against the skin over long distances are not ideal. Two types of seams are commonly found on these running shirts: overlock seams and flatlock seams. The Patagonia Airchaser is the lone shirt we reviewed that incorporates taped seams and the Arc'teryx Cormac is the only shirt we tested that features merrow stitched 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.
The Brooks Distance has one of the highest scores in outright comfort. It also has extremely wide underarm and over-shoulder gussets, making it feel seamless. The equally comfortable Rhythm Tee, our favorite for layering, has no underarm gusset in an effort to reduce seams. In this case, it works due to the highly stretchable and soft merino blend fabric and smooth flatlock seams.
And, of course, the Airchaser is incredibly comfortable to wear — this is a big reason it takes home our top award. Flatlock seams are used throughout the shirt with flat taped seams over the shoulder, an often overlooked spot of friction. Impeccable seams, a dialed fit, and an incredibly light weight mean you barely notice it's on your body — a mega bonus when you're really working hard and racking up miles on the trail.
Fabric Type and Weave
With the exception of the Rhythm Tee, all of the shirts we tested are made of polyester, although some are also blended with other materials like spandex or lyocell. 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 lightweight gridded fabric found on the Cormac Crew is soft to the touch and very comfortable against the skin. In contrast, the lightweight gridded fabric on the Nike Rise 365 is slipperier to the touch — it's not as soft but is more breathable.
The Rhythm Tee uses a nylon core drafted with merino wool, producing the stretchiest shirt of any we tested, while still feeling soft to the touch, breathing well, but giving noticeably more warmth than the polyester shirts. Many of the shirts use recycled materials, but a few go one step further and feature responsibly sourced materials — we feel an obligation in pointing out those that take this step to reduce the impact that the textile industry has on our planet. The Black Diamond Rhythm Tee uses wool that is responsible wool certified, the Patagonia Airchaser is Fair Trade Certified, and the Brooks Distance is Bluesign approved. The softest fabric we tested is that of the Vuori Strato Tech Tee, a 96% polyester 4% elastane blend. While this blend doesn't stand out as unique, in conjunction with the weave of the shirt it transforms into the most comfortable shirt we tested.
Despite all our tested shirts being men's size medium, each 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 Strato Tech hangs loosely on the upper body when compared to some of the more performance-oriented shirts we tested.
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 Rhythm Tee was the right size for our gear tester, it also has a wild amount of stretch and shape retention. A little bit goes a long way in making a shirt feel nonrestrictive.
An important attribute when it comes to fit is how long a 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. A notable division between the more expensive and affordable shirts is fit and length. While many of the cheaper options are longer and have a square cut, the Baleaf Quick Dry is an exception to this division and fit our tester very well.
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. Others rely on fabric technology, incorporating more breathable fabrics into the weave.
The Nike Dri-FIT Rise 365 is very effective at breathing. The shirt uses a tightly woven gridded polyester on the front and then transitions to a well-spaced gridded polyester on the back, which allows air to flow through freely. However, there are some downsides to making the shirt from a highly breathable gridded polyester; for example, the Rise 365 feels noticeably colder in a light breeze. The Rhythm Tee relies on highly breathable merino wool and a consistent tight weave to promote air transfer while having a softer and warmer feel against the skin. We love this shirt for layering because the merino wool blend offers breathability with thermoregulating properties that keep you warm when it's cold, but easily ditch heat when it's warm.
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 cycle; this gave us a "saturated" weight that we could then compare to as the shirts dried. We then put them into the dryer individually and pulled them out to weigh them every five minutes. This gave us a nice graph of how quickly each shirt would return to its dry weight.
The very light Patagonia Airchaser 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 always dry slower, it can give you a general idea of what the drying speed might be. We found that shirts made with mesh or mesh paneling, such as the Airchaser, dried quickly.
We also took these shirts out into the real world in a variety of conditions ranging from extremely hot desert trails in Santa Fe, NM and Grand Junction, CO to much cooler high elevations in Colorado's Elk Mountains. 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 Nathan Rise, a typically functional exercise shirt, became heavy and excessively bouncy when it was saturated with sweat. Other shirts, such as the UA Streaker Run seemed to hold on to just the right amount of moisture to improve evaporative cooling but not so much as to make us feel saturated.
Features & Versatility
Let's be real — 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 the 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 base layer while backpacking might not be ideal. The Cormac 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. Additionally, with a UPF 50+ rating, the Cormac has an additional form of protection, upping its versatility to the top of the category.
The Rhythm Tee also proved to be very versatile, scoring well across categories but separating itself from the crowd with its amazing stretch, shape retention, and compatibility with layers and packs. For a merino wool blend shirt, the Rhythm Tee is shockingly lightweight yet seemingly durable, showing little signs of pilling. The added benefit of odor reduction is amazing compared to a fleet of polyester competitors.
Another notable shirt for versatility is the Vuori Strato. The outrageously soft polyester material made this one of our favorites for all kinds of activities. While it doesn't have the layering comfort and durability of the Rhythm Tee, it does have soft fabric; we would often pull it on first thing in the morning and leave it on for a bike ride to the farmers market, lounging back home, and on an afternoon run before throwing it in the wash. We just didn't want to take it off and loved the casual look of the shirt.
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 in our lineup 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, UPF ratings can offer a significant advantage on long runs, protecting your torso from the effects of sunburn. More notably, 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 markers 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 here on GearLab. 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!
— Jeff Colt and Brian Martin