We've tested running shirts for a decade, buying and comparing over 30 of the best with 10 excellent options in this 2020 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. 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. Read on to learn about our findings.Related: The Best Women's Running Shirts of 2020
The Best Running Shirts of 2020
Best Overall Running Shirt
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, fastest drying shirt making it the obvious 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 while wearing a hydration vest. Combined with highly breathable recycled polyester and the effective odor-controlling agent Polygiene, the Airchaser is 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 the taped seams being more delicate than seams on other models. These are small fry issues, however, when put into perspective with how well the Airchaser performs and its comfort. No running shirt is perfect, but this one offers protection while feeling seemingly nonexistent, a pretty impressive combination indeed.
Read review: Patagonia Airchaser
Best Bang for the Buck
Baleaf Quick Dry
The Baleaf Quick Dry offers fantastic performance for the price. Not only is it breathable and quick-drying, but its fit and comfort are in a different league. We were happy to have this shirt on our regular trail runs and climbing trips; the freedom of movement and stretch that the 10% spandex offers, coupled with soft polyester material and relatively smooth seams, boosted the versatility of this super affordable shirt. Reflective bands on the sleeves and reflective logos also make the Quick Dry very visible at night. This all comes at an incredibly low price point, so it's no wonder this impressive shirt wins our Best Buy Award.
While it is one of the most versatile and affordable shirts that we tested, the Quick Dry is also one of the heaviest and did not perform as well as others in our kitchen science dry test. However, the fit that comes from the raglan sleeves and spandex/polyester blend, comfort neckband, and incorporated flatlock stitching makes this shirt competitive with those that are three to six times more expensive. It's a decent option for virtually anything, and at such a low price point, has tremendous value.
Read review: Baleaf Quick Dry
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 at all; 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 that might be more than some folks are looking to spend on a running shirt, but if you can swing it, we don't foresee you being sorry you did.
Read Review: Black Diamond Rhythm Tee
Best for Protection
Arc'teryx Cormac Crew Short Sleeve
The Arc'teryx Cormac Crew is an update from our previous Top Pick, the Arc'teryx Motus Crew. The Cormac 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. Additionally, intelligent seam design and taper of the shirt makes it more comfortable when paired with a hydration pack.
The Cormac Crew has a UPF 50+ rating, the only shirt offering that degree of sun protection. Yes, it is a bit heavier than some and doesn't dry quite as quickly, but this is made up for with comfort and durability. The result of the updated gridded fabric with the same quality flatlock merrow stitching is a shirt we reached for time and time again as a favorite, though the price may be a limiting factor for some.
Read review: Arc'teryx Cormac Crew
Best 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 88% polyester and 12% lyocell — a common substitute for cotton or silk derived primarily from wood fibers. This blend makes the relaxed-fitting shirt stretchy, and the high level of comfort make it 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 or as lightweight as some of the other models in our fleet. The densely woven fabric make 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 originally led by Brian Martin, a senior reviewer at OutdoorGearLab who spent five years working with Yosemite Search and Rescue. It is now led by Jeff Colt, a new reviewer to OutdoorGearLab with years of industry experience working with trail running brands and over two decades of competitive running including the last four 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.
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 high desert and alpine regions of Colorado, assessing the shirts versatility, durability, and comfort 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 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. 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, our Best Buy Winner, is the most affordable shirt in this review but still offers excellent performance and comfort.
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 Brooks Distance is wildly comfortable and also comes at a very approachable price. It's not the cheapest in our review, but it's much lower than many 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 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.
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, Russell Athletic Dri-Power Mesh, and Under Armour Tech 2.0 shirts are all incredibly affordable and perfectly acceptable in their performance. While they might not be technical enough for an ultramarathon or thru-hike, for most people and most activities, they will work just fine without breaking the bank.
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 that have a rough, protruding surface that rubs or chafes against the skin over long distances are not ideal. 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.
The Brooks Distance, our Top Pick for Comfort, no surprise has one of the highest scorers in outright comfort. It also has extremely wide underarm and over shoulder gussets, making it feel seamless. The equally comfortable Rhythm Tee, our Top Pick 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, our Editors' Choice Airchaser is incredibly comfortable to wear — this is a big reason it takes home our top award. The seams are impeccable, and the incredibly light weight means 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 exceptions 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 Salomon Agile SS Tee is slipperier to the touch, not as soft, yet 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 the to touch, breathing well, but giving noticeably more warmth than the polyester shirts. While many of the shirts use recycled materials, the Brooks Distance and Prana Hardesty are Bluesign certified, meaning the fabric is sourced and manufactured responsibly. Sourced from 100% recycled polyester, the Hardesty has a slipperier and stiffer feel to it. The softest fabric is found on the Distance, an 88% polyester, 12% lycocell blend, one of the main reasons we identified it as being so incredibly comfortable.
Despite all being men's size medium, 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 Tech 2.0 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 Rhythm Tee was the right size for our gear tester, it did have 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 was fit and length. While many of the more affordable price point shirts were longer and had a square cut, the Baleaf Quick Dry was 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 Salomon Agile SS is very effective at breathing. The shirt is made from a well-spaced gridded polyester, which allows air to flow through freely and features mesh underarm gussets. However, there are some downsides to making the shirt from highly breathable gridded polyester; for example, the Agile feels noticeably colder in a light breeze. The Airchaser, on the other hand, took a more strategic approach by integrating mesh on the back of the shirt while using a softer weave polyester on the front, still offering excellent breathability with increased comfort. The Rhythm Tee is another stellar option here — we love this shirt for layering because of the inclusion of highly breathable merino wool in its fabric DNA.
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 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 those 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 Tucson and around Grand Junction 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 Under Armor Tech 2.0, a typically functional exercise shirt, became heavy and excessively stretchy when it was saturated with sweat. Other shirts, such as the Arc'teryx Motus Crew 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… 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 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 Brooks Distance. 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 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 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 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 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 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