The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How to Choose the Best Running Shirt for Women

With Cerro Torre as a background  we almost forgot how uncomfortable this shirt was!
By Lauren DeLaunay ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Thursday February 14, 2019

The review team here at OutdoorGearLab knows that shopping for outdoor apparel can be a bit overwhelming. The market is full of product claiming to be the best thing, most comfortable that, or most breathable whatever. Without a trusty source to sort through the madness, how would you fight the urge to throw in the towel and run in whatever you're already wearing? Luckily for you, that's why we're here. Our expert gear testers spent months researching, testing, and writing about our favorite nine women's running products to bring you this comprehensive review. Already know what you're looking for? Great! Head over to our Best in Class Review to start reading about the best and brightest products. If you need a little more information before you can start making decisions, stick with us. In this article, we'll explain how we tested each product, what each scoring metric really means, and which products to look for depending on your particular needs.

Comfort


Running is hard, so why make it even harder? Comfort is incredibly important in keeping the stoke alive during your runs, and the longer you spend in a shirt, the more likely you are to notice small details that you wouldn't have noticed during a quick pre-buy try-on. We spent weeks in these shirts so we could really get to know them, and we had our friends and colleagues try them too in order to help us find a consensus. During our testing period, we found a few major qualities that greatly affected comfort.

Fabrics


In these nine shirts, we found a few different materials: cotton, wool, polyester, and even a bit of fleece. Most of the shirts were fully polyester, but some were a blend of these fabrics. Despite their similar constructions, each one has a different feel, and your personal preference will be important here. We strongly suggest trying on each shirt first, especially if you're considering a fabric that's new to you. That being said, there are some things you might want to know about each material before digging in.

Cotton

If you've never heard the expression "cotton kills," you might not know that any cotton garment is a questionable choice for the backcountry. Because of its long drying time and inability to keep us warm when wet, we generally do not promote wearing cotton in the outdoors, especially in cool or windy weather. Only two shirts in this review had cotton as part of their make-up, and both of them were still mostly polyester. The Nike Tailwind and Brooks Distance were 85% polyester and 15% cotton. The cotton helped add the super-soft feeling of both, and we found no difference in their drying times because of it. If shorter runs are your jam, or if you love the super soft feeling of cotton, these two could be great choices.

Spring weather is a perfect time to rock the Tailwind  which is super comfortable but not as breathable.
Spring weather is a perfect time to rock the Tailwind, which is super comfortable but not as breathable.

Polyester

Nowadays, when we think of activewear, we think of polyester. This synthetic material is known for being breathable, quick to dry, and reasonably comfortable, but it's also known for sometimes holding odors. We didn't notice any odor buildup in any of the shirts we tested, but you may want to avoid this material if that's a high priority for you. Of the shirts, we tested, the Patagonia Windchaser, North Face Reaxion Amp, and Arc'teryx Taema were fully polyester, the Windchaser being the only one with odor control. The Marmot All-Around is 93% polyester with just 7% of elastane jersey. In our winter models, the Under Armour ColdGear Reactor is 86% polyester and 14% elastane. The Brooks Notch Thermal is 90% polyester, but the other 10% is fleece, which we'll get to soon.

Wool

Only one shirt in this review was constructed with wool: the Smartwool PhD Ultra Light. With a 56% merino wool, 44% polyester blend, our testers found the best of both worlds in this top. Merino wool is naturally odor-free, a great advantage over polyester, but is also known to be less durable. We did not find any problems with durability during testing, but we'd be cautious using this shirt on burly backcountry missions.

Fleece

Fleece in a running shirt? We were surprised when we first laid hands on the Brooks Notch Thermal and found its ultra-cozy interior. We knew the shirt would be warm, which it definitely was, but how would it breathe? Since this top's fleece is arranged in small stripes with gaps in between, Brooks nailed it with the balance of warmth to breathability. It doesn't dry particularly quickly, but we do think this is an interesting choice if your winter runs take you through some pretty cold temperatures.

The Notch's fleece striping is one of our favorite features.
The Notch's fleece striping is one of our favorite features.

Seams


There are two factors concerning seams that affect overall shirt comfort, but because we didn't notice any seam-related discomfort during our testing, we didn't put as much emphasis on them when we were scoring. However, because we're obsessed with being thorough, we do want to spend a bit of time explaining what those factors are.

Seam Location

One of the biggest struggles we're looking to avoid with seams is chafing, and the most prominent way seams cause chafing is with their location. When seams are located directly on top of the shoulder, they could more easily rub under the weight of a pack or vest. We definitely prefer to have the seams located further down the sleeve or shoulder to alleviate this worry. Most of the shirts we tested did this, except for the Marmot All-Around and Brooks Distance, both of which missed the message.

Seam Type

There are three main types of seams that we noticed in this review: taped, flatlock, and overlock. The Windchaser was the only shirt in this review with taped seams. While they're easily the most comfortable, we had concerns about their durability. The other six shirts had either overlock or flatlock seams. As you can see in the picture below, the flatlock seams of the PhD Ultra Light and ColdGear Reactor have a much lower profile than the overlock seams of the North Face Reaxion, reducing the risk of uncomfortable rubbing and chafing. The shirts we tested that have flatlock seams are the PhD and Arc'teryx Taema, while the Reaxion, Brooks Distance, Marmot All-Around, and Nike Tailwind have overlock. As you might have guessed, flatlock seams are considerably more expensive to produce than the standard overlock, as demonstrated by these shirts' prices.

running shirt womens
running shirt womens

Fit & Stretch

Even comfortable materials can be a pain if the shirt itself doesn't fit correctly, so we wanted to explore the different types of designs we saw in this review. If the shirt was snug, we definitely needed it to be pretty stretchy in order to accommodate a wider range of motion. Some of the looser shirts we tested had less stretch but still worked because they weren't so tight. Fit is very personal, and while we did our best to reach a consensus, we still recommend trying on a shirt before purchasing to make sure it works for you.

The Reaxion has one of our favorite fits  finding the middle line between form-fitting and athletic.
The Reaxion has one of our favorite fits, finding the middle line between form-fitting and athletic.

Breathability & Drying Time

After keeping us comfortable, the most important thing we want our athletic wear to accomplish is keeping us dry. And when you're working up a sweat, whether you're deep in the backcountry or out on the track, this becomes more and more difficult to do. Our testing team identified two important traits that simultaneously work together to achieve that goal. They're closely linked, so we'll decode them here.

Breathability is the shirt's ability to breathe-- right? This metric measures airflow and the shirt's ability to let moisture evaporate before it accumulates on the fabric. Shirts that are made of synthetic materials generally do this best. We also found that a looser fit helped achieve this goal.

Drying time is the measure of how quickly a shirt can dry once it's saturated with moisture. To test this, we dunked all nine shirts in water, wrung them out by hand, and hung them on a line to dry side-by-side. In cold weather, we want our shirts to dry as quickly as possible so that the moisture doesn't make us cold. In hot weather, that evaporation process is what helps cool us down.

The Windchaser and Argentina are two of our favorite things.
The Windchaser and Argentina are two of our favorite things.

Features & Versatility

Our team was on the hunt for characteristics that made each shirt perfect for running, not just as a baselayer, and while we were a bit disappointed to find that not one of the nine models we tested had all these features, we still want to explain what they are and why we think they're important.

Sun protection: When spending hours and hours outside, nothing is as important for your long-term happiness and health than sun protection. We awarded extra points for shirts with a built-in UPF rating. The two that accomplished this were the Marmot All-Around, at UPF 30, and the Arc'teryx Taema, at UPF 50+.

Odor control: We don't think we really have to explain why this one is important, but we do wish that more of these shirts included this trait. The Windchaser from Patagonia included an odor shield into its polyester construction, the only one of the synthetic shirts to do so. The PhD Ultra Light is the most naturally odor-free because of its merino wool design.

Reflectivity: Having reflective markings while running at night can make a huge impact on safety. Not one of the nine shirts we tested had an abundant amount of reflection, but most of them had logos on the front and back to achieve this purpose.

Showing off the Reactor's lighter internal collar and its heavier layer with drawstring.
Showing off the Reactor's lighter internal collar and its heavier layer with drawstring.

Thumb loops: This only applies to our winter running layers, but it's an important one! Both long-sleeve shirts we tested had thumb loops, but the Notch's were considerably more comfortable.

Funnel neck: Once again, both of our long-sleeve shirts featured this high neckline, and for good reason! Both were effective at keeping in some extra warmth and protecting us from the elements, but the Reactor's two-layer collar was totally innovative.

After looking at what made a shirt running-specific, we also wanted to know what made it more versatile. Any time we invest money in a product, we want to get the most out of it. In order for any of these running shirts to also work as a more well-rounded baselayer, we looked at the features above plus a nice fit and great range of motion. While the Windchaser makes an excellent running shirt, its less-stretchy sleeves and torso make it difficult to use for other activities. The PhD Ultra Light, on the other hand, has excellent stretch and fit for any activity. Similarly, both of our winter layers, the Reactor and the Notch, would be great additions for any cold-weather activity.

Conclusion


Whether you're hiking, biking, climbing, skiing, or yes, running, most of the shirts in this review will do the trick. All are sufficient at managing sweat and keeping you comfortable, but some are better than others. If you're looking for a more versatile baselayer, pay extra attention to the "Features & Versatility" section of each individual review. If running in the heat is your thing, the "Breathability" and "Drying Time" metrics will be more important. We urge you to think about your activities and what your ideal shirt looks like, and then use the information above to critique each shirt before you purchase. Happy shopping!


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