Here at OutdoorGearLab, we know that shopping for apparel can be overwhelming. The market is saturated with products claiming to be the best thing or the most breathable that, and without a reliable source to sort through the madness, you might end up throwing in the towel and running in your old cotton t-shirt. But stop! That's what we're here for. Our review team searched through dozens of the most popular products and meticulously selected seven for hands-on testing. We spent months wearing these shirts everywhere we went, from the track to the trails, to bring you this review. If you already know what you're looking for, head on over to our Overview to read about which products won our hearts. Need some more background information before diving in? We use this article to explain what exactly you should be looking for.
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.
In these seven shirts, we found three different materials: cotton, wool, and polyester. Most of the shirts were fully polyester, but some were a blend of these fabrics. Each one has a different feel, and your personal preference will be important here. That being said, there are some things you'd want to know about each.Cotton
If you've ever heard the expression "cotton kills," you might already know that any cotton shirt 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. Only two shirts in this review had cotton, and both of them were still mostly polyester. Both 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.
When we think of activewear, we generally think of polyester. This synthetic material is known for being quick to dry and breathable, but also for 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.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 much less durable. We did not find any problems with durability during testing, but we'd be cautious using this shirt on burly backcountry missions.
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. We do want to spend a bit of time explaining what those factors are, though.Seam Location
One of the biggest struggles we want to avoid with seams is chafing, and the most prominent way seams cause chafing is by their location. When seams are located directly on top of the shoulder, they could easily rub under the weight of a pack. We definitely prefer to have the seams located further down the sleeve 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 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. Flatlock seams are considerably more expensive to produce than the standard overlock, as demonstrated by these shirts' prices.
Fit & Stretch
Even comfy materials can be a pain if a shirt doesn't fit correctly, so we wanted to explore the different types of designs we saw in this review. Most of the shirts we tested were form-fitting, and we only looked at short-sleeve versions for consistency. 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.
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 seven 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.
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 seven 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. None of the seven shirts we tested had an abundant amount of reflection, but most of them had logos on the front and back to achieve this purpose.
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.
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!