Looking for the best running shirt for either warm or cold weather running? We purchased and reviewed 10 of the best and most popular short sleeve running shirts after extensively researching over 90 different options. We recently tested out a couple of the best long sleeve running shirts for hammering out the training miles in winter or on cold mornings. Our comparative reviews are expert tested on trail running adventures from the Oregon Cascades and high desert, to Death Valley in California, and Zion National Park in Utah. They also work just as well for running on roads or the track, and we tested their versatility by wearing them on biking, skiing, and climbing adventures. We compared and rated each shirt for five metrics — comfort, breathability, drying time, versatility, and features — to be sure that we recommend the best ones to you. Read on below for our choices for the best overall, best for winter running, for use as a base layer, and for staying cool during the hottest weather.
The Best Running Shirt Review for Men
|Price||$49.95 at Backcountry||$52.99 at MooseJaw|
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|$39.00 at Amazon||$70.00 at Amazon||$65.00 at REI|
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|Pros||Extremely breathable mesh, dries very quickly, comfortable||Lots of features, very versatile, dries fast, awesome venting||Cool headphone cord keeper, lots of breathable mesh, comfortable fit, affordable||Durable and versatile, fairly breathable and quick drying, uses natural fibers||Super comfortable fabric and stitching, sleek stretch fit|
|Cons||Super light mesh has durability concerns, not many features||Fabric feels rough and artificial against skin, chest pocket is small||Isn’t the fastest to dry out||Pricey, still made of almost 50% synthetic fiber, not as soft as others||Dries very slowly, doesn’t have chest pocket|
|Bottom Line||The best running shirt at forcing evaporative heat loss.||The best running shirt for winter or on cold days in the fall and spring.||Providing a very simple solution to a problem we didn’t realize we had.||A great choice for those who appreciate natural fibers, or who just want a durable and versatile running shirt.||A versatile and comfortable winter running shirt.|
|Rating Categories||Better Than Naked||Ambition 1/4 Zip||Ice 2.0||PhD Ultra Light||Element 1/2 Zip|
|Drying Speed (15%)|
|Specs||Better Than Naked||Ambition 1/4 Zip||Ice 2.0||PhD Ultra Light||Element 1/2 Zip|
|Material||100% polyester||58% Polyester, 42% Recycled Polyester Double Knit With FlashDry||100% polyester||56% Merino Wool, 44% Polyester||88% polyester, 12% spandex|
|Weight (oz.)||3.0 oz.||9.4 oz.||4.4 oz.||5.1 oz.||9.8 oz.|
|Reflective material?||Yes - 3||Yes - 1||Yes - 5||Yes - 3||Yes - 2|
The North Face Better Than Naked
As the summer temperatures begin to rise, we start to notice a preponderance of dudes hitting the pavement shirtless, as if auditioning for the next Baywatch movie or something. Put the vanity aside, guys, and instead don The North Face's Better Than Naked T-Shirt. With its super thin mesh back panel and taped seams over the shoulders, this is the best running shirt you can buy. These features make it easily one of the most breathable as well as the most comfortable. What little fabric there is to absorb sweat is made of The North Face's FlashDry, a polyester weave that performs even better than the marketing hype — a rarity in the outdoor world!
Of course, since it's so incredibly thin, we feel that there are some durability concerns, as it seems to us like tearing or wearing a hole in the back could happen really easily. For this reason, we prefer wearing it on short runs where a handheld water bottle provides enough water, and avoid using it in conjunction with a running vest or for any other activity that requires a pack. For runs in warm or hot weather, we have not found any other shirt that is better than this one!
Read review: The North Face Better Than Naked
Top Pick for Cold Weather
The North Face Ambition 1/4 Zip
Running and fitness don't take a break simply because winter rolls around. In fact, they are necessary more than ever to combat the lethargy inherent in the darker half of the year. For staying active during these difficult times you need a running shirt with long sleeves and a collared neck to trap some of your body heat and protect skin against the cold air. We tested two of the best options, and while we really like both of them, we think The North Face Ambition ¼ Zip provides the most versatility for running in colder weather. It has long sleeves with thumb catch holes, a zippered collar for added protection and great ventability once you warm up, and a handy zippered chest pocket to stash your phone or car keys, a feature unfortunately not found on other shirts we tested.
The only downside to this wonder layer is that the fabric feels fairly synthetic and isn't silky smooth against the skin like the fabric of the Nike Element ½ Zip. Only by comparing many shirts to each other is this fact noticeable, however, and very few users of this shirt thought to call it "uncomfortable." It can be worn over the top of a tech t-shirt, or against bare skin, and makes for a great base layer under a windbreaker or thicker warmth layer — ideal for running or any other cold weather activity. We enjoyed it a lot on moderately cold winter runs, but it also makes a great choice for early mornings in the spring and fall when the air still feels chilly. If you need sleeves to make your daily run more comfortable, this is the shirt we recommend for you!
Read Review: The North Face Ambition 1/4 Zip
Best Bang for the Buck
Under Armour UA Tech
Retailing for a mere $25, the UA Tech shirt is a fantastic bargain, which is why we are happy to give it our Best Bang for the Buck Award. It is made of tightly woven polyester that is silky smooth to the touch and simply begs to be worn. On one running and climbing trip, we had a hard time taking it off and wore it for four straight days, proof that its anti-odor properties are more than just marketing jargon.
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 tags at all, 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, usage simply while running. While it isn't one of the highest scorers assessed as a running shirt, we feel that this shirt is good for virtually anything, and at such a low price point, has tremendous value.
Read review: Under Armour UA Tech
Top Pick for Running with Headphones
New Balance Ice 2.0
The New Balance Ice 2.0 is an updated version of the shirt that won our Editors' Choice Award in our last review and features the entire back made up of very breathable and lightweight mesh to help one stay cool. We chose to award this shirt our Top Pick for Running with Headphones due to a very simple and unique feature found on the back of the collar. The little loop provides a spot to thread your headphones through as they rise from your arm to your ears, effectively forcing the cords to dangle on your back, rather than against the chest where they can be distracting and annoying as they bounce about. While this feature seems insignificant, we found that it had an outsized bearing on our running experience. It is also worth pointing out that this shirt is one of the highest scorers overall in our review, while it's also the most affordable of any of the top six shirts, obviously presenting great value.
With a ton of admirable qualities, we find very little to complain about when it comes to this shirt. The lighter weight mesh fabric that makes up the entire back of this shirt is not as airy as the mesh on some others, but the fact that it was moved down off the shoulders slightly means this shirt should survive the rubbing and bouncing that comes with wearing a running vest longer. We think it is an excellent choice for running, but also serves well as a workout top for any type of activity, and can be worn with a pack while hiking.
Read review: New Balance Ice 2.0
Top Pick for Use as a Base-Layer
Arc'teryx Motus Crew
If you are like us, then you like your $70 tech shirt to be capable of handling more abuse than simply running. Besides running, we also like to wear these shirts as a base-layer when backcountry skiing, while hiking, climbing, backpacking, riding bikes, or doing almost anything sweaty outside. In general, this requires a fabric and design that is burly enough to withstand repeated rubbing and abuse from packs and their straps. With its tighter weave and lack of super thin lightweight vents, the Arc'teryx Motus Crew is more durable than the rest and is our Top Pick for this purpose. We also like how it comes with a UPF 25 rating, as well as with genuine 360-degree reflectivity (a feature claimed, but not really backed up, by many of these shirts), features that only contribute to the versatility of this mountain shirt.
Worth noting is that this shirt is far less breathable than most of the running shirts that use mesh panels, an unfortunate downside to using more robust material. The tradeoff is worth it, in our opinion, as this is the best shirt in this review for all manner of mountain activities, besides only running.
Read review: Arc'teryx Motus Crew
Analysis and Test Results
The ten shirts that we chose to test for this review are all designed primarily as running shirts, 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 or on roads, these shirts will serve you equally as well (although we tested them primarily by running on trails, as that is what we prefer). The majority of these shirts are made with 100% polyester fibers, although a few of them use blends of polyester with other types of fiber, such as nylon or wool.
Their intent is to protect you from sun and wind, or a running vest, while also aiding in the process of sweat evaporation to keep you cool, and providing increased visibility with nighttime reflectors. In the case of the long sleeve shirt tested, the primary purpose is to protect you from cold air while running, and then offering effective breathing and venting options to shed excess heat and sweat once you warm up. While we only tested two long sleeve options, check out the specs table and the individual reviews for details about whether the short sleeve shirts also come in long sleeve; many of them do. It is worth pointing out that despite the differences in ratings shown above, all of these are excellent shirts that we believe are all worth owning.
In order to accurately assess each shirt, we rate it based on five metrics that are the most important for a running shirt's performance: comfort, breathability, drying speed, versatility, and features. For each metric, we award a shirt a score of 1-10, with the scores being determined through comparison to the other products in the review. Each metric is weighted based on its relative importance to the performance of the shirt, and the scores are added together to produce a shirt's overall score. Each of the metrics, including the important considerations, how we test for each, the metric's weight in scoring, and the best products for that particular metric, are described in greater detail below. We encourage you to delve deeply into the separate metrics, as well as individual reviews, to match up your needs and desires with the perfect running shirt.
The shirts in this review exhibit a very wide variety of retail price points, ranging from $70 on the high side, down to a mere $15 in the case of the Russell Athletic Dri-Power Core Performance. Considering that you could buy four of one shirt for the same price as one of another, and that they all have the same general purpose and function, value is an obvious consideration in your purchase. We don't rate each shirt based upon its value, but we have discussed our thoughts on the value each product provides in the individual reviews, while also creating the below chart for your benefit.
Mouse over the dots to see which products they represent. Larger blue dots represent award winning or recommended products, while smaller grey dots represent non-award winners. Higher performing items in our comparative testing will fall further to the right in this graph, while more expensive items will be toward the top. To find the very best value, then, look to the bottom right side of the chart, where the combination of low price and high performance is combined. Unfortunately, in the case of running shirts, our testing shows that you actually do tend to get what you pay for, although good value can be found by purchasing the New Balance Ice 2.0 — the least expensive of the higher performing shirts, as well as our Best Bang for the Buck award winner, the Under Armour UA Tech, which is the highest performing of the more affordable shirts.
The most important thing about a shirt is how comfortable it is. Itchy fabrics, restrictive cuts, or abrasive seam sewing might not be super noticeable while standing around or trying on a shirt for the first time, but try running a marathon in an uncomfortable shirt and you could end up with rashes, chafing, or worse. In a way, comfort can be determined by figuring out which shirt is the least noticeable while wearing it. When we notice a piece of clothing it is usually because it is bothering us, an experience we desperately want to avoid while running.
We found that there are three major contributors to a shirt's comfort level: seam sewing, fabric weave, and fit. Each of these will be described in greater detail in a product's individual review.Seam Sewing
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. More detailed descriptions of the pros and cons of each type of seam can be found in our Buying Advice article, but for the sake of comfort, taped seams are the very best. The North Face Better Than Naked uses taped seams on the back of the shoulders, which we found to be among the most comfortable. Most of the shirts in this review liberally employ the use of flatlock seam sewing, while the cheapest occasionally use overlock seams. Even when sewing the seams with flatlock seams (the most comfortable that aren't taped), the smoothness and softness of the thread itself comes into play, and some shirts that use the same seam style feel noticeably different against the skin based on thread selection.
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 was slipperier to the touch, but also very comfortable against the skin. The softest fabric is found on the Nike Element 1/2 Zip, one of the main reasons we found it to be among the most comfortable.
Each shirt is cut to a different shape, despite all being men's size large. Fit is subjective based on body shape, so we made an effort to mention the fit in each individual review, and 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 designed to be fairly loose and baggy for maximum mobility. For example the Under Armour UA Tech hangs loosely on the upper body.
As the most important thing to consider when choosing a running shirt, or any piece of clothing for that matter, we weighted comfort as 35% of a product's overall score.
Let's face it, if you are running then you are going to sweat. These shirts are designed to make sure your sweat evaporates as fast as possible, cooling you quicker. Two important factors effect 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 quickly 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 is different from shirt to shirt.
Made with exceptionally light mesh material, especially on the back, The North Face Better Than Naked is the most breathable shirt that we tested, the primary reason we recommend it as the best overall running shirt. Also very effective at breathing is the New Balance Ice 2.0. This shirts uses different types of air-permeable mesh to aid with breathability and evaporation, although in different places on the body. As a very important consideration, but not nearly as important as comfort, we weighted breathability as 20% of a product's final score.
How quickly a shirt dries is another important attribute that affects how cool it will keep you as you 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 also tend to be a bit more durable. For this reason we often like shirts like these better for use as base-layers in the cold (for example while backcountry skiing), or for hiking or backpacking where 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 at keeping 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 in order 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 the drying speed of these shirts head-to-head, we got them all dripping wet and hung them up next to each other in an open space. We opened a few windows and put on the ceiling fan to allow for a bit of air flow, but did not have them in a direct wind, and were sure they all experienced the same conditions. Every half hour we checked the shirts to understand which were drying out faster, and graded them in this way. The time it took for each shirt to dry is irrelevant, as in real life factors such as body heat, sunlight, and wind would greatly accelerate how fast they dried.The North Face Better Than Naked was once again the top scorer, as it was when assessing breathability, but The North Face Ambition 1/4 Zip was also a top scorer, despite being made from a much heavier weave of FlashDry fabric. These two are obviously the best choices if you want to stay as cool as possible while running. Other shirts that effectively wicked away moisture and dried out quickly are the Arc'teryx Motus Crew, the Smartwool PhD Ultra Light, and the Brooks Distance. Drying speed accounted for 15% of a shirt's final score.
In versatility, we tried to account for how well the shirt will perform at other things besides simply running - or how well it will perform in different running disciplines.
Think of this score as how well the shirt will work as a base layer instead of a running shirt. Other questions we asked include: how easily will the shirt handle wearing a pack? Do its special features mean that it will be especially good at other activities as well? How durable is the shirt?
Shirts that did not use a liberal amount of super light mesh tended to score higher in this metric. Three shirts in particular rose to the top, including our Top Pick for Use as a Base-layer, the Arc'teryx Motus Crew. Due to its versatile and durable merino wool blended fabric, the Smartwool PhD Ultra Light is another top choice for hiking, backpacking, or any other sort of outdoor playing. Despite being a bit thinner, the super soft and simply designed Brooks Distance is also among the most versatile. Lastly, we found the Under Armour UA Tech to be worth mentioning for its versatility, as we couldn't find an activity where we didn't enjoy this shirt. Among the long sleeve shirts tested, The North Face Ambition 1/4 Zip is slightly more versatile than the Nike Element. Versatility accounted for 15% of a product's final score.
What kind of features can a shirt have, you ask? Well, as we found out, surprisingly many. For instance, the New Balance Ice 2.0, our Top Pick for Running with Headphones, features a small loop on the outside back of the neck that one can thread their headphone cords through to keep them from dangling and bouncing on the chest. This feature is so unique and effective that we couldn't help but recommend the shirt because of it.
Other features that we noted are Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) ratings, where a shirt is rated for its effectiveness at protecting from the sun's harmful rays, like sunscreen, as well as odor-controlling anti-microbial agents that supposedly prevent a shirt from becoming too funky after regular sweaty use. We also paid very close attention to the number and positioning of reflective tags that help a runner stay visible at night, especially when near traffic. Each shirt's features are described in greater detail in their individual reviews, and we have a more in-depth breakdown of how each feature works in our Buying Advice article.
To be honest, we were a little bummed that no shirt in this review included all of the features we described above. The best is The North Face Ambition 1/4 Zip, which features UPF protection as well as a handy zippered chest pocket with media port, but obviously isn't the best choice for summer running. The Arc'teryx Motus Crew has five different reflectors and a UPF rating of 25 but doesn't include an odor agent. Features accounted for 15% of a shirt's final score.
Finding a top-quality technical running shirt is a lot easier than shopping for a lot of the gear you will find on OutdoorGearLab, such as running shoes for example. 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 you are comfortable wearing for your workouts, day after day. We hope that the information here is helpful, and happy running!
— Andy Wellman