Looking for the best running shirt for various weather conditions? We purchased and reviewed 10 of the best running shirts for 2019 after extensively researching over 90 different options. Nine are short sleeve options, but we also recently added a couple of long sleeve choices for hammering out the 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. Read on 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 Shirts of 2019
|Price||$49.00 at REI|
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|$55.95 at Backcountry|
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|$32.99 at Amazon||$70.00 at Amazon||$44.93 at REI|
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|Pros||Very comfortable, Polygiene odor control works well, breathable and dries quickly||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||Taped seams on shoulders less durable than sewn seams||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||Exceedingly comfortable and fast drying are the two top attributes for the best running shirt you can buy.||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||Patagonia Airchaser||Ambition 1/4 Zip||New Balance Ice 2.0||Smartwool PhD Ultra Light||Nike Element 1/2 Zip|
|Drying Speed (15%)|
|Specs||Patagonia Airchaser||Ambition 1/4 Zip||New Balance Ice 2.0||Smartwool PhD...||Nike Element 1/2 Zip|
|Material||100% recycled polyester||58% Polyester, 42% Recycled Polyester Double Knit With FlashDry||100% polyester||56% Merino Wool, 44% Polyester||88% polyester, 12% spandex|
|Weight (oz.)||3.2 oz.||9.4 oz.||4.4 oz.||5.1 oz.||9.8 oz.|
|Reflective material?||Yes - 2||Yes - 1||Yes - 5||Yes - 3||Yes - 2|
|Odor Control?||Yes - Polygiene||No||No||Yes, natural to wool fiber||No|
|Zip Neck Option?||No||Yes||No||No||Yes|
Best Overall Running Shirt
A shirt can have all sorts of fancy bells and whistles to set it apart from all the rest of the options, but at the end of the day what matters most is comfort. The Patagonia Airchaser is far and away the most comfortable running shirt you can buy, which is why we recommend it as our Editors' Choice winner. 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 at the most likely place. Combined with highly breathable recycled polyester and the effective odor controlling agent Polygiene, the Airchaser is also far and away the highest scorer in our comparative testing.
On the downside, this shirt doesn't offer all that much nighttime reflectivity for those who like to get in their miles before the sun rises. Nor does it have added UPF protection to limit the harm from the summer sun's harsh rays. And while taped seams are ideal to limit rubbing, they also have the propensity to delaminate much faster than a typical sewn seam is likely to pull apart, especially if you aren't careful about drying it with low heat. These complaints don't do much to offset the radness of this shirt, however, and anyone who is in the market for the most comfortable running garment they can buy should look no further.
Read review: Patagonia Airchaser
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
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'll like your 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 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
Why You Should Trust Us
This review was led by Andy Wellman, a senior reviewer at OutdoorGearLab who has been testing and writing about running shirts extensively since 2015. Andy has been running his entire life, ever since he was the fastest (and smallest) kid on his youth soccer team. While running through the mountains for simple fitness and due to impatience on long mountain approaches and descents has always been his norm, in 2011 he was bit by the competitive running bug. He took to it in earnest, and along the way managed to win or podium at mountain races from 10k to half marathon, as well as marathon, 50k, 50 mile, and the Mustang Trail Race, a nine-day stage race through the Himalayas. In 2014 he quit his job to live a nomadic, dirtbag lifestyle of mountain running, traveling the world and the American West to explore wild trails. Those adventures led him to settle in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, a modern day mountain running mecca and home to the iconic Hardrock Hundred trail race, where he began reviewing trail running shoes and other running apparel for OutdoorGearLab. As a bit of a Luddite, he doesn't wear a watch or log his miles and time spent running, but knows that he has run in and tested at least 50 different running shirts over the past five years in order to understand what makes the perfect choice.
Testing of running shirts takes place wherever Andy happens to be running when he gets a new selection of shirts to review. The shirts you read about here were tested on running trips to Death Valley and Zion National Parks, as well as on the Front Range and San Juan Mountains of Colorado, and the trails around Bend, Oregon. Our current selection is the culmination of over 20 hours spent researching over 90 shirts available on the market today to bring you in-depth reviews of only the very best ones. Like the change of the seasons, our testing never stops, as a shirt is needed every day, and we aim to keep adding relevant products to this review as we test them.
Related: How We Tested Running Shirts
Analysis and Test Results
The eleven 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.
Related: Buying Advice for Running Shirts
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 shirts 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. Despite the differences in ratings, 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.
The shirts in this review exhibit a very wide variety of retail price points. 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, the value is an obvious consideration in your purchase. We don't rate each shirt based upon its value.
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.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. The Patagonia Airchaser use taped seams on the back of the shoulders, which we find 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 is 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. However, the Patagonia Airchaser uses a soft fabric amended with a specialty fabric softener to make it even softer still.
Each shirt is cut to a different shape, despite all being men's size large. 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 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 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 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.
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 Ambition 1/4 Zip was a top scorer, despite being made from a much heavier weave of FlashDry fabric. The very light Patagonia Airchaser also topped the ratings in this test. These three 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 do not use a liberal amount of super light mesh tend 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 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.
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