The Well-Dressed Runner
A guide to the features and fabrics of today's high-tech running wardrobe.
Posted Saturday, 20 September, 1997
The days of the cotton t-shirt are fading. For high performance, natural fabrics just don't cut it, as more and more runners turn to fabrics invented in the laboratory. To help navigate this sartorial brave new world, here are a few pointers on the features and fabrics of today's running wardrobe.
> T-shirts & singlets
> Winter tops
> Wind- and rain-proof shells
> Running bras
> Athletic supporters
T-shirts & singlets
Don't get us wrong, cotton's swell. It's soft, it's comfortable, it breathes. But it's lousy when it gets wet. Cotton sops up moisture and becomes heavy and clingy when you start to sweat. Especially on hot days, cotton t-shirts or singlets only make matters worse -- they get heavy, they chafe, they remind you of just how hot you feel.
For a far more comfortable run, try one of the lightweight synthetics designed to wick moisture away from your skin and allow it to evaporate quickly. These synthetics are soft and non-abrasive, and are often available in a ventilating mesh as well as a more tightly woven fabric. CoolMax by DuPont is probably the most common of these new fabrics, but Nike has a similar product dubbed DriFit. Give these a try; they will keep you cooler and more comfortable on a hot day than cotton.
For the same reason that cotton makes for a poor top in summer time, it also falls short in winter. When it's cold outside, the last thing you need is a sopping wet t-shirt against your skin; you can chill quickly, especially in the wind. Several different fabrics make for better alternatives.
Polypropylene, or "polypro," is by now an old standby. It's a good insulator, it's light, it breathes, and it wicks moisture away from your skin to keep you warm and dry. It should always be worn against the skin as a first layer and should fit tight, like a glove. The drawback of polypro is that it tends to smell pretty ripe before being washed. And once you've washed it, you risk melting the material in the drier (in other words, always air-dry your polypro). Relatively minor inconveniences, true, but more recent fabrics have improved on this. Corium by Asics, for example, stands up to the drier and, although it can become rather fragrant with use, it is less so than polypro.
On mild days, you can wear these fabrics alone. On cooler days, it's a good idea to wear another layer of absorbent material (cotton or wool, for example) to draw away moisture faster and to trap warm air between the layers.
DryLete by Hind, on the other hand, is a wicking material that does not need a second outer layer on cool days. It's multi-layered, with an inner layer that pushes moisture away from the body and an outer absorbent layer that pulls it for fast evaporation. It's very efficient, and the ultimate effect is to keep you warm and dry.
None of these fabrics, however, is waterproof or wind-proof, which brings us to the next subject...
Wind and rain-proof shells
It used to be that when it rained, you pulled out the nylon windbreaker. After about half an hour of slogging along through the rain in one of these, the atmosphere inside approached tropical rain forest conditions. The rain was kept out, but inside you wound up swimming in your own moisture and humidity. It was like wearing a garbage bag; all your sweat got trapped inside.
Then GoreTex was invented. Almost completely water-proof, GoreTex was hailed as a breakthrough fabric that would allow water and vapor to escape while keeping wind and rain out. At least, that was the theory. It's certainly true that GoreTex breathes better than nylon, but the reality is that it's also very heavy and it just doesn't breathe as well as other, more recent fabrics. It is, however, very sturdy, and if you decide to head out in a torrential downpour, GoreTex is the way to go.
Since most of us aren't likely to run in a monsoon, there are other fabrics you might want to explore instead. If you're looking for a lightweight shell for wind and light rain -- something for the warmth of spring and summer -- a jacket made of microfibers and treated with Teflon is probably best for you. It won't stand up to a hard rain, but drizzle and normal rain will be kept at bay.
There are a variety of other fabrics that stake out the middleground between GoreTex and microfibers. These are all likely to be fairly warm relative to the microfiber shell, but not as heavy as GoreTex. Among these are Nike's ClimaFit fabric, Gelanots by Asics, Gore Windstopper by DuPont, and also Porelle and Delfy.
Most running shorts are made of Supplex nylon. It's soft, light and fast-drying. These shorts usually have a CoolMax liner to help wick away moisture from your skin. Others might prefer Lycra nylon shorts -- similar to Spandex biking shorts. These, too, are fine. Just try to avoid heavy fabrics, along with shorts that are so loose that they may chafe your inner thighs as the miles stack up. Above all, find something that makes you feel cool and comfortable.
Running tights are great for cold weather, their snug fit minimizing muscle tightness as they keep the legs warm. The tights are usually made from Lycra in combination with another soft fabric. A Supplex combination, for example, makes for a skin-tight, soft fit. A cotton combination, on the other hand, often winds up with a more loose-fitting garment like the tights produced by SportHill (good for those who are self-conscious about the occasional unsitely sags).
In particularly cold weather, look for polypro or Thermax tights. You might also consider wearing a pair of running pants on top for extra warmth (fleece in dry, calm weather; GoreTex in rainy or windy weather).
Socks don't get much attention. We runners heap attention on our shoes; how do they fit, how do they cushion, do they cause blisters. We should be asking the same questions of our socks. If we pay proper attention to them, they'll pay proper attention to us. The right socks keep your feet dry, comfortable and cushioned.
As with virtually all running clothes that you wear next to your skin, you should avoid 100-percent cotton. Most athletic socks are acrylic or a cotton-acrylic blend. The acrylic is typically some combination of polypro, CoolMax, Orlon or nylon. The chief idea is to find a combo that effectively wicks moisture away from your skin. This is important, since it's moisture and friction that cause blisters.
In the winter, particularly for trail running, fleece socks offer good warmth and comfort but may be too thick for your shoes. Some socks, like those by Thorlo, are padded at the heel and ball of the foot where impact is greatest. This is great, but make sure that the extra padding won't make your shoe too tight.
Other socks have special fibers to prevent blisters. On that note, you should always wear clean socks when running. Those runners looking to avoid doing a load of laundry should give in and do it; dirty socks mean blisters. Finally, make sure your socks fit. If the sock is too big, it will bunch in the shoe and make blisters. If it's too small, it will restrict toe movement.
Running bras use one of two basic support systems. Women with small breasts often prefer the compression system, which presses both breasts against the chest without separate cups. For women with larger breasts, the encapsulation style may be more effective by holding each breast in a sturdy cup. Whichever style you prefer, the idea of course is to minimize breast discomfort by limiting motion without being too constricting. It should stretch horizontally so that you can pull it on and off, but not vertically, which would reduce supportiveness.
The running bra should be made from nonabrasive, breathable material. Some manufacturers use CoolMax inside the cups to make them cooler and more comfortable. The cups should be seamless to reduce the risk of chafing and irritation.
Always try on the running bra in the store before you buy it, and run in place to get a sense of its support. Check to see whether the bra will inhibit motion or breathing by swinging your arms in a running movement and raising them over your head while taking deep breaths.
To jock or not to jock -- it's basically a personal decision based on what's most comfortable for you. Some men can't stand running without being strapped in, while others prefer to go out in boxers.
Whatever your preference, it's no longer necessary to wear the old-style bulky cotton jockstrap. Most running shorts now have light-weight CoolMax briefs built in that will do the job without the chafing. Or, if you prefer, separate sports briefs or jock straps are also available in Lycra or CoolMax fabrics. The advantage of these fabrics over old-fashioned fabrics is not only that they wick moisture away from the skin, but also that they tend to retain their shape and stretch better.
Snug supportive briefs or jock straps are particularly helpful in winter, when they can help keep that oh-so-vulnerable portion of your body warm in cold temperatures.