When I started running regularly back in 2008 I didn’t care much about what clothes to wear on my runs. I just took some basketball shorts and an ordinary T-shirt I would also wear for work. Others told me I should buy some functional running clothes but I always told them I wouldn’t be faster just because I wear expensive sportswear. Throughout the years I changed my mind for several reasons and now have a close look what to wear when I head out for a run.
In this guide I want to bring you my learnings from the past and give you a place to come back and check out what clothes work in which conditions. I exclude running shoes in this guide since this is a topic for itself but I’ll write about that on another occasion.
Before I go into further details I’d like to outline some of the biggest advantages of specific clothes for sports. The following reasons brought me from wearing ordinary clothes to buying running clothes and I hope it will convince you as well 🙂
You don’t want to carry too much weight when you’re running. Normal clothes can get pretty heavy especially when you sweat and they soak in the moisture. Functional clothes are designed to be as light as possible, some you don’t even feel when wearing it.
Some new hi-tech fabrics make it now possible to transport perspiration from your skin to the outer layers of a specific item of clothing where it can evaporate. These fabrics are often lightweight and stretchy which makes them perfect for activewear. It’s not only helpful to keep your skin dry at all times but also prevents odors without the use of any chemicals. Bacteria that are responsible for bad smell when you sweat, cannot grow on dry skin.
Thermal properties are also a very important aspect of sportswear. When you run in summer your clothes should allow you to stay cool as in winter they should keep you warm. Especially in cold temperatures the correct clothing can be a big advantage. You then usually use different layers of clothes:
Believe it or not I still use the first functional shirt I bought. This was eight years ago and it is still as new as it was back then. If you are not one of those who always need to buy the newest, most fashionable clothes than you actually don’t need that much money. Running clothes are specifically made for the movements of running and can endure a lot. At least if you buy quality stuff. These good products have its price but you will save in the long-term if you don’t have to buy everything new each year.
This is possibly the main reason why I stuck to activewear after first trying them out. They just feel great when running, much better than an everyday cotton shirt. The reason for this is a combination of the things mentioned above. If a garment can make you feel dry and warm in winter and help you stay cool in summer and is very lightweight, then it will automatically feel comfortable when you use it running for hours. Also sportswear makers are aware of the problem of friction and design their products to avoid any painful sore skin or lesions. Seams are usually not directly on the skin but on the outer side and soft fabrics are chosen that feel great when they rub on your skin when you move.
Ok let’s dig into the different types of clothes. You have several options of items you can choose to protect your upper body as well as your legs. There is also a wide range of accessories for your head, feet and hands. Each of these items can be worn on specific weather and temperature situation or are also subject to your personal needs.
This is the one item that you will probably wear on every run you go. In summer you will go with a tank top or a short-sleeve T-Shirt and when it’s getting colder you wear a long-sleeve shirt or a tight shirt as a base layer.
You’ll wear a sweatshirt in the winter months as an insulation layer atop of a base layer shirt. Sweatshirts will help you stay warm when it’s really cold but might not protect you from wind or rain.
There are several types of jackets you should consider having in your running wardrobe. There are ultra lightweight wind stopper jackets that block the wind and keep you from cooling when you sweat and it’s cold. Also there are jackets to cover you when it’s raining or snowing. Consider that a jacket as an additional layer keeps more heat inside so you might change what you wear beneath the jacket.
Shorts are your choice in medium to high temperatures. With shorts i generally mean loose pants that cover you right to above the knees. But some are quite shorter and great when running in temperatures of more than 25° centigrade (77 Fahrenheit). When it’s getting cooler outside don’t worry too much at first just focus on keeping your core warm. I use shorts also in temperatures of about 10° centigrade (50 Fahrenheit).
Tights are pants made of flexible fabric and sit tight on your legs. Normally three lengths of tights are distinguished: Shorts that don’t cover your knees, 3/4 that cover your knees and long tights that reach to your ankles. I didn’t wear tights for my first years of running but use them in colder temperatures since the day I tried them. They keep your legs warm in winter and are comfortable to wear.
It seemed that tights turned to be the standard pants in recent years when running in cool conditions or in winter. But there are also some nice pants that don’t sit tight and allow some more air to touch your skin. Also in heavy rain or wind a pair of weather proof pants over your tights might help you to stay dry.
Your head is the body part that looses most of the heat when you are exercising, so it has a special importance when it comes to clothing accessories. A cap that covers all your head can help you stay warm when it’s freezing. I recommend you to cover your head only when it’s really cold as you don’t want to risk overheating. If you only want to keep your ears warm, use a headband or a wrap. The later one you can also use as a scarf.
If you are not running barefoot or in some FiveFingers you probably wear socks. There are also a lot of sports socks made of functional fabrics. Also try to use sports socks when your running longer distances to help prevent blisters.
Like your ears or nose your fingers could also get pretty cold in winter. There are different types of running gloves some thiner and some made of thicker fabric. Often running gloves also have a little pocket where you can store your keys while on the run.
Usually I divide weather into two dimensions: The first one is temperatures and the second one is the overall weather condition like sunny, windy and precipitation. For each level of temperature and weather condition there are some combinations of clothes you can or should wear. The following picture should give you a rough overview of what to wear when. As always every body can react differently so change the clothes when these recommendations don’t feel comfortable.
Compression clothes are just like tights but usually a bit tighter. Their function is to squeeze your body tissue a little bit so that blood can circulate faster through your veins. This increased circulation can help to get rid of lactate in your muscles faster which increases your performance and lowers the recovery time. Also compression fabrics stabilize and support your muscles. In medicine compression socks have long been used to treat thrombosis in you lower legs. In recent years compression clothes were sold for the upper and lower body and were specifically designed for endurance athletes promising to improve your performance. In my opinion this high-tech sportswear can squeeze out the last few percent of your endurance capabilities but makes only sense when you already achieved a solid level of performance. The bigger benefit for amateurs is the stabilization of your muscles when running long distances especially on trails where your tissue gets shaken pretty good. Compression clothes are also not that cheap so I would recommend them to you when you already achieved a solid foundation and want to keep improving even more.
This article is intended to be dynamic and I plan to review and change it over time with the stuff I use and test. Also your input is very appreciated! Just leave a comment, drop me a mail or get in touch through social media.