Need a cool running shirt but aren't sure which one to choose? We extensively researched over 90 of the best available in the market today before purchasing 10 for inclusion in this comparative review. Our expert testers wore these shirts while trail running and exploring the desert southwest, as well as while hiking, skiing, biking, and climbing, to learn the ins and outs of this seemingly simple piece of clothing. During our extensive adventures, as well as controlled testing, we carefully compared and rated each shirt based on a variety of pertinent metrics, including comfort, drying time, and breathability. This process allowed us to learn which shirt is the best overall, the best for use as a base-layer, has the features you want for running with music or will keep you coolest during the hottest weather. Read on below, where we dish out the goods!
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated April 2018
With a new season brings new outdoor activities and the need for a completely different set of clothing. Most of the running shirts in our original review are no longer around, so for the spring of 2018 we purchased 10 new shirts, representing the best and broadest selection available, and put them to the test. This review is the most up to date and comprehensive available today; we hope you enjoy!
Best Overall Running Shirt
The Patagonia Windchaser is a supremely comfortable, 100% recycled polyester running shirt that simply couldn't be outdone in our head-to-head testing. It features a two-toned design that has lightweight and very breathable polyester fabric down low, with even lighter and more air-permeable mesh fabric on the upper back, shoulders, and upper chest. We loved how it was the fastest drying shirt in our comparative testing, and also found it to be the most comfortable due in large part to featuring 100% taped seams, with no stitching at all to rub or chafe over the long haul.
100% taped seams mean no rubbing or chafing
The fastest drying shirt we tested
Environmentally friendly — Made completely with recycled polyester
Not as versatile as others
We have a hard time pointing out anything we didn't like about this shirt but will mention that it fits a bit looser and baggier than many of the "athletic" fits we compared it to. This is no big deal in its own right but means that it doesn't serve quite as well as a base-layer to be worn for other non-running applications underneath warmer clothes. We also wonder exactly how long all those taped seams are likely to hold together. Regardless, this is a fantastic shirt that is optimal for running or any warm weather outdoor activity and is one we are sure you will love.
Read review: Patagonia Windchaser
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.
A versatile choice for any sweaty activity, indoors or out
No reflectors for nighttime running
Slower to dry than most
While it is one of the most versatile and affordable shirts that we tested, we were bummed to learn that it didn'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 wasn'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 was the second highest scorer overall in our review, while being far and away the most affordable of any of the top six shirts, obviously presenting great value.
Targeted lightweight mesh panels make for great breathability
Headphone loop on back of collar keeps cords conveniently out of way
Far more affordable than other top scorers
Extensive use of lightweight mesh means not as versatile as some
Not the fastest to dry out
With a ton of admirable qualities, we found very little to complain about when it came to this shirt. The lighter weight mesh fabric that makes up the entire back of this shirt was 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 will also serve 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 Hot Weather
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, our Top Pick for Hot Weather. This is the thinnest and lightest shirt in this review, and with its back panel made entirely of super fine mesh, is far and away the most breathable. For the hottest and sweatiest of runs, this shirt will keep you super cool, and also looking good.
The lightest shirt in this review
Made with extremely breathable mesh on back
Very comfortable and super fast drying time
Durability concerns for super thin mesh
Not very versatile as base layer or while wearing pack
Of course, since it is 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 preferred wearing it on short runs where a handheld water bottle was plenty, and avoided using it in conjunction with a running vest or for any other activity that required a pack. For running, though, it was easily one of the best.
Read review: The North Face Better Than Naked
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.
Tightly woven polyester fiber is very comfortable and also durable
True 360-degree reflectivity for best night safety
UPF 25 rating
Not super breathable
On the pricey side
Worth noting is that this shirt was far less breathable than most of the running shirts that used 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). 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 or 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. For continuity sake, we only tested crew neck t-shirts designed specifically for men, size large, although many of these shirts come in similar long sleeved or zip-neck options as well. It is worth pointing out that despite the differences in ratings shown above, all of these are excellent shirts that we firmly believe are worth owning.
In order to accurately assess each shirt, we rated 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 awarded a shirt a score of 1-10, with the scores being determined through comparison to the other products in the review. Each metric was weighted based on its relative importance to the performance of the shirt, and the scores were added together to produce a shirt's overall score. Each of the metrics, including the important considerations, how we tested 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 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 a shirt on for the first time, but try running a marathon in an uncomfortable shirt and you may 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 were 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.
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 were 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 were the very best. Only the Patagonia Windchaser used entirely taped seam construction, so perhaps it was no surprise that we found it to be the most comfortable shirt. The North Face Better Than Naked also used taped seams on the back of the shoulders, and was also found to be very comfortable. Most of the shirts in this review liberally employed the use of flatlock seam sewing, while the cheapest occasionally used overlock seams.
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 used two different patterns of mesh polyester that were 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.
Each shirt is cut to a different shape, despite all being men's size large. Fit is a subjective thing 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 were either designed with an "athletic fit" that was trimmer and fit closer to the body, or were designed to be fairly loose and baggy for maximum mobility. The Nike Dri-FIT Knit is a great example of one that is athletically cut and hugs the body, while the fit of the Under Armour UA Tech is the complete opposite, hanging 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 were made of "mesh" throughout, but the types and styles of air-permeable mesh was different from shirt to shirt.
Made with exceptionally light mesh material, especially on the back, The North Face Better Than Naked was the most breathable shirt that we tested, the primary reason we awarded it our Top Pick for Hot Weather. Also doing a very effective job of breathing were the New Balance Ice 2.0 and the Patagonia Windchaser. These shirts used 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 used this method of quickly cooling the runner typically did not feature mesh paneling, used slightly heavier fabric, and also tended to be a bit more durable. For this reason we often liked 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.
Why is Drying Speed Important?
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. Somewhat surprisingly, the Patagonia Windchaser and The North Face Better Than Naked were once again the top scorers, as they were when assessing breathability. It is our belief that these shirts are so thin and light that they are unable to absorb as much water, and therefore dry out faster. Regardless, 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 were 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 was 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 was 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. We graded it one point lower, however, as it didn't have any reflector tags to accommodate low light running. 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, featured 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 was so unique and effective that we couldn't help but recommend the shirt because of it.
Other features that we noted were 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, and so didn't award any score higher than an 8. The Patagonia Windchaser has odor controlling Polygiene applied to it but doesn't rate for UPF. Likewise, the Arc'teryx Motus Crew has five different reflectors and a UPF rating of 25 but didn'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
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.