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Is the Technical Running Shirt Backlash the Next barefoot Running Fad?

Posted by on Jun 24, 2013 | 13 Comments

In “Never Wipe Your Ass with a Squirrel“, I discuss a wide variety of topics related to running. One of the more controversial themes was my rant against technical shirts in hot weather. The idea follows rather simple physical properties- wearing tech shirts increases body temperature, which hinders performance in hot weather. It also feasibly increases the probability of hyperthermia, heat stroke, and death.

Dramatic, I know.

anyway, over the last three weeks, I’ve had five runner friends report a dramatic improvement in hot weather performance by making the switch from moisture-wicking tech shirts to either cotton or just going shirtless. These reports match the reports I’ve received in the months since the book’s release.

Could this idea reach the scale of something like barefoot running?

The central premise of barefoot running is that shoes were a) unnecessary in many cases, and b) poorly designed. The shoe industry was focused on style and frivolous “technologies.” The result was a fairly dramatic shift in the way shoe manufacturers designed shoes, which is reflected in the product offerings of almost all major manufacturers.

Is the technical fabric industry on the cusp of a similar “revolution.” Tech clothing has a very useful purpose… but it’s not hot weather exercise. As more and more athletes figure out they can improve performance and increase safety by ditching tech fabrics, will manufacturers respond by offering different hot weather gear?

Share your thoughts in the comments section!




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  1. Karen
    June 28, 2013

    In the past few months I’ve been running more in a well worn cotton tshirt or if too hot, just a running bra. I’m lov’in the cotton. Tech shirts eventually smell bad. I like them better as it gets colder.

  2. Seph
    June 27, 2013

    You must live in an extremely dry climate if your tech shirt is inhibiting your ability to hold onto moisture. Here in the humid Midwest, a cotton short holds far too much moisture, which limits the cooling effect and leads to chafing.

  3. bosenoge
    June 25, 2013

    I dont know if your premise is true or false, but have any of you considered merino wool as technical garment? Im a happy Icebreaker user for over a year and have to say that their stuff made me cool in summer and warm in winter. Its even UV protective! Smartwool and some other brand have similar stuff. Altough, in my experience, there is no alternative to plastic in windy conditions.

    • Bare Lee
      June 25, 2013

      I’m a recent convert to Merino wool, coming from a cotton background and then a brief interlude of experimenting with the plastic stuff this last winter and spring. Merino seems to work really well, especially in the rain, and it doesn’t stink like the plastic shirts. Still, on the hottest days, I prefer bare.

  4. Ju Con
    June 25, 2013

    Will sunburned skin sweat and otherwise redistribute heat in a manner superior to a shirt, technical shirt, or sweat wicking tech shirt?

    You’ve broadly applied some logic to a generalization of things; quantifying and qualifying your argument beyond catchphrases is likely the only way to take things beyond the apocryphal and deliberately controversial.

    Hot weather may or may not imply different temperatures, humidity levels, and wind patterns.

    Tech shirts may or may not describe a range of features or attributes, to include: UPF levels, thickness or thinness of fabric, fit (very important in hot\dry vs. hot\humid), alleged and demonstrative wicking abilities and then effects on the user.

    Until some numbers come out to support or undermine the notions, such as core temperatures as are or are not affected by physically strenuous activity as supported by different technical apparel, it’s all hope and whimsy.

  5. Paul Wallis
    June 24, 2013

    Reminds me of something that happened to me while running in the triathlon club one time at university. There was about 20 or 30 of us runners of both nearly equal amounts of girls and guys. It was a really hot day and us guys were all running bare chested because of the heat (this was about 20 years ago so not many of us had any tech shirts like today). One of the girls commented that it “wasn’t fair” that us guys were running cooler in no shirts. I spoke up that the women could feel free to take off their shirts if they wanted! Unfortunately none took me up on my offer. Probably just as well as it would have been hard to finish the workout….

  6. Dave
    June 24, 2013

    I really don’t want to get into a debate on this whole wicking fabric thing. You make some interesting arguments and have some good empirical evidence. There are however all kinds of confounding factors to making generalizations.

    For example:
    – How much sweat drips to the ground (thus not providing evaporative cooling)?
    – How ‘wicky’ wicking fiber really is?
    – How much does evaporative cooling affects you if it occurs on one side of the fabric or the other?
    – What effects come from sports bras or hairy chests?

    It does seem however that it would be a relatively easy thing to test these points scientifically. Are you aware of any such studies?

  7. Kurt
    June 24, 2013

    I wonder if tech shirts are cheaper to manufacture than cotton shirts? Meaning, the athletic gear companies say “YOU NEED THIS MOISTURE WICKING SHIRT TO PERFORM AT 100%” and it is also saving them money…

    • Rob Y
      June 24, 2013

      Some tech shirts are extremely cheap to manufacture and are in abundance and what you’ll typically get at a race that offers a “tech shirt”. This stuff is typically garbage and it’s no wonder folks are not having a great experience with technical fabrics of this line!

  8. Rob Y
    June 24, 2013

    Again I respectfully disagree with your assessment as your conclusion just doesn’t jive with my experience. For starters it’s important to realize there are HUGE differences in variety, quality and functionality of technical fabric. All too often the technical shirts most folks end up running in are those obtained from races. These, such as the “A4”, Brooks, Asics, North Face, Mountain Hardware, etc… are of the cheaper variety and I agree running in these low quality fabric shirts SUCKS! In fact I too would rather run shirtless or in cotton than run in these technical shirts. That stuff is garbage and usually goes right to the trash or donation box when I do end up with some.

    However, I’ve had awesome success running in various technical shirts that have a high SPF/UV rating (30+) in wickedly hot conditions. From racing 135 miles through Death Valley in July to simply surviving training runs in the brutal triple digit mid-day heat & humidity of the deep south I’ve ALWAYS felt much cooler running in these types of shirts. From Patagonia, to the higher end Mountain Hardware and Marmot the shirts I’ve worn have really performed exceptionally well.

    The other aspect I like about going with a high UPV rated shirt is that I don’t have to constantly worry about applying and reapplying sunscreen; something you’ll have to fret over if you’re running shirtless or in cotton.

    The only downside of these UPV shirts that I can see is that they tend to be expensive. However, in my experience you truly get what you pay for when it comes to quality of products. Even my oldest set of Patagonia sun shirts are still going strong after five years of heavy use.

    So I’m suggesting that perhaps your sample set is still incomplete or too small; that there are indeed products out there that are indeed time tested and do function well. That being said I fully understand we are all experiments of one and your mileage may vary. I for one have been running for over 22 years and have gone through phases of just going shirtless, running in cotton (way before there were technical fabrics) and I can honestly say that the latest HIGH QUALITY stuff out there has given me the most satisfaction running in the heat.

  9. Juha Myllylä
    June 24, 2013

    Well, going barechested is bit like going barefoot. Maybe there will be minimalist shirts soon. And after a while, they will get thicker to give some protection.

  10. Bryan
    June 24, 2013

    I just go shirtless. A shirt of any kind is too warm, lol