Saturday, July 25, 2009

Running Shirts that Wick Water: Running Shirt Review

As you may recall from my iPod & running shoe posts, I run for exercise -- mostly at a gym on a treadmill, but outside on clear, cool Michigan mornings, when I can't bear to be inside.

Exercising in a gym is different from jogging on the road because there are people around and I have taken to wearing synthetic shirts that handle sweat better than cotton. That way I feel less sweaty and more human. Reebok calls this "Moisture Management."

The exercise shirts cost twice as much as a good cotton shirts, and I wondered what they were made from. The web sites say 100% polyester. It would be interesting to know what makes these shirts different from each other, because I know all polyesters are not created equal.

DuPont researched breathable, wicking fibers & fabrics in the 1970's and the early ones were aramid, which is really nylon, but made with aromatic amines. The most common breathing aramid is/was Nomex, which is used underneath siding on houses.

Later DuPont introduced breathing polyester fabric, and their trade name was CoolMax. Much of the athletic clothing was made of this. Today, Coolmax is owned by Invista, which itself is owned by Koch Industries. There are nine different lines of CoolMax, but most of the differentiation involves added features like UV protection and odor control. None of the product literature says much about the composition of the fiber. The fabrics appear to be structured to have channels for water to escape, and the polyester itself is not water-absorbant. The more recent patents talk about garment design rather than about fiber selection. (Invista makes similar claims for its Tactel fabric.)

Transpor makes fiber and fabric with wicking properties, and they claim competitors are synthetic yarns with "channels" to move moisture. Transpor has a licensee that makes apparel, but I have never worn any. Their shirts have two layers of fabric laminated together.

There is some hype about "nanotechnology" coming to athletic fabrics. This is interesting to me, because I spent a few years separating nanotechnology from nano-hype. "Nano" in this context are little particles of superabsorbant that make the shirt hold moisture better. This is probably good in a comfort shirt, but it is not what we need in a hot weather, running shirt.

The sites talk about what the fibers do rather than what they are. They say they are hydrophobic and pull water away, but they also say they use capillary action to wick water away. Some breathe. Some absorb.

In my view, absorbant fibers is not what you want. I get far too wet for a shirt to hold water like a sponge. Also a shirt that is too hydrophobic will keep the water in the inside of the shirt, like an inside-out raincoat.

I have shirts from several manufacturers:

My Favorite is the "Play Dry" from Reebok. This one breathes and dries fast. It also does not change color when wet. The price on the Reebok site is pretty good too. The price for this shirt on Amazon varies depending on the color you pick -- which I think is odd.

I have several Under Armour shirts. The style is called Draft 2.0. I like it, and it works well. Despite the above talk about the knit pattern and how it improved ventilation; this is a simple, uniform knit. Any channels must be very small. This is a good shirt and I would get more of these even though they are expensive. These are not durable enough for regular street wear because the fabric is weaker than cotton. Under Armour also has the best website -- Nike's is just as cool but it takes forever to load.

The Champion Double-Dry is an inexpensive shirt that is not as light-weight as the Under Armour shirt, so water does not evaporate as well. It is well-made and the fabric lets the water out better than the Nike, but not as well as the Reebok.

A service-able shirt is the Dry-Fit by Nike. It is a little too much of a liquid water barrier, and the water tends to stay under the shirt instead of wicking though. It reminds me a wearing a plastic shirt. Some of that may be the heaviness of the fabric. As mentioned above, the UnderArmour is not a tough shirt, and it is prone to holes & runs. The Nike is still better than the Russell below.

One website says that the Dry-Fit line has "honeycomb textured polyester," with Spandex and UV protection.

Last of the high-tech shirts is the Russell. Their tradename is "Dri-Power," but I don't know if this particular shirt is a "Dri-Power." but I do know this is the poorest of the bunch. It doesn't really wick water. More like a plastic bag. Notice how it has some fancy knit patterns. I think these are for style since it does not seem to help.

Finally is this "Prana" --oh wait -- "prAna" shirt. My DW got me one for Father's Day. This is a poly-cotton shirt, and its a fine shirt, but it is not a hi-tech exercise shirt. My DW pointed out how the advertising made this sound like an EXTREME SPORTS shirt -- well its not. It is a decent shirt for street wear. "prAna" has a line of woman's exercise clothes, and I think this influenced her purchase decision. I think this shirt is called a "Shale Tee."

In summary, the technology of exercise shirts seem to be in the fabric design rather than the fiber. Good shirts can be made from seemingly standard polyester. Reebok and Under Armour make my favorites.


Update on running shirts (May 2010)
There are two important factors in running shirts, and I did not realize this when I wrote this. The shirt needs to be fairly tight. It needs to touch your skin, and if it is too loose, then obviously it can't wick any sweat away. It does NOT need to be a compression shirt. I can't stand those.

Secondly, thinner fabrics are always better for wicking sweat than thicker ones. This means that a good shirt is going to be thinner and less substantial. As mentioned above the Under Armour shirt was quite thin, and not tough enough for street wear, but it is thin, and they are good shirts.


Update on running shirts August 2010

In response to a complementary shirt I received from Wicker's Shirts, I want to pass on my feedback.

Highpoints: this is a nicely made shirt from a good quality polyester -- at first I thought it was cotton. It is fairly heavy, and should be strong enough for hiking  -- unlike the UnderArmour, for example. Comfortable fabric.

Lowpoints: it is fairly heavy, so the water does not wick out as well as a lighter shirt.

Side note: They sent me the wrong size, and being too big, it did not wick sweat off as well as a snugger fit would have. If the shirt does not touch your skin, it can't wick the water way.

Bottom line: I'd like this shirt a lot better in a Medium instead of a Large. I'll probably wear it casually, but not for running.