I know. It’s the middle of winter and unless you live in Southern California, T-shirts are likely not high on your shopping list right now.
But I would argue that a solid short-sleeve, next-to-skin layer is essential year-round. It’s your first line of defense when it comes to wicking sweat and must fit well in order for you to be comfortable running, skiing, hiking, or biking.
While training for The North Face 50-mile Challenge, my team and I reviewed about a dozen running tops. Collectively, we tested these shirts for four months and each product has seen at least a marathon. With that said, here are our five favorites.
Patagonia Merino 1 Silkweight T-Shirt ($65)
Best for: Sub Two-Hour Runs, Après, Odor Control
If I were only interested in looks, this wool-synthetic blend T-shirt would have been the clear winner.
The Merino 1 Silkweight tee isn't skin tight, and the wool makes it looks more like a casual shirt. The fabric stretches well and is very comfortable on your skin for up to about two hours of running. At that point, I did find the shirt chafed my skin pretty severely. Note—the synthetic T-shirts I tested never did this.
Because of its looser cut and odor control, this is the shirt I wear during most five- to seven-mile runs. I ran six times in this base layer before finally washing it.
Smartwool Men's PhD Short Sleeve Top ($85)
Best For: Early Spring or Late Fall Runs, Odor Control
Initially, one tester—who runs about 35 miles a week— found this shirt chafed his skin. But after five runs, the fabric softened up, and this is now his all-time favorite shirt.
Made from 79 percent merino and 21 percent nylon, this top has more wool in it than the Patagonia Merino 1, making it better for those cool days. It’s a good medium-weight layer that won’t make you overheat on 70-degree days either.
Salomon EXO S-Lab Zip Tee ($100)
Best For: Long Runs, Compression
This is the most high-tech shirt on the list, as the long name and hefty price tag might suggest. Be warned—part compression shirt, the S-Lab Zip Tee makes everyone except the fittest of athletes look like stuffed sausages. But the compression pays off during long races when you might appeciate the added support.
One tester, initially skeptical about the shirt, took the EXO S-Lab Zip Tee on a 15-mile run with 3,600 feet of elevation gain. "It felt tight at the beginning," he said. "But as I descended, the compression and shoulder support became evident and won me over."
The North Face M's Better Than Naked Short Sleeve ($50)
Best For: Ultras
The North Face’s ultra runners built the Better Than Naked Short Sleeve, something that became readily apparent when we tested the shirt. The hardcore ultra runner in the group gave it a perfect score.
The shirt is form fitting without being skin tight, and the thin panels of breathable, high-wicking material on the back and arms keep you from overheating.
OR Torque S/S Tee ($59)
Best For: Hot, Long Races, Fast Wicking
If you follow this column, you are probably already sick of reading about this shirt. I raced 50 miles in it, and it is what saved my nipples—no chafing at all.
The Torque’s Polartec PowerDry material is built from is a bi-layer polypropylene and polyester knit that wicks moisture faster than any of the other shirts on this list.