Nick Symmonds helps us answer an exceedingly pressing question
I would like to offer my apologies in advance.
I’m a diehard a professional track and field fan—which is as alienating as it sounds—and there’s a nagging, perhaps inconsequential question that I’ve never been able to answer: In the 800-meters, why do some male runners compete in tights, while others wear short shorts?
You don’t have to be a serious track and field fan to know that, in matters of physique, the skinny people are generally the endurance athletes, while the more muscle-bound are sprinters. And this binary also affects the athletes’ apparel: the distance runners traditionally wear loose, short running shorts, while the sprinters sport half tights. But in the 800-meters (two laps around the track), you'll see an unusual level of (relative) diversity, both in the way athletes look and what they choose to wear. Olympic runners of this event—too far to be a sprint, too short to be considered long-distance—range from rail-thin types to men like Bosnian Amel Tuka, who could probably moonlight as a bouncer. You’ll also see split shorts and compression shorts more or less evenly represented.
But why? Is there really a performance benefit? Is it just aesthetics? When I was a middle distance runner in high school, the only clothing choice that seemed even remotely relevant to performance was one’s choice in footwear.
To answer these pressing questions, I asked two U.S. Olympic hopefuls in the 800-meters.
In Defense of Half Tights
“Since the day I turned pro, I exclusively train and race in half tights,” says Nick Symmonds, the six-time 800-meter national champion and two-time Olympian. He told me that even if he were to run a marathon tomorrow, he would run in half tights. “I think they’re more comfortable. I think they prevent chafing. I think they look better,” says Symmonds. “I don’t understand why people wear short shorts to be honest. I think they are inferior in pretty much every way.”
Compression shorts, he pointed out, only got popular relatively recently, in the early-to-mid 2000s. (Even sprinters, who now exclusively race in tights, largely didn’t do so until the ‘90s, as a quick YouTube-ing of any famous Carl Lewis race will attest.) Symmonds sees tights as the evolution of shorts, a superior product.
When Symmonds first tried running in them as a collegiate athlete in the early aughts, he immediately noticed that he no longer had any issues with inner thigh chafing. Also, the skin-tight material eliminated wind resistance. This, Symmonds says, is why tight-fitting apparel will always be favored in any high velocity sport, from ski-jumping to bike racing. Why should middle-distance runners be an exception?
In Defense of Short Shorts
Nick Symmonds’s Brooks teammate Drew Windle would disagree. At 23, almost a decade younger than Symmonds, Windle is a six-time NCAA Division II champion, and rising star in the 800-meters.
Interestingly, Windle made the reverse transition of his fellow Brooks Beast. As a high school football player, Windle had the infamous “football pants tanline.” This made for a pretty interesting look when combined with miniscule shorts, so during track season, Windle would wear half tights beneath his team kit. “It was a very goofy look that I would never wear again, but that’s how much I didn’t want to wear short shorts,” says Windle.
When he was competing for Ashland University, Windle went exclusively with half tights for the first two years. But as he slowly established himself as one the school’s top cross-country runners, all of whom wore shorts, Windle figured he should also look the part. “I decided I wanted to be a real distance guy. I wanted to be in my college’s top seven for cross-country, so I thought a part of that would be transitioning into shorts,” he says. The transition carried over into track season. He started racing longer track races like the 1,500 in shorts and, after a few good races in the 800, made shorts his go-to attire for that distance as well.
I asked Windle if he felt shorts had a palpable impact on his performance, or if it’s just a fashion statement? “I think it’s mainly aesthetic,” he said, before adding that for him there was also a comfort factor with psychological benefits. “I warm up with long tights. When you peel those off, your legs feel really refreshed when you’re wearing shorts underneath. I don’t get that same refreshed feeling when I’m wearing half tights.”
In Windle’s case, there might be an additional reason for that refreshed feeling. “If I’m gonna put in the effort to shaving the legs, I might as well wear the most revealing shorts.”