What I Talk about When I Talk about Running Apparel.

By Thom Gennaro, FHR member since August 2014, Trail Runner and Gear Enthusiast

“All are dressed in running shorts and T-shirts except Steve Slattery, who wears his old red and yellow Mt. Olive T-shirt with cutoff sleeves and basketball shorts that extend to his knees with boxers poking over the waistband. Various upperclassmen are already placing bets on how long it will be before Wetmore starts ribbing him about the shorts, and when he will start wearing running shorts.” – Running with the Buffaloes

“Cassidy knew he had long taken winning for granted, that he was accustomed to looking over at an opponent with a kind of detached pity and then surging off with great style…[Jack Nubbins] picked it up a bit more, but Quenton Cassidy (his T-shirt read, GAUNT IS BEAUTIFUL) just looked over and smiled back pleasantly.” – Once a Runner

When Katie asked me to write a post about running gear, I was a bit apprehensive.  On the one hand, geeking out on technical running stuff is a hobby of mine that I am not shy to share.  On the other hand, the connection between community running and apparel is not immediately apparent.  So I had a beer, and thought, and I made plans for a second beer.  Somewhere between the suds and the fridge it occurred to me that community running is about creating an environment for group fitness.  Before you accuse me of equivocating, hear me out.  I promise (or maybe hope) that this connection is not contrived.

Nothing is more expressive of an individual than the clothes they choose to wear; clothes denote purpose and status, and, perhaps most important for running, they have a function. 

Before our local Thanksgiving Turkey Trot (the “Gobble Wobble”), my brother and I like to size up the competition. We try to guess who’s fit by the length of each runner’s shorts and by whether or not they are wearing a singlet.  My brother affectionately refers to those in long shorts as “Hobby Joggers,” and a little less affectionately to those wearing Hokas and compression tights as “goons” (Confession: I wore both Hokas and compression shorts during last week’s Boston Marathon, I am a “goon”).  As harsh as this may be, I would argue that whether you are toeing the line of a marathon or heading out for a quick few miles on the esplanade, many runners are passing similar judgment.  

It does not seem controversial to suggest that what one wears suits a purpose, but underdetermines the actual attributes of the person wearing it.  We all remember the warning, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  But we all do (at least I do); the suits downtown probably work for State Street, and spend Fridays at Coogan’s. Likewise, the runner in the BAA kit is likely to blow me out of the water in a race. So there is a bit of tension between running gear ‘qua appearance’ and running gear ‘qua running-tool’. 

I want to make two points:

(1) It does not follow from what someone is wearing that they are a good runner/bad runner, fast runner/slow runner, super competitive, or the friendliest person you will ever meet.   

(2) Running clothes: short shorts, compression gear, GPS watches, and shoes, are designed to improve your running experience.  Wearing cool stuff might not make you cool, but it might help you feel cool (pun intended).

Without a doubt running gear makes running better, and running clothes improve comfort in a variety of environments. I love 3.5 inch split shorts.  There is nothing better in the spring/summer than running freely in an aggressive split.  The shorts allow me to run unencumbered; sweat drips away, and my legs can move as slowly or as quickly as they want; there is no extra material causing chaffing or changing my stride. Longer shorts get sweat logged, and they chafe.  Compression shorts seem to avoid some of those pitfalls.  Plus they offer graduated compression, which is claimed to mitigate fatigue by promoting blood flow and reducing muscle vibration; this is an added benefit on longer or particularly hilly runs.  Of course, compression shorts are more expensive so wearing them for every run isn’t quite feasible.  My decision to wear one short or another is contingent upon the run I am doing, the terrain, the pace, the weather, and the season.

The challenge posed by this past winter was perhaps most daunting: What can I possibly wear to keep dry and warm during a snowstorm? Jackets that are waterproof will keep the precipitation out and block the wind, but they don’t breath, and sweat can freeze against the skin.  Base layers will pull the moister from your skin, but will not help with the wind.  A creative solution is needed. 

Clothing, in this case running gear, is a means of adapting to an environment (summer heat or winter snowstorms). Scott McGuire, a leading consultant for North Face said, “Every single person I know who was an inventor of an outdoor product… came into prominence not because they were designers. They were users, who by necessity turned to design to solve a problem.” (Venue). The gear we use to run, enables us to run in environments that are otherwise hostile to running.  And even in the best weather, technical gear can make running more enjoyable (and in the case of 3.5 inch splits, it gives you an excuse to show a little leg).

However, not everyone is comfortable with aggressive split shorts or tights; I don’t just mean the clothes, but their personifications.  Reflexively, I wonder if a requirement to purchase the latest X-Bionic technical shirt is a gear sponsorship and an elite European mountain running time.  Trackster, a local (Wellesley) running apparel start-up is offering a Boston Qualifier singlet, and they check at the register if you are qualified before selling you the garment.  Their retro pieces and sky-high prices demonstrate that technical wear is also fashion.   These clothes say something.  Move over golf: running is the new Bourgeois sport. 

(The Bourgeois comment is only partly tongue and cheek.)  It’s the accessibility of these clothes that is sometimes in conflict with the more egalitarian nature of the sport.  Different classes of runners dress in different ways.  Perhaps this is because – like me – many people think that there are requirements for certain garments.  

So here is the real challenge: if community running is about creating an environment for group fitness, then its about creating an environment where hobby joggers and goons coexists with Boston Qualifiers and cotton sweatpants.  That said, in this case, being comfortable in your own skin might just also mean investing in a new base-layer.    

- Each week we will be updating this blog with personal stories from fellow runners, race recaps, training tips, recipes, and more! If you are interested in becoming a blog contributor, please contact Katie Merrill at merrill.kathryn@gmail.com for more information. And remember, as Owen says, Be Amazing! -

Posted on April 29, 2015 .