How to buy the right running pants
Technically, you can run in whatever you want—combat fatigues, a tutu, or a gorilla suit. But running-specific pants are popular among runners for a reason: they work. Today’s technical pants really do make running more comfortable and enjoyable. Plus, with as many choices as breakfast beverages at your local café, you can suit your own taste.
Before buying running pants or tights, consider these five important factors—from weather to form-fitting style—to determine which features matter most to you. Then you can find the pair that will become your daily go-to.
1. Pant Material: Chose the right fabric to make the most of your run
Most importantly, pant material can make or break a run. For example, cotton and thick fleece are heavy, bulky, restrictive, and tend to cause chaffing with repeated friction, an inevitable force when you run. Cotton also holds moisture and becomes heavier as you sweat. So although cotton sweatpants are wonderful weekend companions, wearing them running is like rolling rocks uphill—it’s possible, but awfully cumbersome.
Modern technical running pants, on the other hand, remedy friction and manage moisture for all runners—regardess of ability, distance, or location. The key? Sweat-wicking, breathable fabrics.
That’s why apparel-makers blend hydrophobic fibers, such as spandex, polyester, and nylon. Although the ‘80s gave spandex (an anagram of the word “expands”) a bad rap, today’s spandex remains extremely elastic, and essential to running apparel. The stretchy fiber is blended with other improved and new fibers for softer, silkier, better wicking, less stinky and even less shiny fabrics. Stretch is crucial in running tights as well as in looser-fitting track pants.
Lightweight, synthetic fabrics that move your sweat away from your skin so it can evaporate are the most comfortable for workouts. In addition to keeping your skin from getting clammy and irritated, synthetics move more freely with your body in motion, and dry quickly.
Higher quality fabrics hold their shape and support longer than cheaper ones. A pair of high quality running pants should last for years. Retire those that sag, slip, are see-through, or let the elements in.
2. Pant construction: Find the design that serves running-specific functions
Some running pants serve specific functions. Runners in cold climates, for example, need additional protection from the elements.
Cold, wind, rain, and snow aren’t a good excuse for skipping your run, but they do warrant additions to your running wardrobe. To combat cold, look for thermal-weight or lined tights. Warm and cozy micro-fleece interiors snuggle your skin while a tighter-weaved exterior braves the cold. Slimmer silhouettes will keep you warmer than loose-fitting styles. Again, for all adverse conditions, be sure your pants are made from wicking synthetic fabrics to prevent chills, even potential hypothermia.
Halt bitter wind in its track with lightweight wind-blocking pants. Luckily, the newest wind pants are much quieter than old-school nylon windbreakers, so the competition won’t hear you coming from a mile away. Plus, they’re breathable. Some styles feature full-leg wind protection, while others include strategically-placed windproofing materials on the front panel with breathable or mesh back panels.
If the rain or snow won’t go away, go running anyway. Just choose, depending on the conditions, waterproof or water resistant running pants. Pants with DWR (durable water repellent) coating are as soft, comfortable, and quiet as your regular pants—but keep you drier and warmer. Although new technology has rendered waterproof materials more breathable, waterproof pants will still be less breathable than regular, non-treated fabrics, so they tend to work best in chilly to cold wet weather.
Although researchers remain divided on whether compression tights enhance runners’ performance, super-tight compression tights got their start in the medical realm, where the style of construction was used to alleviate conditions like edema, or swelling. Designed to strategically bind the muscles and ligaments of the lower leg to stabilize the knee and reduce muscle vibration for increased efficiency, compression gear is purported to facilitate circulation and minimize lactic acid build-up for longer performance and quicker recovery.
Some research suggest that compression gear may help endurance runners recover. Many runners, including elite athletes, report anectdotal gains in both performance and recovery. It’s best to see what feels right for your body.
People carrying more weight may appreciate the beefier support that compression tights offer. The “girdle effect” means less jiggling—and a smoother feeling stride—for larger runners.
3. Pant style: Pick the fit that feels good (and flatters)
Running pants are like jeans: gender-specific styles fit better, and are more comfortable and flattering. Whether you wear tights or track pants, there’s a style that’ll fit.
Tights: Like leggings, but better
Yes, they’re tight, but don’t worry: No one will mistake you for a Renaissance re-enactment character unless you run with a foam sword (Though running tights for men do date back to the Renaissance). Running tights, made from stretchy fabric, fit your body snugly. While the fringe benefit may be showing off your finely sculpted glutes and gams, they’re tight for functional reasons.
Stretch fabrics provide unrestricted movement without rubbing you the wrong way. Bulky pants are more likely to chafe between your legs and in your groin when the fabric shifts and rubs against your skin with each stride. Slick, form-fitting pants ease the friction. Excess fabric, like in traditional sweatpants, is heavy, bulky and contributes to wind drag—all of which inhibit your mobility, comfort, and even speed. (This is why most sprinters wear tights or bodysuits.) A tighter fit also offers a feeling of muscle compression and warmth.
Running tights should be snug but not restrictive, and support key muscles but not constrict flesh or muscles anywhere. If you’re popping a muffin top, your pants are too tight, too short in the torso, or you need a wider or looser waistband. If your tights are stretched so tight that we can see your tattoo underneath them, they’re too tight. If your ankles are bare, try “long” or “tall” sizes for extra length, or wear higher socks to keep warm in cold weather.
Pants: Semi-fitted performance
A far cry from the heavyweight sweats Rocky donned or the thick nylon track suits of junior high, modern running pull-on pants make running a breeze with light, breathable, and wicking fabrics. Looser than tights but slimmer than sweats, running pants these semi-fitted pants are comfortable for most recreational and shorter distance runners—physically as well as psychologically, if you feel self-conscious in tights. More versatile than tights, these double as casual pants for running errands as well as on neighborhoods and trails. A tapered leg and cinched ankle will keep you warmer in cold weather than looser styles. Beyond that, personal preference and terrain determine whether tapered leg, cinched ankle, straight leg, or boot cut is right for you.
Capris, Knickers, ¾ Tights, and Half Tights
Capris, sometimes called knickers for men or ¾ tights, are tights that are cropped at or just below the knee. Capris are a good choice for runners who like the sleekness and slim-fit of tights but run in warmer weather. They’re often the perfect pants during spring and fall. Half tights sit mid-thigh or just above the knee, and bode well for spring, summer, and fall runs—or running in mild climates year-round.
Runners with thicker thighs tend to appreciate the reduced friction of the slick fabric between their legs. Also, tights of these lengths provide an alternative to shorts, which when ill-fitting can bunch or ride uncomfortably. For runners who cross-train with activities such as yoga and Pilates, shorter-than-full-length tights are particularly versatile. These styles are available in technical fabrics as well as compression models.
4. Pant features: Look at the little details
Reputable manufacturers design running pants specifically for running, so the pants you run in shouldn’t have any tags, seams, zippers, fasteners, or drawstrings that will cause abrasions during your run. But because each runner’s body is different, only choose features that you need and you’ll minimize potential irritations and maximize comfort.
Three common types of waistbands exist so your pants will stay up. Loose-fitting pants tend to have gathered elastic waistbands, often with a tie. Tights tend to have either a flat band or slightly gathered band. These often have a string that can be tied for a more secure hold. Some tights are made of fabric that’s too slick to stay up without the waist tie. If the cinch-tie annoys you, be sure your tights stay up without it while running before you yank out. Inspired by yoga pants, many running pants, tights and capris now come in a flattering and comfortable wide, flat waistband. If you carry extra padding around your middle, wider waistbands won’t dig in or pinch where ties or narrower bands might. These lower and wider waistbands are also more fashion-oriented for wearing beyond your run.
Look for pockets that are appropriately shaped and secured for whatever you run with: keys, a music player, identification, cell phone, money, or credit cards. Zippered pockets offer more security for your belongings, but add weight and seams that can irritate, and aren’t as easy to access. Flap pockets work for small and relatively flat items, such as one key but not a ring of them, or an ID but not your whole wallet. A center back pocket is balanced on your body, and keeps earphone cords out of the way of your arms. Front and on-leg pockets provide convenient to access. Side-seam slat pockets tend to be roomier and convenient when you aren’t running—but items stored there tend to jingle and jangle with high risk of them falling out if the pocket isn’t zippered.
After material, the most important difference between cheap athletic gear and performance gear is the seaming—where the separate pieces of fabric that make up clothing meet. Technical apparel takes seams—and how traditionally sewn seams chafe the body when it’s in motion—into consideration, and offer remedies. Ergonomic seams follow the natural contours of the body for reduced irritation, better range of motion, and a comfortable fit with less bulk. Welded, or bonded, seams use high-tech glue instead of thread to hold fabric together. Strong and durable, they prevent chafing because there is no stitching or fabric cinched or gathered at the seam—and they look cool. Flatlock seams essentially lock pieces of fabric together, and are less likely to cause chafing because the fabric lies flat against your skin. In sensitive places, running pants use agusseted crotch to eliminate irritating seams. Instead, a seam-free splice of wicking fabric is inserted in the area between your legs instead.
Running pants may include zippers at the ankles and on pockets. Ankle zippers make getting tight pants on and off a little easier, but be sure they don’t rub or bounce against your leg, ankle, or Achilles tendon. Lock-down zipper pulls, zipper “garages,” and flaps of protective fabric can help. For carrying valuables like your cell phone while running, a zippered pocket may be the most secure option—as long as you remember to close it before you take off running. But don’t forget to unzip and remove your goods after your run: My iPod shuffle didn’t fare well in that oh-so-secure zippered back pocket when it went through the washing machine.
If you run anywhere near traffic or other people before or after daylight hours, reflectivity is essential. The more reflectivity you wear, the more likely you are to be seen—so wear running pants and other gear with 360 degrees of reflectivity. Look for tights with reflective coating or reflective strips for enhanced visibility. Often tights have reflective strips that wrap around the calves and ankles.
5. Most Frequently Asked Questions About Pants: What (not) to wear and where
Do you wear shorts over running tights?
Let’s put it this way: just because you can wear a belt and suspenders at the same time doesn’t mean you should. Wearing shorts over tights increase the friction between your legs, adds bulk, and causes bunching as you run. (That draws far more attention to your derriere than just tights and sticks you with twice as much laundry.) Pick one and wear it with confidence. When worn in the correct size for your body, running tights are perfectly appropriate to wear while running no matter what size you are.
Do you wear underwear under running tights?
Running tights are designed so both men and women can run comfortably in them without underwear. Especiallly for long runs, avoid underwear to prevent chafing (and spending time extricating that underwear from where it inevitably creeps mid-stride). However, some runners who prefer to spend their time running rather than doing laundry admit to wearing undies to extend the life of their tights between washings. If you do choose to wear underwear, opt for synthetic sports briefs or panties that will wick moisture and stay put while you’re running.
Are there special tights that function as sort of an all-in-one pant, like running shorts that have built-in underwear?
Not that I’m aware of. If you wear loose-fitting track-style pants, briefs, boxer shorts, half-tights, and other undies made with a wicking material are your best choice for an under layer. For men, half-tights and briefs will provide more support than boxer shorts. If you wear running tights, they provide the support you need without an under layer. However, some people choose to wear technical underwear under tights for extra support or so they don’t have to wash their tights with each wear. To prevent chafing on long runs, go commando.