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The Complicated Evolution of Running Apparel

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Padded sports bras, liners in shorts, and toe socks, oh my! Has running apparel gotten a little complicated? Or has it evolved to make our lives easier? 

The Debate Over Shorts

Shorts seem to be a hot topic among runners. Running shorts without liners or pockets are relatively non-existent, unless you opt for “booty shorts” or compression shorts (although even these often have one discreet pocket). Not everyone feels comfortable with the tight and revealing nature of compression shorts, so we’re left to live and run with all the bells and whistles that standard running shorts now come equipped with.


When I first started running regularly over two decades ago, I found that liner in my shorts annoying and superfluous, so I did what many of you have done – I cut it out! Now that I found the best pair of shorts for me, I leave the liner intact, because it actually has a purpose. It gives you an alternative to wearing underwear under your shorts! Underwear will often act as an extra layer that can cause chafing and even infection. But a liner can offer a lighter, more comfortable layer. Liners today are made of moisture-managing material that wicks sweat away. You won’t have to suffer from underwear that chafes if your shorts have a liner, as it will keep you dryer and cooler on your run. Additionally, liners are designed to deliver sufficient compression and support, eliminating men’s need for that antiquated “athletic supporter” known as a jockstrap. 

For women who forego wearing compression shorts or tights when they run, you’ll be hard pressed to find a pair of running shorts without some fashion of liner or inner brief. The good news is that there are as many variations of base layers in shorts as there are run shorts themselves, from loose shorts with a small compression short attached to running skirts with thin, tech-wick briefs underneath.  The evolution of women’s running gear alone should be celebrated. We no longer have to run in a smaller, pink version of men’s running shorts and tops. And thanks to the adoption of skirts for sport, we can have our built-in undershorts and avoid chafing, all while looking fashionable! 

The running world will likely remain divided on this subject though, as liners continue to be regarded by some as what Virginia runner Jonathan Goshea describes as “evil monsters.”

As for all those pockets, some find them beneficial. Gone are the days of hiding your car keys in the rather obvious location of the wheel arch, since most running shorts have at least one zip-up pocket for key storage. My favorite running shorts have a second pocket on the inside front that I actually cut out, as I never used it, and the material seemed to bunch up in all the wrong places when I ran. A small price to pay for shorts that dry quickly and fit right, even after a 23-mile trail run that included several stream “crossings” (I was chest deep in water more than once)! 

The State of the Sports Bra

Of course, we can’t talk about the evolution of running apparel without addressing the state of the sports bra. The good news is, sports bras today are nothing like the feminized jockstrap-bra of the 80’s. Think I’m exaggerating? The sports bra was created in 1977 by Lisa Lindahl, who was fed up with running in a traditional bra, with clasps that dug into her back and straps that slipped. The story goes that Lindahl’s then-husband jokingly suggested she use a jockstrap… So she did. And it was actually comfortable. Lindahl and her friend Polly Smith sewed two jockstraps together, and the jockbra was born! 

The sports bra was created by Lisa Lindahl, who was fed up with running in a traditional bra | Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

But these days, the sports bra seems to be digressing to its prehistoric state. Clasps and padding that drove Lindahl and Smith to borrow a men’s jockstrap for running are appearing more frequently in the latest menagerie of sports bra. 

For the most part, the removable pads come out in the wash, bunch up on runs, and even cause women to overheat. Yet I’m still running in my lightly padded sports bra! Here’s why you may be too: They give a bit more shape for those of us on the scrawny side, which or may not be a priority. 

“As a girl with a small chest, I prefer a sports bra that just smashes the puppies down and gets me through a workout comfortably. I do also understand that larger chested women face more difficulties than I do, but I still think padding for shape is unnecessary in sports bras,” says Samantha Mazer, Ironman World Championship finisher and Seattle attorney. “When I’m working out, the LAST thing on my mind is whether or not my boobs are perky or have the perfect shape. I’m pretty low maintenance and don’t care about that stuff in the professional/real world either, but I know some do and to each their own.”

Those who are more well-endowed might appreciate the extra support and separation. And sports bras with padding reduce what Mazer calls the “smuggling raisins” effect that basic sports bras seem to accentuate. But what if you’re just sick of the pads in your bra, despite the positives? Fortunately, most of them are removable. Permanently! And have you ever noticed that those pockets where the pads resided make a great spot for storing snacks?!

The reason for putting underwire, clasps (the very ones that infuriated Lindahl), and even zippers on sports bras sounds simple enough:  These features make the bras easier to get in and out of. But at what cost? The chafing factor alone from metal-outfitted bras can make any struggle in taking them off a small price to pay.

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay
The Evolution of Mobile Music

Although phone arm bands have become more popular in recent years among runners who keep their phones with them on runs for listening to tunes, tracking their miles, or just in case of an emergency, taking an electronic device with you on your morning run is nothing new. Remember the Sony Walkman? Before playlists on your iPod and Pandora stations, the Sony Walkman was your best friend if you wanted a soundtrack to your workout. Even though cassette tapes have been nearly extinct for some time, the Walkman managed to remain on the market until 2009! I’ve certainly seen some large phones strapped to runners’ arms during races, but nothing as bulky as the Walkman. In this case, the evolution of mobile music is a big win for runners! 

Before iPods and Pandora, there was the Sony Walkman | Image by Ratfink1973 from Pixabay
The Gear You Can’t Overlook

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has trolled every website from Amazon to eBay in search of my favorite running shoe when there’s even a hint that it could be out of stock. We runners will go to great lengths to procure the perfect running shoe, and we should since having a pair of shoes that provides comfortable support and encourages your precious feet’s natural movement path will allow them to fall into their unique position for an optimal running experience.

So why are we still wearing cheap, cotton socks with our high-caliber shoes, making our feet prone to blisters and athlete’s foot? Socks have come a long way, and investing in a quality pair or two can be a game changer! 

“I find toe socks are so important to stop blisters when running distance. When I am training total beginners, I have to really push them to invest in good socks as it’s a piece of gear that gets overlooked!” says runner Jim Price of London, England.

Toe socks let your toes align properly and spread naturally, but might be an acquired taste. At the very least, consider dropping some dough on socks that are designed from fabrics that promote breathability such as merino wool, which is renowned for regulating the temperature of the body and wicking moisture away. Socks made from synthetic materials such as polyester and acrylic are also popular, as these wick away sweat from the skin’s surface to minimize chafing and blisters. 

The evolution of the running sock brings with it compression options and added comfort. Choose an evolved pair that supports your arches by offering strategic compression, protects against plantar fasciitis, and delivers breathability, ventilation, and varying thickness in specific parts of the sock. Revolutionize your running by spending a little extra on a high-tech pair of socks made of material that expand when your feet do, and you’ll take your running to another level! 

ROCKAY Accelerate running socks made from organic wool merino

Has running gear evolved to make our lives easier or has it become too complicated? Perhaps a little of both.

This much is certain though: Today’s breathable, wicking, lightweight designs are a welcome upgrade to cotton socks, bras that chafe, and clunky Walkmans, creating a generation of runners that are more empowered in their training and performance than ever… or at least more comfortable! 

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