Why There’s Nothing Wrong With Running in Cotton

Even in an age of polyester and elastane, cotton's old-school cool is worthy of your attention

November 2, 2021 6:35 am
A sea of cotton-clad runners in San Francisco's Bay to Breakers 12K, 1980.
A sea of cotton-clad runners in San Francisco's Bay to Breakers 12K, 1980.
Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

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“Liquid receipts.” That’s how one man on the LetsRun message board used to describe the splotches of sweat that cover a cotton tee after a good run. He’s a fan of those stains, it would seem, and I’m actually inclined to agree with him.

No offense to the many creative fabrics that running brands have coaxed to the fore over the last 20 years — from Nike’s early Dri-FIT offerings to recent riffs on “recycled polyester-elastane microfibers.” I’ve happily worn them all. Activewear labels tend to observe the same unwritten standard: today’s running tops should move with the body, source materials sustainably, feature zip pockets for catch-all items, and most importantly, wick sweat.

And yet, I’m still fond of old-school cool cotton T-shirts, which are pretty bad at doing any of those things. At the end of any decent mileage in a cotton tee, it’s going to be damp and heavy; it just can’t evaporate the sweat quick enough to keep up during the run. But it’s oddly satisfying to sit there on a stoop after a run, your effort on your chest. Besides, it’s the continuation of a long tradition.

Madonna and pals run along a New York City sidewalk in various cotton tops.
Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Cotton was the de facto fabric choice of most serious 20th-century runners. Look up any old photo of a marathon major and you’ll see a sea of cotton-clad competitors. It’s got gym-class energy, dad swagger and even presidential pedigree — presidents like to throw on cotton tees when they go on Secret Service jogs.

These shirts haven’t always been well-made or necessarily well-suited to the task of hand; after all, think about how many scratchy, boxy tops have been handed out before fun runs and Turkey Trots. Those many marathoners, meanwhile, probably could’ve benefitted from a material that doesn’t start feeling like sandpaper around mile #17.

But running just three or four easy miles in a random cotton tee from your closet is absolutely doable, and surprisingly comfortable. Your nipples will not go full Andy Bernard. Plus, it can make for a nice change of pace from some of the more technical fabrics, which, with their slim-fitting cuts and reflective details, make every run feel all-important. Healthier running routines, though, thrive on at least one true, low-stakes recovery day per week.

It’s actually possible now to get that same attention to detail (and technical specs) in 100% cotton tees, strange as it may sound. Recognizing that some traditionalist, low-mileage runners flatly prefer to run in cotton, a bunch of running brands have included cotton tops in their most recent collections. They’ve just opted for more responsible blends.

Unsurprisingly, Boston-based Tracksmith is leading the charge here. The outfitter’s entire ethos is built around vintage vibes, and their “varsity cotton” is actually sourced down the road, from a 165-year-old, family-run mill in Canton, Massachusetts. It’s there that Tracksmith knits its best-selling “Grayboy Tee,” a nod to the prized cotton tees once issued to runners on the Georgetown track team.

As Tracksmith says: “It’s cool, it’s breathable, it doesn’t retain odor, and it gets better with every mile. Nobody falls in love with polyester.” Well said. They’re not the only ones trying to bring it back, or deciding to do so without supporting unsustainable global cotton farming (which uses harmful pesticides and takes advantage of low-income producers).

Below, find a number of styles — all of them 100% cotton or at least cotton-dominant in a creative blend — that we think will become instant favorites for years of training days and recovery runs. They’re way more expensive than whatever you can dig out of a drawer, obviously, but explicitly intended for running and designed to become an heirloom … until someone inevitably steals it away from you.


Tracksmith Grayboy Tee


Janji Runterra Bio Tee


Ciele Athletics Logan Shirt


CRK x ATMPT Short Sleeve Tee

District Vision

District Vision Karuna Short Sleeve

Reigning Champ

Reigning Champ F.C. Real Bristol Training T-Shirt

Satisfy Running

Satisfy Cult Moth Eaten Muscle Tee

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