It was late in the evening and just before closing time at the gym, and I was pushing myself to get in a 4-mile run on the treadmill. I looked around, and there were only one or two members on the training floor and maybe only a trainer or two putting weights away.
Nobody was looking at me anyway.
This was probably close to a year ago but I have a visceral memory of what it felt like to whip off my tank top.
Awesome. Liberating. Instantly cooling.
In hot weather, or in the gym, it’s been one of my earliest goals to work out in a sports bra and without a tank top or t-shirt over it. In truth that was the only time I tried it.
Lately there's been a (running) conversation on my running club's listserv on the pros and cons of exercising shirtless in hot weather. Here is the initial query that sparked the discussion:
On hot, humid summer days like we've been experiencing, is anyone aware of any science-based, or performance-based, reason to run shirtless as opposed to running in a sweat-soaked t-shirt? Does the body cool itself better when it's just your bare skin against the air? Or does a wet shirt provide some sort of cooling layer?
One club member, who runs shirtless, pointed to a 2012 NPR story on Olympic athletes who cool off by shedding layers to back up his case. According to the article, which quotes George Havenith of Loughborough University in England, “in terms of the heat loss, the naked person is best able to lose heat."
Professor Havenith goes on to recommend that if it's not practical to run naked or in underwear, light-colored clothing that fits loosely on the skin is the next best thing in hot weather.
On sunny days, you have to worry about sunburn, because using some sunscreens can make it harder for sweat to evaporate efficiently or even at all.
But early in the morning when the sun isn’t too strong or late in the afternoon or in the early evening when the sun is beginning to set, why aren’t more people running, or otherwise working out, shirtless?
There’s great tech wear out there that really does wick away moisture and actual wetness (how does it do that?), but it makes sense that if you’ve got nothing on your skin holding on to the wetness, even for a short period of time, you’ll cool off quicker.
Moisture is one of my biggest challenges in both hot and cold weather. In winter, I was comfortable running long distances in my cold gear, even when the temperature dropped into the teens. But once I stopped running and was covered in sweat, within 5 minutes, I would be practically hypothermic. There was little any item of clothing would do for me until I was dry.
This was especially the case on long runs when I wanted to cool down by walking a mile or two.
This morning, as I was wearing my new favorite UA Power Up tank, which feels like air against your skin as it opens slightly in the back, I thought I’d count how many runners were on the trail without a shirt.
It wasn’t particularly sunny, but it wasn’t cool either. And the atmosphere was practically swampy. I almost started to look out for snakes.
Yet not a single shirtless runner. Male or female.
Some people are naturally more self-conscious than others, especially in the gym. When I first started exercising, I remember showing up in baggy sweatpants and a loose t-shirt. Soon it became impractical to dress like that, especially for a training session, because the big clothes got in my way and actually only made me look bigger.
Still I always felt slightly uncomfortable walking on to the training floor in exercise clothes.
I know I’m not the only person who still feels self-conscious on the trail, but my discomfort has eased a million percent since I started running a year ago. There are certainly many good reasons for this, but one of my guilty pleasures is enjoying paying attention to fitness fashion and finding products and brands that are like silk on my skin.
Just the other night at the gym, there was a petite woman wearing a pair of Nike capris in a bold, graphic pattern. She was so out there on the training floor, at one point, jumping rope in the center of the room. When she walked by, I told her how awesome she looked, how great she looked in those Nikes.
"They feel sooo great," she beamed. It was hard not to smile at her self confidence, her energy. I love that sense you get when you feel sooo great.
On the trail, I’ll speed up to catch the brand on a pair of awesome running shorts on the woman who just passed me, just like I would in my car on the highway if a Tesla whizzed by.
“Was that a Tesla?” I’d hit the gas pedal to get a closer look.
I know that looking good is such an important part of why we exercise. But in truth, it's not until we feel sooo great that how we look actually matters.
Although I had bought one of the UA Power Up tanks early in the season, without knowing how clutch the top would hold up in sticky, hot weather, I was so excited to see so many of them and in so many colors in my size at the Under Armour mothership in Westfield Mall in Bethesda on Saturday.
Just that morning I was disappointed my size was sold out online when I tried to purchase one in a light color. But I happened to be in the mall after seeing the brilliant Pixar film Inside Out in 3D at the Arclight Saturday afternoon when out of the corner of my eye I caught the shirt hanging on a rack as I peeked into the store. Joy was out of control at that moment, and I did not feel any need to apologize to the melancholy teenage sales clerk who was not even a tiny bit affected by my enthusiasm.
Only for a second did I consider skipping the family bbq and going for a run.
See you next time!