The Best Running Gear

Running is one of the most accessible forms of aerobic exercise: You can do it almost anywhere without needing a gym membership or expensive equipment. But although you can run while wearing just about anything, that doesn’t mean you’ll have a good time doing it. We spent more than 90 hours researching and testing running gear and enlisted the help of a current collegiate track coach (and former podiatrist), a former Runner’s World editor, and several of the most passionate runners on our staff to help us find the best gear to get you up and running.

Last Updated: May 12, 2016
Our wired exercise headphone pick, the Sony MDR-AS800AP, has been discontinued after less than a year on the market. The Sennheiser OCX686 is likely to replace it as our new pick in the category.
Expand Most Recent Updates
January 26, 2016: We’ve updated the fitness-tracker section with our new pick, the Garmin vívosmart HR. We’ve also added the unsealed wireless headphones pick from our full workout headphones review, as well as the waist belt picks (for holding your phone and keys) from our iPhone armband review.
December 4, 2015: We decided to focus on winter gear this go-around given the time of year, and we mostly concentrated on merino wool fabrics due to their superior performance characteristics. We will add synthetic alternatives in the next update. If you have any specific requests, let us know in the comments, and we’ll do our best to cover the most-requested gear in a timely manner. We will update in the spring with more warm-weather gear as well.
Photo: Amadou Diallou

Photo: Amadou Diallo

Table of contents


Photo: Amadou Diallou

Photo: Amadou Diallo


If I wanted a pair of wireless headphones for running, I’d put the Plantronics BackBeat Fit first on my list. While unsealed headphones tend to sound worse than their sealed counterparts due to a lack of bass, they allow you to hear your surroundings so that you can remain safe while running on busy streets.

Plantronics BackBeat Fit Bluetooth
This pair lets in environmental noise to keep you safe and sounds better than the competition.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $86.

I like the BackBeat Fit a lot—in fact, it’s the only set of unsealed headphones that I’d even consider buying. Why? First of all, among the unsealed in-ear Bluetooth headphones we tested, the BackBeat Fit sounded the absolute best. Yes, you lose some of the low-end frequencies and the richness that comes with a good deep bassline, but overall the BackBeat Fit doesn’t sound in any way objectionable. The headphones also fit well on a wide variety of ears, have a sturdy feel, and come with a neoprene pouch that doubles as a smartphone armband. No other unsealed Bluetooth headphones even come close.

Also great
JLab Epic2 Bluetooth
This great-sounding pair is sealed to block out distractions and able to take a beating, and it fit all of our panelists equally well.

If I were seeking a pair of headphones for treadmill use or trail running, and therefore more concerned about sound quality than hearing environmental hazards around me, I’d get the JLab Epic2 Bluetooth. We considered a total of 147 sport-specific headphones and tested the 84 best-reviewed and newest options—our panel of experts agreed that they sounded and fit better than anything else. Slim earhooks comfortably keep the headphones in place. A three-button remote allows you to change tracks, adjust volume, and take calls without having to reach for your mobile device, and Bluetooth means you don’t need to worry about a cord getting in the way of getting your sweat on. These headphones sound great too, with (like most sport headphones) only a little bass boost—just enough to drive a workout to the next level. And their IPX5 waterproof rating means they’ll hold up over time: We listened to them, ran with them, got them wet, kicked them, tugged them, stomped them, and then listened to them again. Finally, their 12-hour battery life means they’ll last twice as long as similar models made by Beats.

Also great
Sony MDR-AS800AP
Comfortable in a variety of ear shapes, these stay put through your workout. Plus, they sound much better than a lot of their competition.

If you aren’t worried about getting tangled up in your cord while running, and you want to save some money, our pick for the best wired exercise headphones is Sony’s MDR-AS800AP. The sweatproof MDR-AS800AP fit our panelists’ ears more comfortably than the competition and also sounded much better than many other models we tested. With a universal single-button remote and mic, this set will control your playlist and take a call. And the headphones’ sealed design will block out that annoying dudebro who’s yell-lifting for attention in the free-weights section. —Lauren Dragan

Smartphone armband

As phones grow bigger, running with one strapped to your arm becomes less pleasant. But after researching for 30 hours and actively testing 26 armbands and waist packs, we think that the TuneBand for iPhone 6 and TuneBand for iPhone 6 Plus (the latest versions of our previous pick for the iPhone 5 and 5s) are the best and most comfortable accessories for running with your phone on your arm. They’ll also work with the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, respectively.

While most bands take a one-strap-fits-most approach, the TuneBand comes with both large and small bands, providing a secure and comfortable fit on a wide variety of arm sizes. What’s more, the TuneBand’s design keeps the bulk of the phone’s body from directly contacting your skin, and its open-front, silicone skin provides a secure fit for your phone while allowing for direct access to the handset’s screen and buttons (although this design means that you can’t use another case with it). —Jim McDannald

Waist belt pack (for phone and keys)

If you want to free up your arms and not feel like one side of your body is heavier or bulkier because you have a big phone strapped to your arm, we recommend the Aqua Quest Kona Pouch. This spacious, water-resistant pouch felt comfortable during our runs and has room for a phone, keys, and ID, with some to spare. Next to top contenders like the popular Spibelt, the Kona Pouch offers a more water-resistant zipper design, and unlike the otherwise excellent Nathan Phantom Pak, it’s big enough to accommodate the widest phablets, such as the iPhone 6 Plus.

The Aqua Quest’s large pocket is constructed with water-resistant fabric and zippers to help keep sweat and moisture out.

The Aqua Quest’s large pocket is constructed with water-resistant fabric and zippers to help keep sweat and moisture out.

If you want to carry more than just a phone and keys, check out the Ultimate Direction Jurek Essential. In addition to a water-resistant phone pouch, it has a front pocket that’s perfect for keys and an ID, as well as additional rear pockets that you can fill with energy gels for longer runs. You can read more about why we like both of these picks in our review of the best iPhone running bands. —JM

GPS watch

Garmin Forerunner 220
It's simple enough for beginners but has all the features and expandability you'll need if you want to take your running more seriously.

After weeks of studying the best editorial sources, discussing the category with industry experts, and conducting our own tests, we determined that the best GPS running watch for most people is the Garmin Forerunner 220—for now. Garmin recently discontinued it and replaced it with the Forerunner 230. We are working on updating that review, but for now we still recommend the Forerunner 220 because it’s on clearance for less than $200, which makes it $50 cheaper than the new 230. According to renowned fitness-gear reviewer DC Rainmaker, the two watches are basically the same in terms of tracking runs. The new 230 does have better battery life, smartphone notifications, cycling sensor support, and the ability to control music playback, but if you just want something to track your running and training, with a great interface, you can get the Forerunner 220 and save some money.

We chose the Forerunner 220 as our pick due to its easy-to-read color display and its intuitive, color-coded running interface, which is easy to interpret (for example, red splits mean you’re missing your pacing goals, while green means you’re on track or faster). It’s also one of the smallest watches available and designed to fit a variety of wrist sizes, so in addition to looking nice, it’s more comfortable to wear. The Forerunner 220 also has Bluetooth connectivity and true waterproofing down to 50 meters, which means you don’t have to worry about the effects of sweat and rain, or even showering. —JM

Fitness tracker

Garmin vívosmart HR
Feature-packed and equipped with an easy-to-read display and exceptional distance measuring, this model topped our test.

We conducted research, surveyed readers, interviewed industry and exercise-physiology experts, walked, ran (and ran some more), slept, grocery-shopped, jumping-jacked, swung kettlebells, analyzed user experience, and got many a curious look from passersby. And after 60 hours of all that activity, we determined that the Garmin vívosmart HR is the best fitness tracker for most people. It effectively collects the same data as top competitors from Fitbit and Jawbone but offers a larger, more legible touchscreen and more useful smartphone-notification options, as well as full waterproofing to 50 meters—other models are merely splash-resistant.

The vívosmart HR checks off nearly all of the boxes: It tracks steps, floors climbed, distance traveled, calories burned, and active minutes. It monitors heart rate continuously, keeping a record of both resting pulse and workout intensity; many rivals do one or the other, but not both. Its display is easy to read, and you can customize it more than its peers to show whatever metrics you desire. The display also manages to show smartphone notifications and the current weather along with music-player and camera remote controls, something its closest competitor, the Fitbit Charge HR, can’t touch. Its distance-measuring accuracy is particularly impressive, even when compared with that of trackers sporting built-in GPS receivers. And it packs all of this functionality into a slim, waterproof package. Check out our full review of fitness trackers for more information on the vívosmart HR, as well as some alternative picks for other uses. —Amy Roberts


Photo: Amadou Diallou

Photo: Amadou Diallo

Running socks

Having worked at a few major marathons, I’ve seen my fair share of foot problems in the medical tent. Blisters and dangling toenails are common reasons for runners to see a podiatrist after running 26.2. Along with a well-fitting pair of shoes, training and racing in running-specific socks will help prevent problems and keep your feet healthy.

After having eight university distance runners help test four of the top running socks, we recommend the Darn Tough Tab No Show Light Cushion (for men and women). These socks were comfortable right out of the bag, with no seams to irritate testers’ feet. They have an unparalleled reputation for durability that makes them a favorite among Pacific Crest Trail backpackers. Made from a blend of merino wool and nylon, which is an ideal running-clothing material, these sweat-wicking socks keep feet warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They also keep feet dry, which is crucial for blister prevention. Merino blends cost a bit more than other fabrics but wick better than cotton and resist odor better than synthetic—both of which are highly desirable traits in a running sock.

Part of our female testing panel. Photo: Jim McDannald

Part of our female testing panel. Photo: Jim McDannald

Testers preferred the comfort and fit of the Darn Tough socks over that of the competition because of the softer feel and less prominent seams. In comparison, they found the seam on the top portion of the Icebreaker Multisport Cushion Micro socks to be more coarse and irritating. A few runners testing the Patagonia Lightweight Merino Run Anklet socks reported issues with seams rubbing on the outside of the big and little toes.

The women’s version (left) and the men’s version (right) feature the same comfy and durable design throughout the sock. Photo: Jim McDannald

The women’s version (left) and the men’s version (right) feature the same comfy and durable design throughout the sock. Photo: Jim McDannald

Runner’s World chose the Darn Tough as the “Most Durable” sock, and Aaron Zanto of OutdoorGearLab writes that Darn Tough “looked as good on mile 50 as it did in the packaging, especially underfoot where it really mattered.” The Vermont-based company also offers an unconditional lifetime guarantee that works as advertised. Though we haven’t performed controlled durability testing on these socks, Wirecutter/Sweethome editor Michael Zhao has had three pairs of No Show Light Cushion socks for one and a half years, and they still look and feel brand-new. He notes that Smartwool socks he’s used in the past tend to reach threadbare condition at the heel or toe (or both) after about a year. A number of websites and message boards also tout Darn Tough over Smartwool for its durability (we tested the Smartwool PhD Run Light Elite Micro Sock).

Overall, the comfortable fit, moisture management, durability, and odor resistance of the Darn Tough Tab No Show Light Cushion socks make them well worth the premium over synthetic and cotton counterparts, which you can find for half the price. But we know of some truly excellent synthetic socks, and we’ll test them as spring approaches. —JM

Shoe-buying advice

Because feet come in a variety of sizes and shapes, having a single pick for the best running shoe is impossible. As a podiatrist, a distance-running coach at McGill University in Montreal, and a former employee at a running specialty store, I’m familiar with how difficult it is to get the right shoes. Not only are everyone’s feet and running routines different, but the sheer abundance of options also make it a uniquely challenging category to cover. If you follow a few guidelines, however, you’ll find something that you’ll like.

Photo: Sandratsky Dmitriy, Shutterstock

Photo: Sandratsky Dmitriy, Shutterstock

While it’s tempting to go shopping for the best deal online, a brick-and-mortar running store is your greatest ally in your quest for the best running shoes. Use your favorite online review service (such as Yelp or Google Places) to find a highly rated store near you. Some general sporting-goods or department stores will have decent selections, but a running speciality store will stock a broader offering. More important, since running-store employees are runners themselves, the staff will be more helpful since they can speak from experience—and they don’t have to worry about selling fishing poles or baseball gloves too. Their expertise will save you a lot of time and potential discomfort from getting the wrong shoes. They may also have a treadmill, or they might give you the option of running a bit outside so that you can take a few strides before committing.

If paying the lowest price is paramount, or if you already know exactly what you want, buying online is a valid option. Take advantage of sites that offer no-hassle returns, such as Zappos. This way, you can try multiple pairs and return the ones that don’t fit right. Just be aware of any restrictions on the return policies (most sellers won’t accept returns if you’ve used the shoes outside). It’s also bad form to have someone spend time with you at a running speciality store and then bail to go buy the same shoe online for a few bucks less.

While a great running store will be able to help you find the right shoes, even if you have no idea what you need, answering the following questions before you begin shopping will increase your odds of getting the perfect fit:

  • What distance or specific competition are the shoes for?
  • What type of surface will the majority of your runs take place on? Roads? Trails?
  • Do you have medical issues with your feet? Do you wear orthotics?

The answers will allow you, or someone assisting you, to narrow down a large list of possibilities to a manageable number of shoes that meet your particular running needs.

When you’re shopping for running shoes, be sure to have a general idea of what you’re looking for, but also to keep an open mind. Remaining fixated on a specific brand or model can lead you to select a shoe that doesn’t suit your needs or, in a worse-case scenario, increase your chances of getting injured. For example, a Nike pair may look great, but many Nike running shoes are built on a narrow last (the plastic mold around which shoes are manufactured). This means that they can hurt if you have wider feet. But the design varies from model to model—and even from year to year for the same model—so you really need to try before you buy.

Another common mistake is shopping on price alone. A $150 pair of trainers marked down to $40 may be the best bargain, but it may not be the best pair of shoes for you. Trust how your feet feel in the shoes, as well as the guidance of the running-store employee who is working with you. Expensive does not necessarily equal better.

If you already have a favorite running shoe, bringing it with you may help the staff find a new pair with similar characteristics. They may even be able to help you select a new model that’s better based on the wear pattern of your shoe. If you are having any issues with your current shoes, the employees can troubleshoot and help you find a solution. When I was helping customers during my days at Universal Sole, it wasn’t uncommon to find a great shoe that was just a little too narrow or prone to rubbing in a particular spot. Thankfully, the store had tools available to remedy the issue, and gently spot-stretching the offending area of the shoe fixed the problem and helped achieve a near-perfect fit.

Unfortunately, the bliss of finding the perfect running shoe may be short-lived. Every few years, as fashions change, shoe companies discontinue models or make major redesigns to existing ones. So if you find something you love, you might want to invest in an extra pair for later while you’re at it.

Here are a few general tips:

  • Keep in mind that feet tend to swell with exercise or after a long day of walking around. By trying on shoes at the end of the day, you will help to ensure a proper fit.
  • Be sure to wear your running socks and orthotics, if necessary. Socks can come in a variety of thicknesses, so trying on shoes with your own socks is important. As anyone with orthotics knows, those pieces can take up extra room in a shoe, so you want to make sure that the shoe can comfortably accommodate your foot and your orthotics. Beware of stores that strongly suggest that you need to buy foot supports or inserts. If you have pain in your feet, see a trained medical professional.
  • Don’t be afraid to spend time walking around the store and to ask if you can run outside to test some shoes out. A recent study profiled in the New York Times found that selecting the right running shoe is less about addressing pronation (the rolling inward of your foot) and more about ensuring comfort.



Photo: Amadou Diallou

Photo: Amadou Diallo

Sports bra

Finding the right sports bra for your cup and chest size can be challenging, but it’s important for your health and the enjoyment of your run. Everyone’s body is different, so our picks won’t necessarily fit your specific body shape, but we spent 14 hours researching highly reviewed running bras and called in 50 running bras to test across cup sizes A, B, C, D, and DD+ to see if we could find a good starting point for most people. After having each tester choose their two favorite bras to use on a 3-mile run and a 30-minute cross-training workout, we think the Nike Pro Rival is a great bra for cup sizes A through D. It offers excellent support and bounce control, it has separate cup and chest sizing for a better fit, and testers universally praised its soft, sweat-wicking fabric. However, runners with D+ cups will appreciate the additional support of the Enell High Impact Sports Bra, which we talk about toward the bottom of this review.

Nike Pro Rival
Made of comfortable material, this design offers support through compression and encapsulation (separation) and comes in sizes to fit almost any body type.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $50.

The best running bras control bounce using a combination of encapsulation and compression, and the Nike Pro Rival offers both types of support. Compression controls motion by flattening the breast tissue to control vertical bounce, while encapsulation separates and cups each breast to prevent lateral and circular motion. Testers noticed a huge increase in support with the Pro Rival compared with more basic compression-only bras like Champion’s Absolute Sports Bra. Lori Wahl, a professor at University of Idaho’s Apparels, Textiles, and Design program and a freelance sportswear designer, explained to us: “The breasts don’t move just up and down when you run, they move in a circular motion.You need some structure and some encapsulation as you start to get into D cup and above, and even some C-cup users prefer that.” Dr. Jenny Burbank, a senior lecturer in biomechanics at the University of Portsmouth, conducted a study in 2009 indicating that having inadequate breast support while running can lead to stress injuries in the legs due to the runner’s body weight shifting laterally in stride.

We tested a lot of bras. Photo: Anna Perling

We tested a lot of bras. Photo: Anna Perling

The fact that the Nike Pro Rival comes in specific cup and band sizes means you’re more likely to find a better fit for your cup size, which is important for more than just comfort. In an interview, Burbank noted, “Ill-fitting bras can lead to back pain and grooving in the shoulders where bras are too tight, and that can lead to nerve damage down the arm.” The Pro Rival ranges in size from 30B to 38E, and for our A-, B-, C-, and D-cup testers it was true to size (our 32DDD tester preferred the Pro Hero, and the bra didn’t fit our 42DD tester because of its band size). With bras that use S/M/L/XL sizing, like the adidas Infinite Series Supernova Sports Bra, the Champion Marathon Sports Bra, or the lower-end Nike Pro Fierce, you often end up with mismatching band and cup sizes that lead to poor fit (this happened to me, a 34D, with all of the above bras).

The Pro Rival’s straps and underband were among the most comfortable we tested because of its supportive chest band (the part that goes under the breasts and behind the back). According to Burbank, this is important because “you want approximately 80 percent of the tension to be underneath, and not so much on top.” The Pro Rival’s straps are wide enough to distribute weight without digging into the shoulders—unlike the straps of New Balance’s The Shockingly Unshocking Sports Bra, whose thick straps and Velcro adjusters dig into the collarbone.

The Pro Rival’s straps are supportive, and the keyhole design in the back makes it easy to put on and take off. Photo: Anna Perling

The Pro Rival’s straps are supportive, and the keyhole design in the back makes it easy to put on and take off. Photo: Anna Perling

The Pro Rival’s fabric remains comfortable to the touch, produces no noticeable chafing during running, and has great wicking properties, all important factors for a great sports bra. Its smooth and stretchy fabric makes it easy to put on and take off while maintaining resilience and cup stability during runs. We also liked its lack of extraneous design elements. The Nike Pro Hero is basically the same bra as the Pro Rival, but it isn’t as comfortable because it has metal hardware built into the straps for adjustability. The adjustability is nice if you need it, but all of our testers found a good fit on the Pro Rival without adjustment. We also loved the way the Pro Rival wicked; the bra felt dry to the touch even after a very sweaty run. Testers said that in comparison the thick fabric of lululemon’s Sweaty or Not Bra (which has since been discontinued) felt restrictive and damp during running.

Overall the Pro Rival hits the sweet spot for most runners, but if you have a DD+ cup size, you might prefer the ultra-supportive Enell High Impact Sports Bra. It’s overkill (and it can feel restrictive) if you’re a C cup or smaller, but Enell sets the standard for support when it comes to larger cup sizes. Lori Wahl looked to Enell for inspiration while designing bras at Asics and adidas, noting that Enell layers its fabrics to provide great bounce-back and recovery. “Women who buy this bra, you can’t pry it out of their hands,” Wahl said. You can count Sweethome editor Casey Johnston among its fans. “I’ve tried a lot of different sports bras, and there is simply nothing like the Enell,” she told me. “Absolutely nothing moves in there. I’ve had this bra lost or stolen three times, and have gone straight out to buy it again.” Our 42DD tester echoed those sentiments: “There’s no bounce. It’s pretty crazy,” she said after trying it on. “I feel like it’s supporting my back and correcting my posture very gently.” Enell spokesperson Mara Osborne explained to us that the bra’s extra back support comes from its full-coverage design. It brings the “shoulders up and back to alleviate the weight of heavier breasts,” Osborne said.

The Enell offers unparalleled support for larger breasts, but the front clasp can feel stifling if you don’t need the extra support. Photo: Anna Perling

The Enell offers unparalleled support for larger breasts, but the front clasp can feel stifling if you don’t need the extra support. Photo: Anna Perling

That being said, if you don’t need the support, you’re probably better served by our Nike pick or something similar. The obvious drawback to this thing is its looks, which can be a dealbreaker for clothing. And while that’s a small price to pay for support if you need it, the support can feel a bit stifling at first. Casey Johnston said that when she first started wearing the bra, the support band was so tight that it felt like it restricted her ability to breathe deeply. But over time, she got used to it: “I no longer feel this problem—the deepest breathing happens in your stomach anyway, not in your upper chest. I would advise anyone who tries this bra to stick with it and count on this feeling going away.”

If more than $60 is too much and you need extra support, check out the Panache Women’s Underwire Sports Bra. Our 32DDD tester swears by this bra: “The padding compressed my breasts in a nonintrusive way, and there is no bouncing whatsoever.” —Anna Perling

Running gloves

As the temperatures begin to fall, you can best keep your hands warm and dry with liner gloves. They make great stand-alone running gloves because they’re cozy enough to take the bite off a chilly morning while you warm up but not so thick that they get hot as your heart gets pumping. If temps get really cold, you can always add a shell or a mitten. We like merino liners because all of the natural sweat-wicking, odor-resisting characteristics that make the material great for socks apply to gloves as well.

After having 10 collegiate track runners, both men and women, test five pairs of merino liner gloves, we recommend Smartwool Liner Gloves, which offer the best combination of durability, touchscreen sensitivity on the thumb and index finger, and warmth. In our tests, Outdoor Research Biosensor Liners also worked great with touchscreens but lacked the durability of the Smartwool gloves. And the more expensive, softer gloves from Icebreaker and Arc’teryx provided just as much warmth but limited touchscreen compatibility.

The tips of the Smartwool gloves have integrated capacitive material for superior touchscreen compatibility. Photo: Jim McDannald

The tips of the Smartwool gloves have integrated capacitive material for superior touchscreen compatibility. Photo: Jim McDannald

While the Smartwool gloves are more durable than cheaper knit gloves, they are still knit gloves, so they’re prone to snags. Activities other than running will cause them to wear out more quickly. They also tend to stick and snag on Velcro. In our tests, while the Smartwool pair was softer and less itchy than the Outdoor Research pair, a couple of testers found the Smartwool design to be a little itchy compared with the finer, $40-range gloves. So if your skin is sensitive to wool, these gloves may not be for you.

Also great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $50.

Arc’teryx Gothic Glove
Not great for touchscreen use, but the softer and more durable material is a nice upgrade if comfort is your priority.

If interacting with a phone on the run isn’t important to you, or if you prefer a softer wool glove, a pair of Arc’teryx Gothic Gloves is a good option. These gloves, made with a less coarse merino wool fabric (as opposed to a knit material), have a softer, less itchy feel than our main pick; in fact, a couple of our testers were surprised to find out that a glove this soft could really be wool. The material is nice, but unfortunately its touchscreen ability can’t compete with that of gloves costing $30 less. Instead of surrounding the entire tip of the thumb and forefinger with conductive material, Arc’teryx sews just two little spots onto the pad of each of those digits. Both tapping and pinching to zoom are extremely frustrating. As one tester put it, “They feel great but are pretty much useless if I want to use my phone.” We also tested Ibex Outdoor Clothing liners, but they were even worse in this regard.

The thinner and softer Arc’teryx gloves are comfy, but their touchscreen material is ineffective. Photo: Jim McDannald

The thinner and softer Arc’teryx gloves are comfy, but their touchscreen material is ineffective. Photo: Jim McDannald

Although in our tests the Icebreaker Quantum Gloves were slightly better for touchscreen use, we found that the capacitive material on the thumb and index fingers was stiffer than the glove material—we almost had to fight against the glove to maintain a clenched fist. This design isn’t that annoying if you’re just walking around, but a bit of irritation each time your hand moves adds up to a lot of irritation over the course of a run. If you need to interact with a touchscreen, stick with the Smartwool gloves. —JM

Ear warmers/hat

Ibex Woolies 2 Earflap Beanie
A contoured shape with unobtrusive ear flaps keeps your ears covered, but not your eyes. The double layer around the band adds warmth while maintaining breathability.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $0.

The right winter running gear can help you stay warm, comfortable, and motivated to get outside. A running beanie will help to protect your head and ears from the elements. After 13 hours of researching hats and testing four finalists with a group of university distance runners, we can say that our favorite is the Ibex Woolies 2 Earflap Beanie. As the name implies, the Woolies 2’s contoured bottom edge acts as a pair of minimally intrusive earflaps. This design allows you to protect your ears from the elements without needing to pull the beanie down over your eyes, so it stands apart from flat-edged designs like the otherwise excellent The North Face Redpoint Wool Beanie. Furthermore, a double layer of material along the ear line keeps your ears warmer while allowing the top of your head to breathe. Our testing group of 10 university distance runners determined that the beanie fit well on a variety of head shapes and sizes.

Ibex’s beanie (left) covers the ears fully without covering the eyebrows like The North Face’s beanie (right). Photo: Jim McDannald

Ibex’s beanie (left) covers the ears fully without covering the eyebrows like The North Face’s beanie (right). Photo: Jim McDannald

If you want a lightweight running beanie or one to wear in moderate to cool weather (no colder than mid-40s Fahrenheit), the Icebreaker Chase Beanie is a good option. Constructed with a lighter-grade 97 percent merino fabric, the Chase Beanie features the traditional beanie design. In our testing, the Chase Beanie provided better ear coverage than the Smartwool PhD Training Beanie. As long as you keep in mind the conditions the Chase Beanie is built for, it will provide sufficient protection.

Also great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $30.

Smartwool PhD Hyfi Training Headband
A windproof exterior combines with the comfort of merino. Great for people who have long hair or who overheat in a beanie.

If you overheat under a beanie, or if you have longer hair that you can’t tuck into a beanie, a headband is another option for winter runs. Our pick, the Smartwool PhD Hyfi Training Headband, features a windproof polyester exterior combined with a merino interior. This design gives it all the comfort of merino and makes it more protective against the elements compared with the wool-only Icebreaker Quantum Headband. And like the Ibex beanie, the Smartwool headband has a contoured edge that provided ample ear coverage to all the runners who tried it in our tests. —JM


Photo: Amadou Diallou

Photo: Amadou Diallo

Runner ID tags

When you’re heading out for a run, a medical emergency or a trip to the hospital is the last thing that comes to mind. But accidents and medical events can happen without warning. Without access to your ID and health information, first responders and emergency medical staff won’t be able to adjust treatment to your specific needs. Running with a driver’s license or some other government-issued ID is not enough, as such cards provide no information about your past medical or surgical history, medical conditions, medications, allergies, or emergency contacts. A dedicated identification band can take care of that.

Road ID Wrist ID Sport
This band puts all of your important medical info on your wrist in plain writing, where first responders (who always check your pulse) are most likely to see it.

After 10 hours of research, including interviews with first responders and ER doctors, we recommend the Road ID Wrist ID Sport safety ID band. This adjustable identification band displays personal and health information on a replaceable stainless-steel tag that you wear right where first responders are most likely to notice it. Unlike the MyID Sport Bracelet, which requires the use of a QR code, or Vital ID, which tucks handwritten information away behind Velcro, the Road ID Wrist ID Sport makes your information immediately available, engraved on the band in legible text, no fuss required. In our tests, runners also liked the comfort, fit, and low-profile design. When our testers wore the Wrist ID Sport in conjunction with some other running gear for this guide, a couple of them completely forgot that they had it on.

“We’re always going to check pulses, so an ID band placed on the wrist is hard to miss.” —Dr. John Sillery, Highlands Medical Center

The Wrist ID Sport’s location on the wrist is of utmost importance. While the prospect of a shoelace-mounted ID sounds convenient, a bracelet will be more visible, according to Dr. John Sillery, assistant medical director of the emergency department at Highlands Medical Center. “We quickly remove shoes in emergency situations and may miss an ID band in that location,” explained Sillery. “We’re always going to check pulses, so an ID band placed on the wrist is hard to miss.”

Also great
This sleeve attaches to the band of your watch or your fitness tracker, so you don’t have to wear a separate bracelet.

If you run with a GPS watch or a fitness tracker, consider the 1BandID, which is an adjustable neoprene and Velcro sleeve that attaches to the band of a watch or tracker. Like the Road ID Wrist ID Sport, the 1BandID features a replaceable stainless-steel ID tag. While the 1BandID does add bit of bulk, runners with a watch or a tracker may prefer using this accessory instead of wearing a wristband-style ID band. —JM

Reflective wear

As a former editor at Runner’s World and an experienced outdoor-gear and fitness-gear tester with more than a decade of experience, I take running gear and safety seriously. So does James Gallagher, who works at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. In an interview, Gallagher offered a number of recommendations for runners looking for nighttime safety gear. Your priorities should be to accentuate moving body parts (namely your feet, ankles, and wrists), light up your lower legs (since most car headlights are angled downward), and maximize the amount of reflective material you wear to create more opportunities to catch a driver’s attention. Our product testing, conducted on roads that were both pitch black and dimly lit, backed up that general advice and offered more nuance. In particular, we found that nothing attracted more attention than reflective materials around the feet and ankles; we also discovered that products with large amounts of reflective area outperformed the competition, and that items designed for use in variable weather conditions or without daily washing are more versatile.

Road ID High Visibility Reflective Ankle Band
If you want a single piece of reflective gear that you can wear every day to stay noticeable around cars, this is the choice for you.

After extensive testing by a crew of three runners and an automobile driver on two dark stretches of pavement, we found that the single most useful piece of reflective running gear is Road ID’s High Visibility Reflective Ankle Band. In our tests, this band was extremely reflective from all angles, well constructed, and comfortable to wear. It proved to be more useful and versatile in a variety of conditions compared with many of the other reflective-gear options we tested, and the pricing is great, too.

You can wear ankle bands every day, regardless of the weather conditions, and they don’t require frequent washing. Most important, in field testing nothing caught our test driver’s attention faster than a reflective ankle band—even vests with larger amounts of reflective material weren’t as eye-catching, because they didn’t move around as much. Made with 3M Scotchlite material, which radiated a bright white when hit with light, this band outperformed other anklets such as the Nathan Tri-Color Reflective Ankle Band. The Nathan model glowed in three colors as promised, but the overall effect was not as visible as what the solid-white reflective material on the Road ID band produced. We also like that the Road ID model is usually a few bucks cheaper per band than the Nathan model.

Also great
Amphipod Xinglet Vest
Vests are highly visible from any angle and versatile for all conditions, and this model is more visible and adjustable than the competition.

Although you can get away with just a set of ankle bands and be quite visible, our experts agreed that adding more reflective material on your torso or hands is a smart choice. “The more reflectivity you have, the better,” said James Gallagher. “The point is to be more visible to motorists.” Specifically, we like reflective vests because they’re visible from all angles and light enough that you can wear them over any nonreflective clothing you already own. And unlike any other single layer (like a reflective shirt or jacket), it doesn’t require frequent washing since it doesn’t come in direct contact with your skin. After testing three top contenders, we like the Amphipod Xinglet the most because it’s more visible and adjustable than the rest.

Amphipod claims that the Xinglet has up to 40 percent more reflective area than most standard running vests, and although precisely confirming that claim was impossible, we could clearly see that the Xinglet had more reflective area than the Nathan Streak and Zivalo 3M Scotchlite vests. Its minimalist construction provided excellent ease of movement and didn’t get too sweaty on a hard run. Our testers, which included a 6-foot-2 man and a 5-foot-4 woman, found the vest simple to adjust for different height and waist sizes. The front latch is intuitive and quick to use, and unlike the Velcro used in the Nathan Streak, it won’t risk damaging clothes or accessories it comes in contact with.

With a reflective anklet or vest, you’re probably sufficiently protected, but you can’t really overdo it if you’re concerned about being visible to motorists. So if you need specialized running apparel, choosing items with reflectivity features offers some obvious added benefits. With that in mind, we also tested reflective running gear in numerous categories, including hats, jackets, shirts, tights, socks, and laces. Generally speaking, shirts and jackets constructed with reflective materials—usually on the seams or in the form of reflective accents—did not catch our test driver’s eye as much as products that had reflective zones that were larger, positioned low on the body, or worn on moving extremities. In addition, many of the products were less versatile pieces useful only in certain weather conditions, or items like shirts and socks, which require a wash after every use. But a few did stick out, and we think they’re worthy of consideration if you want even more reflectivity.

You can easily and inexpensively swap out the laces that come with your running shoes for Road ID Reflective Laces, which are extremely reflective from the front—useful given that you’re generally supposed to run against the flow of traffic. They are moderately eye-catching from the side but not visible to a car coming behind you.

Clipping a 4id PowerSpurz to your shoe’s heel can make you visible from farther away. Because this device does not depend on light from a car headlight to be noticeable, our test driver was able to see this product in pulse mode from a greater distance than any reflective product we tested. (Once the car got closer, though, the reflective anklets were more visible.) We were concerned that the PowerSpurz might fall off mid-run, but our testers didn’t shake it off despite their best efforts. The manufacturer says the battery will last at least 70 hours; replacement requires nimble work with tiny screws. —Peter Flax


Black Diamond ReVolt
This is the same light as our top pick, the Spot, just with Micro-USB charging. It’s more expensive, but USB charging is convenient if you’re using this headlamp frequently.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $60.

If you want to be especially visible at night, or if you run in areas where the streetlight coverage is less than ideal, we suggest running with a headlamp to see and be seen. We weren’t able to do a running-specific headlamp pick this time, but running with the Black Diamond ReVolt from our road-trip gear guide is a great option. It fits tightly and comfortably, so it stays in place while you’re running. It costs about $20 more than the Black Diamond Spot, our top pick for most people, but its Micro-USB rechargeability will save you the hassle of switching out the batteries every few weeks. That’s a worthy trade-off for regular running use. But if you plan on using your headlamp only once in a while, you can save money and get the same performance by choosing the Spot.

We picked the ReVolt after considering 32 new models and testing four that enjoyed top ratings on Amazon, as well as great specs and reputable warranties. In the end, the ReVolt offered the best mix of features, usability, and light output for the price. It has a powerful spot beam with adjustable brightness, a wide floodlight for near-field use, and a night-vision-friendly red-light mode if you’re concerned about possibly blinding fellow joggers. —Mark Smirniotis

Hydration and nutrition

Photo: Amadou Diallou

Photo: Amadou Diallo

Water bottle/hydration system

Running with a supply of water can help you prevent dehydration and make longer runs a bit easier. The ideal water bottle for running should hold at least 16 ounces of liquid, which in our experience is enough for up to two hours of running in moderate temperatures. A place to store keys is ideal too, as well as quick access to gels or other energy foods. Being able to pack your smartphone instead of needing a separate armband is also useful.

Our testing candidates, both handheld and waist-mounted. Photo: Chris Heinonen

Our testing candidates, both handheld and waist-mounted. Photo: Chris Heinonen

Choosing between waist- and hand-mounted options is a matter of personal preference. Many people prefer a handheld bottle because waist packs can ride up or shift position during running. However, usually a waist pack can carry more water than a handheld bottle can, and some people don’t like carrying things in their hands for an hour or more. After over 100 miles of testing with 14 different bottles (seven of each type), we have recommendations for both kinds of products.

Nathan SpeedDraw Plus Insulated Flask
If you don’t mind holding something while running, this 18-ounce bottle offers storage for an iPhone 6 and keys, plus the best spout.

The best handheld water bottle is the Nathan SpeedDraw Plus Insulated Flask because in our tests it was easier to hold and drink from while running than the other bottles we tried. It holds 18 ounces of water and is fully insulated to keep liquids cool on hot days. The Amphipod Hydraform Handheld Thermal-Lite holds only 12 ounces, and the FuelBelt Wedge Bottle holds just 8 ounces. The Nathan’s pouch can hold keys and multiple energy gels or an iPhone 6; in contrast, the Ultimate Direction Jurek Grip is basically a fancy strap that can hold nothing beyond water. The Nathan is easy to carry, unlike the CamelBak Quick Grip Chill, which has a wrist strap that begins to rub against your hand and quickly becomes unpleasant. The Nathan model’s spout requires you to merely squeeze the bottle instead of opening it. And in our tests, it adjusted easily to fit the hands of people between 5 foot 1 and 6 foot 3, while the Amphipod Hydraform Jett-Lite was harder to adjust in size.

The Nathan SpeedDraw Plus fits comfortably in your hand and has room for an iPhone 6 with a case. Photo: Amadou Diallou

The Nathan SpeedDraw Plus fits comfortably in your hand and has room for an iPhone 6 with a case. Photo: Amadou Diallo

If you don’t mind a sweaty wrist, the Salomon Park Hydro Handset offers more stability and storage for a bit more money. Instead of a strap that goes around your hand, it’s designed for wearing more like a glove. And it has a compressible 17-ounce flask that shrinks as you drink from it, which means it won’t slosh as it empties. Its zippered pocket can hold an iPhone 6 in a battery case plus an energy gel, with room to spare. Unfortunately, because it covers a large section of your arm, it will make your wrist uncomfortably warm and sweaty during runs, which is why the Nathan is our overall top pick.

Also great
Nathan Peak Waist Pack
You don’t have to hold it, and it won’t feel like it’s holding you back—the way other waist packs do.

If you want a waist-mounted bottle, get the Nathan Peak Waist Pack. All the other waist bottles in our test group felt as if they were pulling me back due to their unbalanced weight distribution, but the Nathan Peak Waist Pack didn’t do that. It shifted the least during our 8-to-10-mile runs, and it provides easy access to 18 ounces of fluids while you’re running. A side pouch holds keys and keeps them from jingling; it can also fit an iPhone 6 or similarly sized phone, while a side tie-down provides fast, easy access to gels or other fuel sources. The size-adjustment straps stay put if you arrange them correctly before you start your run—but when you adjust them on the fly, they have a habit of coming loose due to the thinner waistband design.

The Nathan Peak won’t feel like it’s dragging you down like other waist packs we tested. Photo: Amadou Diallou

The Nathan Peak won’t feel like it’s dragging you down like other waist packs we tested. Photo: Amadou Diallo

Also great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $33.

Nathan Trail Mix
Offers two separate 10-ounce bottles with great spouts for hydration and nutrition (via drink mix). Not enough storage for a phone, though.

If you prefer a multibottle option, for carrying water and Gatorade for example, the Nathan Trail Mix is your best bet. It has two 10-ounce bottles that you can easily grab and replace while running; in contrast, the bottles in the Amphipod RunLite Airstretch 4 are hard to remove. The FuelBelt R3O Revenge Hydration Belt holds more liquid, 21 ounces, but the nozzles are small and annoyingly soft next to the larger, firmer Nathan nozzles. The Nathan belt also has two quick-access points for gels, something lacking on the Fitletic 16-ounce Hydration Belt, and a zippered pouch for keys. Unfortunately, it won’t hold a larger phone like an iPhone 6—and it barely even holds an iPhone 5—but its superior bottle design and easier access to water and energy gels make it the best choice overall. —Chris Heinonen

Energy gel

GU Original Sports Nutrition Energy Gels
These ubiquitous gels are available pretty much anywhere and sold in 17 flavors. They’re a great starting point.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $27.

If you’re running for less than an hour, just drinking water is totally fine. But in order to sustain peak performance and boost endurance during long runs (from 60 to 90-plus minutes), nutritionists recommend that runners consume additional hydration, carbohydrates, and electrolytes. Fuel for runs falls into two categories: sports drinks, or water paired with energy bars, chews, blocks, or gels. After speaking to experts, doctors, nutritionists, and trainers, and after consulting notes from two staff members running their first marathon (including myself), we think that gels offer the most portability, consistency, and convenience when it comes to daily training or competition running.

Gels, when taken with water, offer an easy-to-digest combination of electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium) and carbohydrates (in the form of sugars like maltodextrin, fructose, and glucose). “Oftentimes, runners will talk about hitting the wall,” explained Dr. Lonnie Lowery, an exercise physiologist (PhD), nutritionist, professor, and co-host of the long-running podcast Iron Radio. “And what they’re talking about is that they’re so deep into a long run that they’ve run out of muscle and liver glycogen.” In the body, glycogen is the main storage form of glucose, a simple sugar, and according to Lowery, two hours of fairly intense exercise “will almost completely deplete all of your muscle and liver carbohydrate, glycogen stores,” leading to fatigue and even a difficulty to concentrate.

After considering all the brands and flavors of gels available, we can’t name a best one for you without knowing your specific preferences, but we’re confident in recommending GU Original Sports Nutrition Energy Gels as a good starting point. GU offers the best overall nutrition, variety of flavors, availability, and affordability (around $1 per packet). That means you’re likely to find a flavor you don’t abhor (none are particularly delicious), and it’s likely to remain easy to find so you can train with it—an important factor for preventing gastrointestinal surprises on race day.

GU gels come in 17 flavors, and you can start with a variety pack if you’re curious enough to try a bunch. Andrea Mathias, The Sweethome’s growth editor, preferred to use GU’s espresso flavor during the most recent New York City Marathon, while I stuck with the berry flavor in the Brooklyn Marathon. The company even sells a Tastefully Nude variety that has no flavor.

“You can actually absorb more total carbohydrates if you have different types of carbs going into your body through different channels, because your body can multitask or parallel-process to get more sugar in.” —Matt Fitzgerald, sports nutritionist, author, and coach

The gels contain a blend of maltodextrin and fructose, which is key to sustaining nutrition while you’re exercising. Certified sports nutritionist, author of the recently published book How Bad Do You Want It?: Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle, and coach Matt Fitzgerald explained to us why this is important: “Different types of sugars are processed or they’re absorbed through different channels,” he said. “You can actually absorb more total carbohydrates if you have different types of carbs going into your body through different channels, because your body can multitask or parallel-process to get more sugar in.”

GU also has a line of gels, called Roctane Energy, that have additional sodium and amino acids beyond the standard Sports Nutrition Energy Gels, but they’re nearly twice as expensive as the regular ones. If the normal GU is “the Honda Civic of energy gels,” you can consider Roctane to be the Acura. Roctane gels come in eight flavors.

Some people have digestive issues with specific brands of gels, but usually they can keep trying other brands until they find one that agrees with them. If GU isn’t working for you, and if you want to explore the huge variety of gels out there, Jonathan Savage’s website has an incredible chart detailing all the nutritional aspects of gels. Some are made with honey, some come with caffeine, some have a bacon flavor. You’ll even find a margherita pizza flavor! Ultimately the nutritional differences from gel to gel are pretty slight, and GU gels are solidly in the middle of the pack.

Sports drinks offer nutrition similar to gels, albeit in a less portable package. “A gel is essentially a sports drink without the water,” Fitzgerald said, “so a gel plus water equals a sports drink, more or less. Functionally, they’re not that much different, but obviously a sports drink, it’s high volume and it’s heavy, and so it’s harder to carry.” A 12-ounce bottle of Gatorade has 21 grams of carbohydrates, about the same as a single gel packet. But if you’re following the recommendation to consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour, you’d have to drink nearly three bottles of Gatorade an hour, which is a lot to drink, likely guaranteeing a visit to a Porta-Potty.

You can find other alternatives as well, specifically energy bars, blocks, and chews. Energy bars are bulky, however, and block and chews can get stuck in your teeth or become a choking hazard when you’re moving quickly. —Raphael Brion


Photo: Amadou Diallou

Photo: Amadou Diallo

Massage roller

After 12 hours of research and interviews with five sports-medicine professionals, we recommend trying the OPTP PRO-ROLLER Soft if your muscles feel tight after running. The physical therapists we interviewed agreed that it’s superior to less expensive, less comfortable basic rollers, as well as to oddly textured, often pricier “advanced” rollers. I have to say that the OPTP is also my personal choice after trying many different types as a certified Classical Pilates instructor for the past few years and during my 30-plus years of experience as an endurance athlete. OPTP’s closed-cell design makes its rollers more durable and easier to clean than anything else available. That’s why these rollers are the overwhelming choice of professionals, including Jonathan E. Gallas, a physical therapist at Rockford Orthopedic Associates in Rockford, Illinois, who told us in an interview that the OPTP is his “go-to, all-around rolling tool.” I’ve never seen another brand in a physical therapist’s office.

This is the overwhelming choice of physical therapists due to its superior durability and ease of cleaning.

An OPTP roller is pricey compared with the commonly available white foam cylinders you can get for about $15, but it’s worth the premium because it’s more durable, using closed-cell foam and a textured coating that remains easy to clean and resistant to shredding or flaking on rough floors. When you’re shopping, you’ll find lots of alternative rollers that claim to be more advanced—they may have different density levels, sport ridges or bumps, or use firmer inner cores. Those other styles seem as much designed to differentiate from OPTP as to offer any genuine benefit, though, and they often cost more.

A position for rolling the front of your quadriceps. Photo: Dan Koeppel

A position for rolling the front of your quadriceps. Photo: Dan Koeppel/Courtesy In & Up Pilates

If you’re a beginner, you should opt for the soft version (rather than the firmer “standard” version), especially if you’re new to rolling. The foam in this version is more yielding, giving the feeling of getting a moderate-to-medium massage. This is especially important for beginners, said Gallas, as “the firmer ones are tough to adjust to.”

When it comes to running, the physical therapists we spoke to agreed that foam rollers work well for both pre- and post-workout stretching. “Anyone who runs seriously would be wise to incorporate foam rolling into their daily running routine,” said Tiffany Moey, a certified athletic therapist at the McGill Sports Medicine Clinic in Montreal. “Rolling helps prevent muscle adhesion, improves flexibility, and aids in recovery,” she added. To what extent this is beneficial to your health is more of a gray area,1 but the bottom line is that many runners find that it feels great, and you probably will too.

So, once you have a foam roller, what should you do with it? Here’s a good total-body guide to using a foam roller, from a Southern California–based physical therapist. And for runners, the Guardian recently published an excellent tutorial listing six specific foam-roller stretches. —Dan Koeppel


Gold Bond Friction Defense
Such products all work equally well; this was the cheapest in our test group.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $5.

When you’re running, your clothes can become waterlogged and drag against your skin, causing chafing. Running in technical fibers that wick moisture away from the skin and dry faster, instead of cotton, helps but sometimes isn’t enough. Anti-chafe products create a thin barrier on the skin that guards against irritation.

Photo: Chris Heinonen

Photo: Chris Heinonen

We tested four anti-chafe products by running in wet clothes using different products on each side. We also had testers running Oregon’s 198-mile Hood to Coast Relay, which took place during severe thunderstorms this year. In the end, all the products provided equal protection against chafing, so we decided that the best choice is Gold Bond Friction Defense because it provided the same amount of protection for half the price of the next-cheapest option. Note, though, that it does contain isopropyl palmitate and isopropyl myristate, which are totally safe but can clog pores on sensitive skin (though we didn’t have any issues in testing). Bodyglide, the next-cheapest option, works just as well and doesn’t have either of those ingredients. However, all anti-chafe balms will have some kind of potentially pore-clogging ingredient (even if they haven’t specifically been tested for that) since they work by creating a slick layer atop your skin. As for the others we tested, 2Toms Sport Shield has a nicer applicator but doesn’t perform any better, and the same goes for RunGuard Anti-Chafe Sensitive. —CH

Ice packs

Paradice P500
The Paradice pack was the most comfortable pack we tested, with the most stable temperature and the most versatile shape.

According to Runner’s World, icing your injuries is good for aiding recovery as well as for therapeutic purposes, but only if you do it right. After conducting 35 hours of research, including interviewing experts and testing temperature reduction on the body parts of two people, we think the Paradice P500 is the best cold pack for most people. It’s the only cold pack we tested that consistently lowered skin temperature by 11 to 12 Celsius degrees, which falls in that perfect cold-but-not-too-cold range. Among the packs we tested, most got too cold too quickly, but the Paradice stayed in that ideal zone every time. This made it more effective, and considerably more comfortable, than other packs we tested.

Its superior comfort went beyond temperature, too. Rather than the stiff, very cold gel or clay found in other packs, the Paradice ice packs have fluid-filled spheres that can conform to any shape, even right out of the freezer. This versatile design allows its 8-by-10-inch cuff to surround and compress a limb or drape over a sore shoulder. This product is also convenient—unlike most of the other cold packs in our test group, the Paradice has a soft spandex shell, so it doesn’t require a towel barrier to prevent ice burns or to soak up messy condensation. —Michael Zhao

Photo: Amadou Diallou

Photo: Amadou Diallo


1. Using a foam roller—before or after running, or as a method of self-massage or stretching—is considered a form of “self-myofascial” release. The fascia, according to the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, are part of a “connective tissue system that both penetrates and surrounds muscles … and other structures and extends [throughout the body] in an uninterrupted, three-dimensional web.” If that sounds vague, that’s because not everybody agrees with the mystical-sounding view of this network of tissue. And therefore, not everybody necessarily believes in the miraculous transformations some methods promise when the fascia are massaged with a foam roller—most often, a 36-inch-long, 6-inch-diameter cylinder that the user typically lies atop. (If you’re interested in the idea of total-body myofascial release, you can look into the Melt Method.)

So if the science of fascia is soft, what’s the point of using a foam roller? They make you feel better. During my teaching of Pilates, I’ve worked with physical therapists, chiropractors, and massage practitioners. While all claim varying degrees of belief in fascia theory, nearly all agree that when used properly, foam rollers can play a role in improving mobility and relieving pain.

Scientific studies have mostly backed this claim up: A 2014 article published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s official journal, Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise, entitled “Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool after an Intense Bout of Physical Activity,” found that “foam rolling substantially reduced muscle soreness … while substantially improving ROM.” (ROM is sports-doc talk for “range of motion.”) Whether foam rolling has long-term healing properties has not been established. (Here’s a meta-review of current literature, with links to journal abstracts.) Jump back.

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Originally published: January 26, 2016

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