Women’s and men’s running gear: is skimpy simply better?

This didn't catch on: Dieter Baumann's mid-90s midriff (Photo: George Herringshaw / Sporting Heroes)

This didn’t catch on: Dieter Baumann’s mid-90s midriff (Photo: George Herringshaw / Sporting Heroes)

If you were watching the Commonwealth Games marathons this morning – or indeed, any elite athletics event recently – you might have noticed this; women’s running kit seems to be shorter and tighter than men’s running kit.

Even among sprinters, where tight gear is the norm for both sexes, women sprinters wear crop-top vests and expose more skin than men.

Is there a physiological or performance-based reason for this, or is this all down to fashion and our cultural demands on what women wear? And does this have any implications for the objectification of sportswomen and the reinforcement of body image issues?

Or should we turn the question on its head and ask why distance-running men seem reluctant to wear shorter, tighter gear?

For example, if there are performance benefits in running with your midriff exposed, surely male runners would all be doing it. Some men have tried it – German middle-distance runners like Olympic champion Dieter Baumann wore crop-top vests in the mid-1990s, but for whatever reason it didn’t catch on. (Baumann’s career of innovation includes one of the all-time great excuses for a positive drugs test: he blamed his toothpaste.)

What’s more, skimpy kit doesn’t seem to be essential for success in women’s distance running – double European cross country champion Fionnuala Britton usually wears a loose, full-length vest and longer shorts than her competitor, for example.

So, are there any substantive reasons for women runners to wear skimpier running gear than men? I posed this question on Twitter this morning, and got some excellent responses. Here’s an overview:

Comfort was one reason: one woman said that the close-fitting gear was just more comfortable for her to wear while running, which is fair enough. However, the other side of that argument is self-consciousness about body image; is short, tight gear the standard form of women’s running apparel? Women runners get enough leering looks and sexist remarks in public as it is, so how many of them would feel comfortable running in short or figure-hugging gear? (Even as a male runner, on my very first run all those years ago, I felt self-conscious about running in a fairly standard pair of running shorts.)

Coolness in warm weather was another suggestion – in fact, this came up in a conversation I had with a nutritionist recently, who told me that men and women dissipate heat differently due to factors such as body hair, muscle mass and sweat rate. But then surely men would benefit from having less sweat-soaked fabric, no matter how breathable, rubbing and chafing them. Even in the heat and humidity of Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics, Dieter Baumann’s crop-top vest was the exception among male competitors.

Of course, men and women can wear what they like. And perhaps men’s reluctance to wear short, tight running gear – for fear of ridicule, say – might be their loss. But it’d be a shame if body image concerns exacerbated by running fashion deterred women from running, especially at junior level.

Women are better placed than this male runner to discuss these issues, though. Feel free to leave a comment below, or to take me to task if warranted.

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12 Responses to Women’s and men’s running gear: is skimpy simply better?

  1. As a male long-distance runner I prefer loose clothes. When I wear compression shorts in the winter I get chaffing in bad places. I do like tight shirts as they tend to minimize chaffing.
    No one wants to see my belly, so I think I am doing the world a favor. I’m sure women would love to see the toned torso of Olympic athletes. I certainly enjoy watching the women runners.
    There is a double standard. Men are not expected to wear tight clothes, women do it all the time even with every day clothes.

  2. mia79gbr says:

    I prefer the feel of running in tighter clothes – running in a tshirt sounds pretty hellish to me! All those different ways it could rub or chafe … and the heat!! Argh! Although I do tend to overheat in anything more than a vest! … Sayng that I do draw the line at crop tops and teeny pant/shorts. It’s not so much body worries keeping me away from those but the pressure that you’re expected to be good if you wear them!! 🙂

    • Run and Jump says:

      That’s like when non-black football boots first came out – anyone wearing white football boots had better be good enough to earn the right to wear them! Jumpers for goalposts, and so on.

  3. Louise says:

    If you are a woman like me with “fuller” thighs, then running in anything other than tight mid-length shorts is very hard (think chafing seams with loose shorts, or worse, naked thighs rubbing each other with too-short shorts… to the extent of drawing blood!). As for the tops, they also need to be fitting, and with a short sleeve (not sleeveless!) to prevent the upper arm being shredded to pieces!
    I think that the running gear for the top women athletes reflects society’s general push to have women expose as much of themselves as possible for the delectation of all! (Look at the women volley ball players!) How can it be comfortable if the really tight undergarment (like a swimming costume!) rides up your bum? Yuch!

    • Run and Jump says:

      Trial and error is the best way for finding what’s comfortable and doesn’t chafe – for some people a loose fit is less irritating than a tight fit, and vice versa. Plenty of Vaseline too, regardless of shorts length.

      Yes, I agree with you women’s skimpy running wear is mostly just another expression of general cultural pressure on women.

  4. irishharrier says:

    Split shorts are the best!

  5. sunny says:

    Oh yea I would wear a midriff if available for men, some men just run with no top but that would make me feel naked that’s just me maby. As for the bottoms I have no problem wearing short shorts split or loose fitting as long they cover what they are supposed to. as for compression shorts I bought a pair of nine inch compression shorts that feel very uncomfortable to run in. After researching for shorter compression shorts for men I had not found any I wound up buying a pair of five inch womens compression shorts which I really like..I compaired the crotch area on both the mens and womens shorts, of these two different brands and found no difference

    • Run and Jump says:

      I’ve never worn compression shorts, if only because the idea of them sounds painful 🙂

    • Martin Worth says:

      I have noticed over the last few years that it is really hard to find short lycra shorts for men. There is a move towards ALL lycra for men being for “COMPRESSION”. I don’t want compressing I just don’t want blood running down the inside of my thighs due to chaffing.

      I have taken to buying women’s lycra shorts and have found they are much, MUCH more comfortable, they are not only generally made of lighter, softer lycra, but they also tend to have wider more comfortable waistbands that don’t cut in to your waist, and they aren’t obsessed with “COMPRESSION”

      I have found no oddities with fit around the areas that you might expect and nobody has ever said anything about me wearing women’s clothes 🙂 As Eddie Izzard said, “I bought them, they are my clothes”.

      I run marathons and ultras and if I’m not overweight … but if I wear normal shorts I start losing skin through chaffing within 5k.

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