What to know about moisture wicking shirts

So what are moisture-wicking shirts anyway?  We’ve all heard of performance clothing made of fabrics that “wick away moisture.” But what does that even mean?

moisture wicking

Origin of the term “wicking”

The word wicking comes from the way a candle draws wax up the wick to the flame. In a similar way, wicking fabric pulls moisture from the body to the exterior of the clothing where it can more easily evaporate.

The pull and push of moisture wicking

There are two main components in the mechanics of moisture-wicking shirts fabric. Pull then push. The performance moisture-wicking fabric first pulls moisture away from the body and then pushes the sweat to the outer shell of the fabric.

Wicking fabrics

All moisture-wicking fabrics use a similar process to pull moisture away from the body. Many are made of a polyester blend. These synthetic materials don’t retain moisture like natural fabrics do. Unlike a regular polyester blend, these specially designed moisture-wicking fabrics are woven in such a way that the moisture is pulled into and through the gaps in the weave to the outer shell of the fabric. The special weave design makes the material highly porous.

They are broken down into two main categories, synthetics, and naturals.



Polyester clothing tends to feel slippery to the touch, which is why running gear has that shiny look to it. It’s also a very inexpensive fabric.


Polypropylene, polyester’s cousin, is made of plastic which makes it water-resistant and the perfect outer layer on rainy days.


A stretchy material that conforms to your body, it wicks moisture and the fabric recovers back to shape easily.


Nylon, if treated correctly, can also have moisture-wicking qualities. It is extremely durable over the long term, helping to stretch your running apparel dollars.



Wool is naturally moisture-wicking. Perfect for layering on cold running mornings, it traps air between layers to keep you warm.


Not good.

Cotton is anti-wicking

The main difference between, say a cotton t-shirt, and a high-performance moisture-wicking shirt, is how they treat moisture. Cotton and moisture are friends, or dare I say, lovers? Cotton hugs moisture and holds it close in a sweet embrace. Then it gets weird. Cotton is so clingy and jealous that she hangs on to moisture and won’t let go. “I’m gonna love you and squeeze you and never let you go,” she says.

It’s like a sleeper hold within the fabric. This results in a soaked, heavy, cold t-shirt and a runner with a frowny face. Obviously, this is not a healthy relationship, they should really break up. The first time I ever ran 10 miles as part of my marathon training, was in the hot and humid summer in Kansas City. By the end of the run, I was wearing a 600-pound cotton t-shirt.

Keep the body cool

Many moisture-wicking brands are chemically treated so that moisture won’t soak into it. The fibers are either coated with a water repellent coating like Gore-Tex, or it is woven into the material itself. This causes the sweat to bead up instead of absorbing into the fibers making it readily available for evaporation. It is much easier for the moisture to evaporate on the surface of the fabric than when it is trapped between the garment and the skin.

Moisture wicking, is it worth the hype?

Do I have to shell out a lot of money to get moisture-wicking shirts? Not really. While you can go freaking nuts in the Nike store buying branded clothing from socks to sports bras, it’s not necessary.  Extremely fun, but not necessary. You can find good quality running clothes on a budget. This means shopping the end of year sales, closeout sales, daily deal sites, or many online retailers. 

Branded wicking

Branded stuff is good quality, so you may shell out more for the name but it will probably last longer.  We spoke in an earlier post about how each brand has its own trademarked version of moisture-wicking technology.  There is a lot of trial and error in the quest to find what’s best for you. Remember to find running clothes that make you feel comfortable both physically and mentally. And definitely add to the criteria, must be breathable and moisture-wicking. You’ll thank me later.

To wick or not to wick

Do I really need a moisture-wicking shirt? 

Can’t I just wear my old Def Leppard t-shirt? The answer is yes, but I would STRONGLY caution against it.  There are some things that I’ve found through trial and error and through years of experience since I began running that will be helpful for you as you begin marathon training.  There are unforeseen issues that arise if you choose to wear that cotton tee. 

One of the biggest issues that you’ll run into wearing a cotton shirt while running is that it absorbs sweat. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problem. The problem is what that 600-pound shirt does to your body over the course of the marathon or a long training run. If your shirt is wet and heavy, as you continue to run it rubs.  And, rubs and rubs and rubs and rubs.  This constant rubbing leads to extreme chaffing, and to a serious condition known as BNS, Bloody Nipple Syndrome.  Listen up fellas, this is for you. It usually doesn’t affect women because sports bras tend to minimize rubbage.  But guys, it will creep up on you if you’re not careful. It’s stealthy and painful, and sometimes you won’t even recognize it until your post-run shower. It is an indescribable pain like nothing else you’ve ever experienced.

Bottom line

Moisture-wicking clothes help to keep you cooler in the heat, warmer in the cold and also help to minimize BNS. Find the size, style, and brands you like and buy it, you will not be disappointed.