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Head to head: Running shorts vs capris vs leggings

We weigh up the pros and cons of running gear (Image credit: Getty)

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Does this familiar quote conjure up images of a) an intrepid postal worker or b) your typical runner?

If you’re a runner, the answer is probably both. Runners are a bit like those plucky postmen, known to run in any and all conditions, from scorching heat to skin-soaking humidity, gale force winds and snowstorms. This extraordinary – if sometimes stubborn - desire is why selecting the right running gear is a key decision before any run.

When it comes to picking out the bottom half of your running kit, the options boil down to three: shorts, capris, or leggings. It’s all about the coverage, and you might be surprised by how much that can impact your run for better or worse. Overheating in full-length leggings halfway through a run can feel suffocating, just as goosebumps and shivering in split shorts on a chilly day is an unwelcome, energy-zapping experience.

The key is matching the right bottom with the right workout and conditions. Regardless of length, all good running bottoms should be comfortable, moisture-wicking and non-chafing, designed to allow – and certainly not impede – good running motion.

Let’s take a look running shorts vs capris vs leggings and their unique advantages.

Running shorts


Shorts allow the maximum range of movement (Image credit: Getty)

Shorts are the least amount of clothing you can wear on your bottom half (without violating any decency laws). They come in a variety of styles and lengths, from snug-fitting booty and compression shorts to looser-fitting v-notch shorts, to super-airy split shorts.

Shorts allow lots of air to circulate freely around your legs, keeping you far cooler than capris or leggings. Depending on materials and design, they can be extremely lightweight and allow maximum range of motion, making them a great race-day choice. While an obvious hot-weather option, you may find yourself reaching for shorts even as seasons change and temperatures drop. Overheating can ruin a workout or run, so even on a cold day, it can sometimes be a good gamble to choose shorts, especially if the day’s workout is bound to get your heart-rate up and keep it there. You can always add a long pair of compression socks for a bit of extra warmth.

Running capris


Capris are perfect for running between seasons (Image credit: Getty)

Longer than shorts but shorter than leggings, capris are tights that hit somewhere between your knee and mid-calf. They offer more coverage and warmth than shorts, without a full-on commitment to full-length, making them a good choice for running between seasons. And while your calves may not be the sweatiest part of your body, having the lower leg open to the air goes a surprisingly long way toward keeping you cool when your workout – or the day – heats up. Capris are a less suffocating option than full-length tights if you tend to ‘run hot’ (meaning you quickly overheat even on cold days). Available in a variety of weights, materials, and more or less compression, capris are probably the most versatile choice in your drawer.

Running leggings


Leggings are the warmest choice for runners (Image credit: Getty)

The warmest and most conservative choice, leggings cover the leg from hip to ankle. When temperatures dip down into the arctic range, or there is frost or snow in the forecast, it’s a wise time to reach for leggings. While a lot of exertion in full-length tights can lead to you getting overly warm, depending on the weather and workout, you can play with coverage and ventilation by purchasing leggings in moisture-wicking materials, and with zippered ankles or shorter in-seams that allow some skin to peek through. For more ventilation, look for airy mesh inserted in strategic spots to allow some welcome air flow.

Decisions, decisions, decisions

Unless you live somewhere with a consistently warm or cold temperature year-round, it’s ideal to have all three options available in your running kit draw. Then have the luxury (or the conundrum) of making a choice each time you go for a run.

Don’t make a kit decision without first checking the temperature. Sometimes the choice is obvious. Blisteringly hot? Shorts. Nose-numbing temps? Leggings. Somewhere in between? Capris. But it’s not always that simple. In order to pick the bottom that maximizes your comfort, there’s more to consider than temperature.



Weather is one of the most important deciding factors for running gear (Image credit: Getty)

Is snow or rain in the offing? What about the kind of cool mist that seeps right down into your bones? Bluebird day with zero cloud coverage? Factors such as wind chill, lack of shade, high humidity or fog can make it feel colder or warmer than the thermometer indicates. Do some research before you set out so that you have an idea of what to expect, and dress for those conditions. Getting mixed signals? Layering shorts under leggings is a smart choice if you’re going to be out awhile in a variety of conditions and changing temps. Also consider protection from the sun – if our nearest star is beaming ultraviolet rays at the part of the planet where you’re going running, and there’s no clouds in the sky or tree cover on the route, you might need to shield those milky white legs, and light leggings will offer the best SPF (UV protection).

Time of day

Generally speaking, mornings are cooler than afternoons, with temps heating up as the day goes on. In some places – for example, in Colorado –  you might wear fleece leggings, wool hat and gloves on a sunrise run, and then find yourself in a shorts and tank for a second outing later in the day. Colorado weather is a swinger that way. Your own environs may be more or less predictable, with more or less of a temperature pendulum swing – be aware and dress accordingly.

Length and speed of run

As important as temperature, timing, and conditions is the nature of your workout. Say you’ve planned a long, slow distance (LSD) run, and it’s overcast and cold. That means you’ll be out in the elements awhile without getting your heart rate up very high, thus not generating a lot of your own steam heat. Warm leggings, perhaps with ventilation to help you adjust for changing temperatures and conditions along the way, are a good bet. On the other hand, shorts might be the best choice for that same overcast, cold day if hard work is on the schedule. The harder the run, the warmer you’ll get, so if you’ll be crushing intervals on the track, then plan on your heart rate going to go up, staying up – and creating a good amount of internal warmth. Leggings might make for good warm-up gear, but you’ll want shorts layered beneath for when it’s time to turn up the gas.

A seasoned writer and editor in the endurance sport space, Casey has worked with top athletes and coaches on training books and memoirs. A regular contributor to Women's Running, she especially loves writing about running and hiking adventures, which have taken her on trails around the world – including to the Indian Himalaya, the DMZ in Korea and the Tibetan Plateau. She lives in Colorado, where she’s slowly chipping away at hiking all the state’s ‘14er’ mountains.