When most people think about buying a new pair of running shoes or running shorts, a few billion-dollar brands come to mind: Nike, Adidas, Brooks, and New Balance, to name a few. Sure, you might think, if pros use this gear to win races, won’t it help me run faster? The truth is that it probably won’t—that’s up to your legs. In full transparency, I’m hoping to dispel the myth that big corporations make the best running gear. By most metrics, they don’t.
Start with the obvious evidence to the contrary. Have you ever noticed that every pair of running tights looks the same? Black and shiny with the same pocket layout. Or that running stores have walls of shoes that all look the same? That’s because big brands stagnate, shying away from innovation that’s deemed risky. This creates homogenous shapes, cuts, and colors across the industry.
So, before you become a Nike clone walking around the Swoosh Death Star, take a look at this list of gear from small, independent running brands. These folks focus on you, the runner, the weirdo, the pioneer, the unique not-robot runner. Some make flashy and fun apparel; others produce subtle, performance-driven gear—and all of them bring creativity and innovation.
A Boston-based startup that’s committed to giving 5 percent of its profits to international clean water projects, Janji will help you look good on the trail while you feel good about how you spend your money. Bright colors paired with seasonal fabrics and patterns are the trademarks of its design, which Janji collaborates on with artists and weavers around the world. The AFO Middle Short is my go-to these days.
The female founders of Rabbit saw a problem and started the company because they said (their words, not mine), “running shorts were too complicated, too fussy, and downright ugly.” Taking pride in Southern California roots, Rabbit products are manufactured in Los Angeles. Warm colors and baby-soft fabrics help Rabbit gear stand out. My favorite is the EZ long-sleeve tee.
On a surface level, Ciele just makes running caps, most of them color-blocked in clever patterns. But the brand’s dream is much bigger. Based in Montreal, our neighbors to the north discovered a hat niche and quickly became the premium brand for stylish and fast-wicking running hats. They realized—and you should too—that baseball caps suck for running. It’s time to upgrade to a GOCap.
At the intersection of Ivy League fashion and the Boston Marathon pursuit of excellence, you’ll find Tracksmith, a new brand with a love of New England heritage and tradition. Tracksmith offers a classic look paired with high-performance wicking materials. While most brands look toward the future for inspiration, Tracksmith goes the other way. I’m a fan of the Van Cortlandt tee, but you can’t go wrong.
As the name implies, Skratch Labs is a nutrition company started from scratch. To make a better sports drink than say, Gatorade, sports physiologist Allen Lim made a mixture with less sugar, more electrolytes and real fruit. The difference is obvious. Skratch stands out because it doesn’t upset your stomach on long or hard workouts. They make hydration mix, recovery drinks, and chews, which I recommend.
Three friends came together to make a new style of running shoe, and 10 years later it’s one of the world’s fastest-growing footwear brands. Born in the Swiss Alps, On set out to revolutionize the feeling of running, primarily by focusing on soft landings. The shape and sole design of On shoes make them stand out in a lineup; the explosive rebound stands out on the road and trail.
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