The year 2020 is one we’ll remember for a lot of things as runners: canceled races and derailed training, of course, but also pretty epic feats none of us saw coming. (Think backyard ultras, unprecedented FKT attempts, and quarantined treadmill records.) Despite the unpredictable events, our test team at Runner’s World had the same job as always—pile miles onto the newest gear and tell you whether it’s worth your hard-earned buck.
To start the year, we witnessed carbon-fiber plate debates and foam wars, as brands raced to build the fastest shoe on the planet (you’ll find the winner in this list, by the way). By spring, most runners were shopping for a new piece of essential gear we never thought we’d need. Yep, we found the best-in-class, sweat-ready face mask. August didn’t bring the Olympic Games as planned, but we did get a gold medal-worthy pair of shorts out of it, designed specifically for Tokyo hopefuls.
After careful evaluation and rigorous testing by our editors, these 28 exceptional Gear of the Year products are the best you can get right now.
Sense Ride 3
Lots of wireless earbuds try to emulate the design success of Apple AirPods; few do it well. The EarFun Air is an exception: The connectivity is excellent. We tested it with a phone on an armband and behind our back in a fanny pack (where many headphones cut out) and couldn’t manage to break the Bluetooth signal. With sound that pours in dynamic and crisp, these buds aren’t too shabby for $100 less than the real thing.
Coros Pace 2 GPS Watch
We’ve been fans of Coros for its affordable, long-lasting alternatives to the major players in the GPS watch game. Its new Pace 2 scraps any extra features you’re unlikely to ever use and focuses simply on delivering the lightest, fastest run-tracking experience for road runners. At just 29 grams, the Pace 2 is the lightest GPS watch we’ve tested—the original weighed 48 grams, and the Apple Watch Series 6 is 66 grams—but doesn’t skimp on battery life. In fact, it’ll go up to 30 hours in GPS mode between charges, long enough that you can leave the power cord at home when you go away for a weekend running vacation.
Spot Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger
What would “The Year of the FKT” be without a satellite tracker? With most races canceled in 2020, runners turned to Fastest Known Time efforts to test their racing fitness. Spectating these races often means following runners represented as dots on a map in your internet browser. Spot’s tracker lets you be one of those dots. It can send your location from almost anywhere on the globe, even areas outside of cell range, right from the pocket of your shorts or hydration pack. It still requires paying for satellite service to use, but if you’re not regularly headed off the grid, Spot’s new flex plans allow you to activate a one-month subscription as you need it.
BioLite 750 Headlamp
The 750 takes the comfort of BioLite’s earlier headlamp models and adds loads of power and usability. Most headlamps progressively dim over time to save battery life, but the 750 offers a constant power mode of a full 500 lumens, plus a 30-second, 750-lumen burst and rear flashing lights for extra visibility. And when you start running low on juice, you can hook it up to a portable power bank to keep the glow going while you run.
Pursuit Four Ultralight Socks
The Hero 8 claimed to be a gimbal killer—and for the most part it was—but the Hero 9 Black takes in-camera stabilization to the next level. GoPro packed the horizon-leveling feature from its app into the camera itself to give you the smoothest footage yet while running, even if you’re jostling up and down mountains and rocky trails. Everything gets bigger in the Hero 9, too—it now records in 5K resolution, has a larger rear screen, and uses a massive battery that lasts up to 30 percent longer and improves the camera’s performance in cold weather. Plus, there’s an additional front screen so you can frame your shot while filming yourself.
Amazfit Janji 7/8 Groundwork Tights
This affordable smartwatch does all of the things most runners need for hundreds of dollars less than feature-overloaded competitors. Sure, there are compromises at this price: The touchscreen isn’t terribly bright, connectivity to the phone app is clunky, and notifications are inconsistent. But it works with sweaty hands, and you can locate the “outdoor running” and “treadmill” workout settings quickly and reliably. Plus, as a running watch that records your route via GPS and tracks your heart rate—the things a running watch must nail—it’s just as good as the rest. Oh, and the battery lasts more than a week, far longer than most high-end smartwatches.
Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay E8 Sport Earbuds
You could score two pairs of the Editors’ Choice-winning Jaybird Vista for the price of the E8, but you won’t find clearer sound from in-ear buds than you’ll get here. Listening to modern bluegrass on his runs, Runner-in-Chief Jeff Dengate hears every note articulated in the acoustic guitar flatpicking, and the kick drum that drives Phoebe Bridgers’s “Garden Song” sounds deep and clear, not muddy. A single tap on the left bud enables transparency mode that pumps in sound from the outside world. In the companion app, you can pre-select one of three levels of transparency—“max” stops music playback.
Theragun Mini Massager
The advent of percussion massagers has made recovery a lot more convenient, but a Netflix massage session isn’t as cool if the device drowns out your show. Good thing then that the Theragun Mini is perfect for couch rehab. It’s among the quietest massagers we’ve tested, so you can use it without blasting your TV or interrupting nearby conversations (even massage in public, if that’s your thing). Plus, it’s lightweight and ergonomic, so you can use it without tiring your arms—you shouldn’t need to recover from using your recovery tools.
Reebok Forever Floatride Energy 2
There are some perks to being Runner-in-Chief, like having access to a full closet of test shoes. So, when Dengate decided to do a 41-mile run to cover every street in Hoboken, New Jersey, in a single day, which pair did he reach for? Yep, this $100 model. It’s an amazing budget-friendly option that delivers for runners of all levels. The midsole is lightweight yet offers plenty of protection and bounce, thanks to foam made from steam-molded thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) beads. It’s not the same racy feeling you get from pricier Pebax, but it’s more comfy and durable. For this update, Reebok tweaked the fit of the original, bringing the engineered mesh closer to your foot and giving the materials a luxury feel.
Salomon Sense Ride 3
After only three iterations, the Sense Ride has acquired something of a cult-like following for its appeal to novice trail runners and ultra- and mountain runners alike. Still firm underfoot, this version feels slightly softer than the Sense Ride 2 and has a rap sheet of trail-specific features that steals from shoes way above its price range. (We’re talking a protective rock plate, storable quick-pull lacing, and a stitch-less, debris-resistant upper.) Deep diamond-shaped lugs and Contagrip tread—a combo of hard and sticky rubbers—gives the shoe bite on slick leaves and in sloppy mud, yet still feels responsive on steep climbs. After her long runs on the Appalachian Trail, one tester deemed the Sense Ride 3 “capable and comfortable for a 50K race at least—if not longer.”
Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next%
The world’s fastest shoe served up a lot of controversy this past year. After Eliud Kipchoge used a pair to break two hours in the marathon, critics were calling for it to be banned from competition because of its thick sole and use of a carbon-fiber plate combined with springy forefoot Air pods. World Athletics, the sport’s governing body, however, issued regulations for footwear that make this shoe legal. The Alphafly uses the same exceptionally lightweight ZoomX foam that was found in the Vaporfly 4% and Next% models, but even more so. The heel is just under 40mm thick—more than 1.5 inches—making for an incredibly soft landing. The foam, of course, compresses easily but rebounds forcefully to register best-in-class energy return. The new Atomknit upper hasn’t been talked about as much, but it’s a single-layer knit that absolutely clinches your foot to the sole.
Give A Gift
Remember the running jacket that became popular a few years ago for basically being one enormous reflector? This isn’t like that, but counterintuitively can keep you safer on the roads at night. Part of Brooks’s new “Run Visible” collection, the jacket features 3M Scotchlite stripes along the chest, elbows, and shoulders. That smart placement, as you move, makes you easily identifiable as a human to the driver of a car, rather than, say, a roadside sign or traffic cone. The stripes are black, too, so they look more normal in daylight hours. Brooks also ditched the neon-everywhere treatment, opting for high-contrast panels that stand out better as the daylight fades.
Rabbit EZ Tee
Okay, we admit we’ve spent equal time running and resting in this silky tee. The EZ Collection was introduced this summer, but we were fans of this tee, and its long-sleeve counterpart, long before Rabbit released its line of matching shorts and sherbet-colored tanks. That’s because its softness and versatility are unbeatable—two crucial qualities for test editor Amanda Furrer’s unofficial “work-from-home uniform.” It feels like butter on the skin, with sweat-wicking style for sweat sessions and marathon Zoom calls alike.
Under Armour Sports Mask
We’re stoked that the past few months sparked a small running boom, but that also meant masking up as parks and trails got crowded. Of the many face coverings we tested, Under Armour’s Sports Mask reigned supreme. The inner lining is made from a nylon yarn treated with titanium dioxide to disperse body heat and feel cool against the skin. PU foam serves as a filter, which allows you to breathe more easily beneath the water-resistant outer shell. It even provides built-in UPF 50+ protection and comes in four colors and five sizes for a dialed-in fit on every face shape.
Outdoor Voices Apex Bra
The medium-impact Apex ups the ante on the simple pullover sports bra with Outdoor Voices’s TechSweat fabric. Composed of nylon, Lycra, and polyester, the thick technical material wicks sweat like a champ, but remarkably doesn’t feel too heavy—even during a long run in 90-degree heat. Right above the reflective detailing and mesh keyhole crossback is a hidden pocket. (So hidden, an editor didn’t even realize it was there until our photographer raved about the Apex and its secret compartment.)
Beoplay E8 Sport Earbuds
We rigorously test sports bras year-round, distributing them to testers whose cup sizes range from A to F. As we’ve covered new models and revisited runners’ favorites, Shefit’s Ultimate has proven itself a mainstay for high-impact support. The bra uses a wide Velcro bottom band, fully adjustable straps, and a front zipper closure to deliver custom-fit coverage for AA to I cups. Our testers beyond DD who wore two sports bras to “de-bounce” their runs said the Ultimate has stopped that exhaustive ritual of layering—and eased back pain as well.
Soar Hot Weather T-Shirt
This tee is made for scorching summer runs when you’re sweating buckets but don’t want to risk sunburn by going shirtless. The top’s upper back, chest, and shoulders use a UPF 50 ultralight polyester, while the bottom is a 3D Italian mesh made from the same material as Soar’s elite racing vests. Though seriously pricey, it’s worth it. The shirt doesn’t hold sweat even in extreme humidity, dries fast, and feels silky enough against your skin that you’ll wear it year-round, beneath a warmer layer. (We’ve even worn it to bed in the anticipation of early dawn patrol runs when the air’s still thick with fog.)
Memorial Day 2021 Sales on Running Shoes
We loved Janji’s Deviation tights. They were soft as fleece and featherlight for summer, yet lightly insulated for the first snowfall. But their elastic waistband needed to be wrenched up midrun. The Groundwork tights are just as comfy, but have a stretchy high waistband that put an end to slippage. “At no point during my run did I need to adjust these leggings,” said a tester. The bottoms have five pockets for storage: two slits in the waistband, an external back envelope pocket, and two deep side pockets big enough to store a phone, sunglasses, or pack of gummies.
Swiftwick Pursuit Ultralight Socks
Admittedly, the conversations we have at Runner’s World—even virtually—aren’t your usual water-cooler gossip. But during an online chat among test editors, these were the socks that immediately sparked an uproar, with three runners declaring that they were absolute “100” emoji. Swiftwick uses an all-season merino wool that makes these socks feel cool when it’s warm, warm when it’s cool, and soft and dry always. There’s just enough cushioning for comfort, but it’s not too plush or bulky, so they’ll slide right in to both daily trainers and racing flats. Plus, we love that there are four height options to suit any length preference and style.
Tracksmith Strata Shorts
Tracksmith was well represented on the Olympic Marathon Trials course back in February, thanks to its program that outfitted unsponsored runners. A highlight of the eye-catching race-day kit was these shorts, which are now available to the rest of us joggers. They’re made from an insanely thin and lightweight stretch knit that stays dry and doesn’t cling to your legs, even when you’re completely drenched in sweat. Because they’re built for race day, don’t expect zippers or convenience features. Instead, you get three drop-in pockets in the liner to stash some fuel. We’ve also tossed an ID and credit card in there comfortably.
Oiselle Flyout Long Sleeve Shirt
Are you like test editor Furrer, who wears her watch outside long sleeves so she can see her splits quickly? Then you’ll love her favorite top, the Flyout, which has windows in the cuffs, so you can use your watch’s optical HR sensor and keep your thumbs hooked in the thumbholes. It’s back this season with HoverFit fabric (a soft, quick-drying blend of polyester, Tencel, and spandex) and in all new colors. Oiselle has also expanded its sizing from 2 to 26, so runners of all shapes and sizes can look badass and keep tabs on their mile pace. For chilly winter runs, we also love the wool version.
Lily Trotters Compression Socks
Usually we wrestle with knee-high compression socks as they bunch up and barely squeeze over our calves—and go through the same struggle again to take them off. Not so with Lily Trotters. These socks slide on and off easily, but don’t sag and still manage recovery-aiding compression. One tester who works in healthcare praised the snug fit for minimizing swollen ankles during her pregnancy, when she knew she was at risk for blood clots. After long trail runs, and even longer night shifts, the compression and patterns offered a boost for her circulation and mood. (Yep, they’ve got styles for guys, too.)
Korsa Premier Run Short Sleeve Shirt
Road Runner Sports, which has 40 retail stores in a dozen states, recently launched its own apparel line, called Korsa. The gear isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s not prohibitively expensive for the quality of the products. This short sleeve, for example, has quickly become a favorite of ours for its comfortably loose cut and clever design. The dot print is reflective on the front panel, but it’s actually pin-sized holes on the back and sleeves for ventilation. If you’re a regular RRS shopper, you can save another 10 percent by signing up for their VIP program.
Knockaround Premiums Sport Sunglasses
It’s rare that you see celebs sporting $25 shades, but these glasses have proven themselves stylish enough to cut the glare of the limelight for stars from Snoop Dogg to Selena Gomez. That’s not the only reason we like them, though. Knockaround is currently the only brand that lets you build your own pair on the cheap ($35), and doesn’t sacrifice the essential features that runners need, like UV 400 protection, polarized lenses, and a rubbery nonslip nose piece. Plus, in testing, we found that they’re true to their name—these are durable shades that can withstand drops and scrapes.
Premiums Sport Sunglasses
RollRecovery chiseled out every notch and groove in the R4 for the purpose of muscle recovery. The center alignment groove cradles the neck and spine for more comfort when you’re working on your back and also helps target an achy Achilles tendon. High-density EVA foam and a seriously sturdy build let this roller really dig in for an experience that one tester said “felt about as close to a deep-tissue massage as you can get without going to a masseuse.” That may be a little too intense for newbies—or for those who want a gentler feeling on tender muscles after a hard workout—but it does wonders for curing a case of the DOMS.
Black Diamond Distance Carbon Trekking Poles
Ultramarathon mountain runs blur the line between actual running and backpacking. You’re going to need a pair of trekking poles to get to the finish line, and there’s nothing faster and lighter than this pair from Black Diamond. Most folding models weigh between 10 and 12 ounces, but Black Diamond stripped away all the extra pieces to create this non-collapsible pair that comes in around the weight of a single pole—just 6.4 ounces.
BLDG Active Skin Repair Spray
This antimicrobial hand and face spray isn’t just something that can kill the coronavirus, it helps wounds heal faster. Particularly handy for trail runners or clumsy joggers, it patches you up faster than other ointments in your medicine cabinet after you take a spill. It works by using hypochlorous acid, the same thing produced by your white blood cells to speed healing. So while your body treats the injury internally, this gel treats wounds from the outside, too—it kills 99.9 percent of bacteria, according to BLDG, but is nontoxic. We’ve used the spray to heal road rash from an embarrassing wipeout on a sidewalk, as well as to take away the sting of sunburns.
Article One X Ciele GTGlass Sunglasses
You know Ciele for its throwback-styled running caps. The brand teamed up with Flint, Michigan–based eyewear maker Article One to craft these aviators straight out of the late ’70s. Go with the “Red Rocks” color if you’re bold and sporty, though they come in black or tan options for more conservative looks. In any color, the sunglasses stay planted, thanks to extra-sticky silicone pads and a bendable wire frame. (Attach the included stretchy strap to lock them to your noggin.) Flat, not curved, lenses add to the off-run versatility, but a polarized coating and anti-reflective treatment make them a winning performer on pavement.