Finding the Confidence to Run Shirtless

How I finally stopped letting anxiety control the way I dress for runs.

For most runners, exercising without a shirt is no big deal at all; they don’t think twice before shedding a sweat-drenched layer. For some of us though, going without a shirt can be incredibly intimidating.

This is a common enough problem that nearly every month the running forum on Reddit sees another thread about it. Those discussions are full of runners who are nervous about going for a run without a shirt (whether that’s in sports bras for the women, or completely shirtless for the men).

Until recently, I was one of those anxious runners who always kept his shirt on, even when it meant getting uncomfortably drenched with sweat. This summer though, I finally pushed through my anxiety and found the confidence to start running shirtless.

It sounds like such a silly little thing, but it’s actually been freeing and wonderful, so I wanted to share my experience with anyone else who’s feeling nervous about shedding their shirt.

Ruled By Anxiety

First, it may be helpful to clarify why I was so nervous about running without a shirt. I have a lot of trouble with anxiety in all areas of my life, and it manifested in a few ways when it came to running.

Even before I ever went for my first run, I was already worrying about how I’d appear. It actually kept me from starting this hobby at all for weeks. Once I started running regularly, that anxiety started to fade away, but I still experienced upticks when trying something new.

When it came to running shirtless, there were a few related issues that kept me covering up each summer.

The first was low self-confidence. I see plenty of people running without shirts every time that I hit the trails, but the ones around my age tend to be in better shape. When I first started running I was overweight, and felt self-conscious about that. Once I shed the weight, I started feeling self-conscious about being too scrawny.

To add to that, I’ve still got the stretch marks from my weight gain running along my sides, and mild acne on my back. These are all relatively minor issues, and rationally I know that most people passing me won’t even notice. Even so, it was very hard for me not to stress about these things whenever I considered running without a shirt.

The other issue that I had was that I was worried that somehow running shirtless would make me a spectacle. I couldn’t help imagining people glaring at me, whispering behind my back, and judging me for running without a shirt.

These thoughts didn’t make a lot of sense — after all, plenty of other people run without their shirts on — but my anxiety around the issue was simply strong and irrational. I’m sure some of you can relate. For those who can’t, I hope this has at least been an interesting peak behind the curtain.

How I Found My Confidence

As bad as my anxiety was, I was also incredibly strongly motivated to find a way to move past it. I absolutely hate running in my shirt during the summer.

Here in North Carolina, the summer days typically reach 90 degrees F (32 C), and the humidity is often 90% or more. It’s the perfect recipe for endless sticky sweat. In some climates, wearing a thin shirt can actually cool you down, but when the humidity is this high, it doesn’t help at all.

By the time I get home from a run, I look like I’ve just stepped out of a pool. I’m drenched head to toe, and my shirt is clinging to my body. It’s uncomfortable and can even cause painful chafing.

When I searched online for advice about how to gain the confidence to run shirtless, most of the comments were useless. The most common two statements were that “nobody cares what you’re wearing,” and that “if they do judge you, just don’t worry about it.”

I agree with the sentiment behind both of these statements, but they did nothing to ease my anxiety. I think the kind of people who can easily get into those mindsets are the ones who wouldn’t need advice about running shirtless in the first place.

So, instead I had to discover my own strategy, which I hope can help some of you:

  • On my first shirtless run, I drove to a trail so that I wouldn’t have to run shirtless through my neighborhood. I found that my anxiety decreased knowing that I wouldn’t run into any neighbors that I see on a daily basis. It also helped to have my entire run on a running trail, instead of on the neighborhood sidewalks. Somehow, running shirtless felt more “appropriate” at a location dedicated to running.
  • I did my first run on a trail that was completely hidden from the roads and that I knew got barely any foot traffic. I also went in the middle of the day, when I knew there would be almost nobody else there.
  • I wore a shirt on the drive to the trail and back, only taking it off right before I started running. My original plan was to wait until the parking lot was empty until I took it off, but I actually saw another shirtless guy getting out of his car as I pulled up, which gave me a small (and much-needed) confidence boost.
  • As I took off my shirt and started running on the trail, I tried to put myself on “auto-pilot.” I did my best not to think about what I was doing, and to instead just focus on the mechanics of running. I did a pretty intense workout that first day to help keep me distracted.
  • After that initial run, I slowly started removing these crutches. Each run I’d obsess a little less, and within about a week running shirtless had become totally natural for me.

Running Shirtless

The actual experience of running shirtless has been great. I have been infinitely more comfortable this summer than any previous year.

I was very self-conscious during the first 20 minutes or so of my first run, but I started to get used to being shirtless surprisingly quickly. It didn’t take many runs at all before it felt completely normal.

One of the things that surprised me most about running shirtless is that people actually seem to pay less attention to me. During my first run I passed less than a dozen people, but none of them even looked in my direction. I think a lot of people just don’t want to make eye contact with a sweaty shirtless guy. Now it’s mostly just other runners giving me “hello” nods.

I had read a few stories online of people having rude comments shouted at them while they ran shirtless. So far, I haven’t experienced any, which I’m very grateful for.

The only major downside that I’ve experienced so far is that I get much more sweat in my eyes. Apparently I had been using my shirt to wipe the sweat from my forehead without even realizing it. I may need to start wearing a headband in the future.

Overall though, running shirtless has been great, and I’m happy I pushed through the anxiety. If you’re having trouble building the confidence to run shirtless, I can tell you that it’s worth it. Good luck!

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more.

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