A brief history full-length running legwear, and when not to wear them.

The wrong trousers

It was a good day for Abingdon AC at the county cross country championships yesterday, with at least 5 individual winners. A new variant on the circuit around Shotover was even more demanding than its predecessor. The recent dry weather meant that underfoot conditions were good, and even if the officials (who were there all morning) were reasonably well wrapped up, temperatures were pretty much ideal for distance running. All the more surprising therefore that a fair number of people chose to run in some form of leggings.


A brief bit of history here. Half a century or more ago, tracksuits were cumbersome garments and anyone wearing them in a race was at a severe disadvantage. On cold training nights you might wear the top half (sweat tops had yet to migrate across the pond in large numbers) but for most people, their lower limbs remained exposed to the elements.

On to the 1970s and legendary GB marathon man Ron Hill combined his running experience with his job as a textile chemist (he had a PhD in the subject from the University of Manchester) to produce light trousers that could be used on fast, sustained training sessions. Known as “tracksters”, the idea immediately took off big-time, and many are still in use today by runners of a certain age (it’s just that nowadays we have a job to keep up with them). Ever the entrepreneur, Chris Brasher (who at that time had recently set up his Sweatshop business in Teddington) then produced the forerunner of hi-viz, white lightweight trousers at £1 a pair. Since they actually looked more like pyjamas, there was little chance of runners in south-west London going unnoticed during night-time sessions. Whichever variety you chose, however, it was still tracksters for training and shorts for racing, where the aim was for maximum freedom of movement and minimal weight.

Modern fabrics

Fabrics and sports kit have of course moved on enormously since that time, and some will argue that the leggings of today give virtually as much freedom of movement as shorts and don’t weigh a great deal more. This latter point might be true in dry conditions, but anyone wearing leggings at the 2018 inter-counties would have soon been carrying much of the course around with them. And you can hardly concentrate on the race with your legs and nether regions clad in freezing cold, wet and mud-plastered fabric.

Dressing the part

So far we’ve looked only at the physical side of things, but there is also a mental aspect. Many of us have one set of shoes for training and a different set for racing. We start warming up in the relatively substantial trainers we use all week but then get into our spikes or lighter racing flats. Then as we do a few final stride-outs, all of a sudden a switch clicks in our minds and it’s race time. The same principle applies to the trousers we wear in training – fine for warming up but doing your final stride in shorts is a reminder that the next few minutes are something that bit different.

This isn’t to say never ever race in trousers, sometimes the weather is just so bad that it would be reckless to do otherwise. But it’s rarely as bad as it looks once things get underway, however bracing it might feel as you trot trouserless across to the start line. As ever, there is no substitute for experience, and hopefully, some will have learnt from yesterday.