LAST UPDATED: 20 September 2023
Finisher T-Shirts: A Buyer's Guide
Everything you need to know about ordering your race finisher T-shirts, from picking fabrics and printing methods to ordering smart and ahead of time.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: you're a newly appointed race director and you've been put in charge of ordering finisher shirts for your upcoming event which is two months away. You have no idea how many runners will have signed up by that day, and the guy who took care of the shirts last year didn't leave you any clues about how he made it happen...
On top of this, you want to find the best shirts for the best price and have them customized using the best possible means. So many things go through your head:
- What type of material should I choose for my shirts?
- Should I go short or long sleeve?
- What type of T-shirt customization is best for me?
- How many shirts should I order, what sizes and how early should I put my order in?
That's exactly the kind of questions this guide is going to help you answer.
Cotton vs Technical vs Blend T-Shirts
Choosing shirt material should be the first thing you do when looking to buy finisher T-shirts. Here you have three options: cotton, technical fabrics and blends of the two.
Technical running shirts are available in 100% polyester and are typically offered in many color options. Seasoned runners seem to prefer technical shirts over other types for their light weight, breathable quality.
Most tech shirts are moisture-wicking, which can help runners stay cool during a race and help with overall performance, and often come with anti-microbial properties to help maintain freshness after a runner's sweaty effort.
Cotton/polyester blends have also become very popular as they offer the look and feel of cotton while providing many of the same benefits of 100% polyester shirts. They can be worn during racing and training, but also work well as all-round T-shirts people can wear in everyday life.
Tri blend shirts, so called because they're typically made from a mix of polyester, cotton and rayon, are a particularly popular choice of blended finisher shirt, increasingly favored by race directors. Like ordinary cotton/poly blend shirts, tri blends can be worn as all-round T-shirts or for training as a softer, less hard-working version of a tech shirt.
As for pure cotton shirts, the main advantage they provide to race directors is that they are budget-friendly. Many smaller running events (up to 150 runners) and inaugural event race directors choose cotton finisher shirts their first year as they are still gauging turnout and learning about the runners they attract to their event.
- Technical T-shirts are the better choice for more competitive runners. Technical shirts are best suited for half-marathons, marathons, ultras, OCR and trail races.
- For a fun run, 5K or first-time event attracting mostly recreational runners, cotton shirts are a reasonable option that can help reduce costs.
- For the best of both worlds and something that can also be worn outside training, consider cotton/polyester blends. Tri blend shirts, in particular, are becoming more and more popular as finisher shirts for all kinds of races.
Short vs Long Sleeves
Short sleeve shirts are by far the most popular with all running events, with some warmer weather races going to singlets or tank tops. But, if a race is held during the winter months in the more northerly regions, or if a trail run will have runners brushing up against foliage and exposed to high-altitude sun, then long sleeves may be your best bet for your runners' wellbeing and safety.
If going long-sleeve is something you're thinking about, and you are willing to stretch a bit on price, you can also consider quarter zip pullovers or fleeces as an upgrade to your regular finisher shirt. That is also a very popular choice that is much appreciated by runners.
Screen Printing vs Dye Sublimation
When deciding between screen printing and dye sublimation - the most common printing methods used in the racing industry - cost, quality of results and complexity of design are all relevant considerations. So let's look at each of those printing methods in turn.
Screen printing is by far the most widely chosen option for branding finisher shirts and is available just about anywhere, from mom & pop operations to online “do-it-yourself” shops (although, if you're looking for top quality, it's best to stick with the professionals who understand the type of printing needed to ensure runner T-shirt comfort).
The way it works is by applying ink to apparel by way of a stencil that is burned onto a framed screen. The “stencil” or screen is then used to transfer the ink onto a shirt, one shirt at a time and one color and screen at a time. The set-up process for screen printing is therefore tedious and requires skilled printing press operators to provide high-quality prints.
There is usually a limit to the number of colors, as each additional color can add to the costs due to the labor involved. Typically, for finisher shirts, the front of the shirt showcases the race brand and theme in a variety of colors, while the back of the shirt is printed with sponsor names, usually in one color only.
Many shirt types and materials lend themselves well to screen print decoration, but it is always best for a race director to ask vendors if the shirts being offered are recommended for this method.
Screen printing is by far the most cost-effective choice for large orders, and the more you order, the better discount you will receive.
Is there an ideal number of colors to include in a screen print design?
“I would suggest any number between one and four, if screen printing," says race shirt design expert, Del Backs, founder and former president of Racetrackers Enterprises. "I also suggest considering a smaller left-chest versus a full-chest print. The shirts used for running events are typically light weight cotton or polyester. When you print a heavy color or full front print, this can make the shirt less comfortable for runners to use in training or events.”
Some vendors offer additional options to choose from when deciding on screen print, including creating a “distressed” design look with discharge inks.
Rather than adding layers of ink, like in traditional screen printing, discharge printing uses discharge inks to remove the shirt's own color, in a process that works a bit like bleaching, but doesn't damage the underlying fabric. The stripped areas can be left with the color of the underlying undyed fabric or colored with any other color through the normal screen printing process.
Discharge printing usually results in a design that is very soft to the feel (softer, in fact, than the original shirt) which prints very well on darker garments. That said, results vary a lot between different types of fabric and underlying colors.
Sublimation is a process by which dyes are printed onto a transfer medium, in mirror image, using a specially prepared inkjet printer. Those dyes are then transferred from the medium to the shirt material, where they penetrate the fabric under the heat and pressure of a commercial heat press.
Unlike the screen print technique, there is no need for separate screens for different colors. This type of shirt decoration will outlast any screen print, as the graphics are fused into the material itself. Any design can be printed seam to seam, all over a garment, hence the term “full color”.
Sublimation can only be applied to 100% polyester shirts, and they typically need to be white or very light-colored to start. The good news is that because of the way ink is fixed onto the fabric with dye sublimation, the resulting shirts become even softer than the original.
In terms of cost, pricing on sublimated shirts has come down considerably over the years. However, sublimation remains the more expensive option and, because of the nature of the printing process, usually there are no volume discounts when placing large orders for sublimated race shirts.
- Sublimation can provide a unique branding statement for your event. If you're looking for the most vibrant and durable full-color graphics, that's the way to go.
- Screen print shirts are ideal for meeting budgets and for events that don't need a lot of colors in their design. It is a great option for both small and very large order volumes.
Like anything else, shirts come in different qualities. That goes for everything, from tech to cotton shirts and all blends in between.
When choosing a finisher shirt, it is important to balance cost with quality. Giving out a poor quality (or ill-fitting) tech shirt will likely feel worse for your participants than a good quality cotton shirt. So don't always try to stretch to a higher-tier fabric, like a tech shirt, if you're only going to barely afford the entry level product for that type of shirt, or that can backfire badly.
If possible, try to get a first-hand feel for the product you're buying. If you can't make it to the vendor's facilities to personally check out different shirt qualities, ask if it would be possible to receive samples by mail. And if that's not on offer either, have a good read through each shirt's specs and have a frank discussion with your vendor about qualities and what might be best suited to your needs.
Frequently Asked Questions
How soon before my race should I order my finisher T-shirts?
As a race director, you can set yourself up for successful ordering by asking participants to specify their shirt size during online race registration.
Registration should also include a clearly posted deadline that runners must meet to be guaranteed a shirt. The deadline you set should be around 3-weeks before your event date. For covering stragglers, you can add on 15-25% to your final order.
In order to allow time for artwork adjustments and last-minute sponsor additions, it is recommended that you start your apparel order 4 to 6 weeks prior to your event date.
Should I order both men’s and women’s running shirts?
According to RunSignup's RaceTrends report 54% of all race participants are women. Yet, according to the same report, only a measly 3% of races offer female-specific shirt sizes.
There's obviously a good reason why race directors choose to offer unisex shirts instead (which are mostly male-fit shirts): convenience. When you're struggling to pin down shirt sizes to order, ordering a whole different set of shirts on top in their own sizes and fit can complicate things a bit.
That said, many women runners often resent receiving unisex shirts and end up rarely wearing them, if ever. So if you want to make your female participants feel valued and appreciated, you should try and be in the minority of events and include female-specific sizes for your finisher shirts.
What if I haven't asked participants for their shirt sizes during registration?
Depending on the type of running event, shirt sizing can vary greatly. For example, events that attract less experience runners may skew toward larger sizes, while events that primarily attract seasoned runners or are geared toward women’s themes, may skew toward smaller sizes.
It is strongly recommended that you gather size information from event participants whenever possible. However, if you are not able to do this or have neglected collecting this information, it is best practice to order all shirts in a unisex style and to consider the following approximate percentages when ordering:
If your event is expected to attract a high number of less-active or recreational runners, go for:
- Small: 15%
- Medium: 30%
- Large: 30%
- Extra Large: 15%
If you know your event participants will be mostly seasoned runners, use:
- Small: 30%
- Medium: 30%
- Large: 15%
- Extra Large: 15%
What do I do with my leftover race shirts?
Regardless of how spot on your shirt order is, chances are you'll probably have shirts left over after your race, either because people didn't show up or because your size guesstimates where a bit off etc.
That doesn't mean your leftover shirts are a waste though. There are several things you can do with your leftover shirts, from recycling them or donating them to a charity or hospital, all the way to selling them in your merch store or giving them away in a "lucky dip" race - all ideas we discuss in much more detail in a whole different article.