Review of Icebreaker GT Run Gear
It might come as a shock to you that to remain cool on the trail, or wherever you run, you might want to try wearing all wool. It certainly sounded counter-intuitive when I heard that Icebreaker makes performance gear out of merino wool. With images of thick, scratchy sweaters popping into my head, wool seemed like the last thing I would want to put on my body when preparing for a run. It turns out wool manufacturing has come a long way from those ski sweaters you see snow bunnies wearing in ski lodges in old James Bond movies.
I was contacted by Natureshop, an online retailer of natural clothing, footwear, and homewares, inquiring if I would be willing to test and review Icebreaker’s new running gear (due to hit US stores in Spring 2011, but currently available on Natureshop’s site). I eagerly accepted the offer, having worn some of Icebreaker’s gear for the past year or so on my runs, ever since I came across them at the San Francisco Marathon expo last year (the year of my back surgery). I was excited to give Icebreaker’s new running-specific gear a try, as I had been wearing their general performance tops. A few days later I received a pair of the new Distance Run Shorts and Ace Tank (shown below).
Note: These goods were provided free of charge to me with only the expectation that I would give them a try and share my experience. None of the links are affiliate links, meaning I don’t get a cut of anything you buy if you happen to follow a link. I simply provide them as a resource for you.
The first thing I noticed as I pulled out my shorts and tank from the shipping packet were the messages on the plastic bags containing the shorts and tank. Under the Icebreaker logo was the following statement:
“As part of our commitment to sustainability, this bag is made of recycled plastic. It includes a compound that assets in oxo-biodegration if it ends up in a landfill – although we’d prefer you to recycle it through your local recycling centre. We’d prefer to not even use this bag but it’s needed to protect your Icebreaker from when it leaves us till when it reaches you.”
This message reinforced for me that Icebreaker is authentically trying to be more sustainable, something I very much appreciate. It was also the first time I had heard of oxo-biodegration compounds being added to plastic bags. I think I’m able to recycle #4 through my weekly recycling pickup, so that’s where the bags are headed.
The Icebreaker tank and shorts felt quite soft when I pulled them out of the bags. I held the shorts up and noticed they didn’t have the same feel as the other running shorts I have. The Icebreaker shorts are a little more substantial, obviously not made of purely synthetic material. I read the tag that was hanging on the shorts and noticed that the shorts indeed contained merino wool – to be expected from Icebreaker – yet also contained Lycra. This was a surprise to me. One of the reasons I like Icebreaker is that all of their clothing is 100% merino wool – I really like the idea of not wearing synthetic material. The tag explained that Lycra is used “as a structural framework for finer yarns.” I think the use of Lycra is new with this year’s GT Run apparel. The internal tag on the tank says the body consists of 96% merino wool and 4% Elastane and the shorts are 97% merino wool. So the garment is pretty much wool.
My first opportunity to run in the shorts and tank came on a rainy Northern California Autumn day recently. I drove 20 minutes to my usual weekend running spot, Wunderlich Park in Woodside, CA, in the Santa Cruz mountains half-way between San Francisco and San Jose. It was the first storm of the season and I was quite excited about the return of real weather after months of little to no rain. It was in the upper 50s as I headed up into the hills. I wore my Sugoi Hydrolite jacket over the tank to keep some warmth around me and stay a little dry. On my feet were my Vibram Five Fingers with Injinji merino wool socks (the ones with toes).
I really like the way the shorts feel. The inner lining doesn’t chaff my legs the way my usual running shorts do (North Face). The lining is over 90% merino wool and is very soft. They felt great. The Icebreaker tank top fit well, too. It’s not at all itchy and is cut large enough around the arms to give plenty of room for movement. It was just what I needed under my jacket.
Wool is an incredible fiber. It repels moisture so it not only dries quickly, it also doesn’t hold bacteria. Mother nature’s natural antimicrobial properties means it doesn’t stink, even after a sweaty run. When I got back from my 5.5 mile run, I simply set the tank top and shorts out flat to air dry. Later that day they were not only dry, they had no smell. It’s quite incredible. Because there’s no smell, they don’t need to be washed which saves water and increases the life of the material. There are stories of people not washing their Icebreaker clothing for months, and the material still free of funk. This is a huge advantage over synthetic clothing. Synthetic materials are notoriously bad for how they reek. So much so that an industry has popped up to sell us special detergents to get the funk out. No need with Icebreaker’s natural fibers for any special chemicals.
Wool actually breathes really well. It might seem counter intuitive as it’s easy to think of wool being very warm, but wool lets air escape. Icebreaker has differing degrees of warmth, from fine, 150, to very warm, 300 and thicker. The numbers refer to how well heat is held under the fabric, but at all levels the fabric lets air escape. I stopped wearing synthetic shirts because I felt so stuffy under them. Believe me, you haven’t felt breathable clothing until you try Icebreaker’s merino wool! Running on warm days in other Icebreaker tops have been very pleasant experiences. Water is naturally wicked away to cool the body. It’s quite miraculous.
Tracking it Baack
With each piece of Icebreaker clothing comes what they call a BaaCode. It’s a unique code you can use to trace the garment’s wool back to the farm it came from in New Zealand. This is so cool. I went to Icebreaker’s website and entered the BaaCode found on my shorts into the field at the top of the homepage. The following page appeared while the search for my data was being performed. Apparently, the sheep that graciously gave their warm coats so I could wear my shorts on the trails half way around the world came from 4 stations on the South Island of New Zealand (narrowed down from 120 stations). One of these stations is the Lindis Peak Station. Clicking on a link I could watch a video of Tom Moore, the station manager, talking about the sheep, farm, and terrain on which the sheep roam.
There are also photos of the sheep up on a mountain in the snow. While there’s a good chance the sheep in the picture did not produce the exact fibers that are now in my shorts, I felt more connected to the source of my clothing after watching the video. Maybe it’s just me, but I really like knowing about the people and animals involved in the production of stuff I buy. Icebreaker has done a phenomenal job of bringing the user closer to the source through this interactive website. Check it out!
Icebreaker was created by its current CEO, Jeremy Moon, in 1995 in Wellington, New Zealand. Like most innovations, Icebreaker has its roots in a personal connection made. Jeremy Moon met sheep station manager Brian Brakenridge who had created an all-wool underwear prototype. A company was formed soon after to sell the underwear. Icebreaker continued to grow its product line as well as international distribution.
I like the way Jeremy, the CEO and founder, explains the premise for the company from inception:
“The plan was simple: let’s be what the others weren’t. They were synthetic; we were natural. They were about sweaty men; we were gender inclusive (I have three older sisters who were big on this). They were about hard adventure; we were about kinship with nature. They were about function only; we were about design and creativity. Exploring for us wasn’t the highest peak, but an exploration of something much bigger – nature itself.”
Something about this statement hits me squarely. I can relate. There’s power in nature. I feel it every time I run in it, and why I pretty much only run trails. It’s about nature for me probably more than it is running. I appreciate Jeremy’s perspective and philosophy. One of his lines hits pretty hard. And I like it. “When you’re in nature, does it make more sense to wrap yourself in nature, or in plastic?”
Icebreaker’s branding has been quite sharp and no doubt has played a role in the company’s growth and continued success. Ads of the last few years have featured naked models appearing like mythic creatures with the stunning New Zealand landscape as a backdrop.
The Kiwi in Me
I must admit that I like supporting a New Zealand company, aka, a Kiwi company. My mother was born in Auckland on the North Island and I have relatives still living there. I’ve only visited once, but I feel rather connected to the country and the people of it. The natural beauty, abundant friendliness of Kiwis, and a clear lean towards extreme sports is something to be proud of. Regardless of my bloodline, I like that Icebreaker has revived a dying industry. Icebreaker now purchases 20% of the wool New Zealand produces each year. I feel good about supporting the stations and traditional way of life. And, yeah, I do feel proud to have Kiwi blood. It’s a great country, and a great company.
I’m convinced. Wool is it for me. I love the idea of wearing natural fabrics, yet not having to compromise on performance. The fact that I don’t have to wash my wool gear very often (when you do wash it, just toss it into the washing machine and then lay flat to dry) means the fabric experiences less wear and will last longer.
There are a growing number of companies making wool active-wear, but I like knowing I’m supporting a company who’s focused on sustainability, treating employees well, and never compromising on quality. I’m a fan!
Now the price can seem prohibitive upon first glance. $60 for a tank and $65 for a pair of shorts? That’s where Natureshop comes in. They have lower prices and their prices include shipping, too! And as a carbon neutral company, you can still feel good about a sustainable supply chain.
More information about Natureshop.
Time’s article about Moon and Icebreaker, Icebreaker is a Natural.
Photos from Natureshop and Icebreaker.