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The fashion industry has, on a whole, treated pockets on women’s apparel as an afterthought. But compliment any woman on a dress or skirt hiding pockets in its folds, and there’s a universal response: “Thanks! It has pockets!”

As the lines between fashion and activewear start to blur, that public demand for pockets is crossing over into running clothes. A new breed of fashion-forward fitness brands are combining style and function to better serve runners’ needs—and one of the most obvious ways they’re doing that is with better storage solutions.

Generally, I can fit my essentials—keys, an ID or credit card—into the standard zip pocket built into the side or back of a pair of running shorts, and drop-in side pockets keep my phone secure. But what I can’t fit is the fuel I need for longer runs.

A good rule of thumb for long runs is to consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, which means I’d have to carry at least two gels per hour if I’m using my go-to Maurten 120 gels (although recent research has shown that runners can consume up to 120 grams of carbohydrates per hour without gastrointestinal issues). For a marathon, that means I need to find somewhere on my body to stash eight gel packets.

For a marathon, I need to find somewhere on my body to stash eight gel packets.

For a long time, I ran with a running belt. But after multiple marathons and countless training miles, I couldn’t stand the expandable pocket stuffed full of gels (and my phone) flopping around at the small of my back. After spending the better part of the 2021 Chicago Marathon tugging at a waist belt, I knew there had to be a better option.

Why gel-specific pockets are so great

Enter: the gel pocket. These slot-like compartments keep your fuel organized and easily accessible, which eliminates the need for extra pieces of gear—like running vests, handheld water bottles, and waist belts—and can have a direct effect on a) how well you fuel and b) how well you run.

“I’ve worked with runners that don’t want to be bothered wearing extra gear as they find it cumbersome,” says Amy Goblirsch RD, a running dietitian based in Minneapolis. “Finding attire options with pockets makes it more likely that those runners will carry and actually take in the fuel they need.”

Plus, pockets eliminate the wasted physical and mental energy that comes from belting, strapping, or buckling additional layers onto your body. “Anecdotally, we know that unzipping a waist belt to retrieve a gel every 20 to 30 minutes can not only take you out of your flow, but also is quite difficult to execute unless you slow down or stop,” says Amanda Katz, a NASM-certified personal trainer, AAFA-certified group fitness instructor, and RRCA-certified running coach.

Personally, I’ve found the bouncing of a vest or belt to be extremely distracting during hard efforts—not ideal when you’re trying to get in the zone.

At the Colorado Marathon in 2022, I wore the Tracksmith Lane 5 Short Tights for the first time. These shorts have four pockets specifically designed for gels (there are two on each hip), plus a zip pocket that can fit at least three more gels—and I never had to break stride to pull a packet out of those pockets. They were so good, I wore the same pair for the NYC Marathon that year, as well as the Tokyo and St. George Marathons in 2023. Is it a coincidence that I PRed in three out of the four races?

From a performance standpoint, there’s no significant difference between carrying handheld water bottles, waist belts, and backpacks for hydration and fueling needs when it comes to running economy, according to a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology. But toting extra weight—whether it’s on one side of your body or at your waist or back, and, yes, even if it’s just a few ounces—may cause imbalances or asymmetrics that could potentially lead to injury.

“Anything weighing you down would affect your stride no matter what,” says Matthew Meyer, CPT, an RRCA-certified run coach and certified personal trainer based in Boulder, Colorado. Extra weight or a tight belt at your waist can change the range of motion for your hips, for example, while a vest might restrict your breathing or cause you to lean forward or backward.

The effects might be barely visible in the moment, but they add up as the miles tick by. But “the closer any kind of storage is to your center of mass, with as little bounce as possible, the less it would affect your running,” says Meyer—which is why leaning into intelligent pocket design is key.

Like so many other choices when it comes to running gear, it really comes down to what works best for you. The more comfortable you feel, the more likely you are to perform well. When I run, I want to feel free. I do still use vests, belts, and handhelds, but more and more—especially during harder efforts—I find myself gravitating toward gear with more pockets than I even need.

I’ve run my last three marathons in the Brooks 3 Pocket Sports Bra, which, in addition to the large phone pocket on the racerback, has two small side pockets that each fit a gel. (Bandit Running just released a dupe, the Cadence Scoop Neck Run Bra.) If I’m not wearing one of my four pairs of Tracksmith Lane 5 shorts, I’m wearing the Oiselle Pocket Jogger shorts, with two mesh pockets on the sides perfectly sized for gels and zip pocket at the back, or the On Sprinter Shorts, which have a built-in mesh belt that can fit more than 10 gels.

And brands are getting more and more innovative when it comes to pockets: At their FURTHER event this spring, Lululemon debuted a runsie with a similar 360-degree waist pocket, as well as a sports bra that neatly tucks an actual water flask into the front pocket.

At this point, gel pockets are a non-negotiable feature when it comes to my race day outfits. I recently raced a half marathon in Bandit Running’s Nova Crop, which takes inspiration from cycling jerseys with four gel pockets on the lower back, and the Soar Running Marathon Speed Tight, a pair of spandex shorts that can fit up to six gels in the back pockets.

I loaded up all four crop top pockets with gels, even though I probably didn’t need that much fuel for the race, and the placement was so comfortable, I forgot that I had two unused gels for the entire race. I crossed the finish line two minutes faster than my previous best half marathon time.

And to everyone that followed up their congratulations with a compliment on the crop top, all I had to say was, “Thanks, it has pockets!”

The best running gear to carry gels

tracksmith lane 5 tights

Tracksmith Lane 5 Short Tights — $68.00

These 4.5-inch fitted shorts are made from a nylon/elastane blend that’s compressive enough to stay in place even when it’s loaded with eight gels.

Tracksmith Turnover Short Tights

Tracksmith Turnover Short Tights — $80.00

Compared to the Lane 5 tights, these are a little higher-waisted and a little longer on the thigh, both of which are good changes, but they only have two gel pockets surrounding the back zip pocket.

Brooks 3 pocket sports bra

Brooks 3 Pocket Sports Bra — $55.00

The two mesh pockets on the sides are offset enough to not interfere with your arm swing, and the pieces of fabric are laser-cut and bonded together with special textile glue to avoid underarm chafing.

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bandit running cadence performance tank

Bandit Running Cadence Performance Tank — $78.00

Tucking a gel into your sports bra pretty much guarantees chafing (see: Olympic marathoner Fiona O’Keefe), so avoid that with this tank, which has a secret gel pocket sewn into the front of the built-in shelf bra.

bandit running stamina 6 pocket running crop

Bandit Running Stamina 6-Pocket Nova Crop — $82.00

Taking a cue from cycling jerseys, this performance crop has four gel pockets sewn onto the lower back, and you don’t have to contort your arm to reach them mid-run.

adidas run pocket medium support bra

Adidas Run Pocket Medium-Support Bra — $55.00

Adidas sewed three pockets into the front of this bra—while they can fit a phone, they’re more perfectly sized for gel packets.

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Soar Marathon Speed Shorts

Soar Marathon Speed Shorts — $175.00

These barely there shorts have silicone grippers at the waist and bottoms which keep them from budging, even when the oversized back pockets are loaded with gels.

on sprinter shorts

On Sprinter Shorts — $45.00

Two drop-in side pockets for your phone free up the entire built-in mesh belt—which spans more than half of the waist—for as many gels as you need.

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