The Best Running Midlayer Ever?
Timmermade’s Alpha Direct Hoodie
Timmermade’s Alpha Direct Hoodie might be one of the best running midlayers on the market. Below we’ll dig into what attributes are critical for effective running midlayer function, introduce you to Timmermade, their Alpha Direct Hoodie, and provide a few comparisons. Let’s start with one of the most recognizable running midlayers to ever grace the big screen on a runner: Rocky’s grey “sweat suit”.
There’s a certain raw beauty to the classic scene of Rocky Balboa running through the streets of Philly in the classic grey sweatsuit. A towel draped around his neck, disappearing to catch the sweat no doubt pouring off his head, back and chest. The pinnacle achievement of best running apparel. Active garment manufacturers could have just hung it up right then and there as it could get no better. Well, okay, maybe a bit better.
Like Balboa most of our body’s generate enough heat to stay warm while running. The trick is finding those garment combinations that strike a functional balance. Ones which retain the heat needed in sometimes harsh weather environments. But those which also allow us to dissipate the needed amounts of heat and sweat to keep the engine pumping. A cult classic that succeeds in both of those requirements is the Timmermade Alpha Direct Hoodie. I’m pretty sure that if Rocky were given the choice, he’d gone for the Alpha Direct every day of the week. Maybe even with an additional one for Adrian on Sundays.
Insulation can be tough to quantify. One’s individual level of exertion, environmental conditions such as wind, or even body movements, alter an apparel piece’s capacity to retain heat. A scale used to quantify a fabric’s heat retention is that of “Clo” valuations. Clo is the amount of insulation that allows a person at rest to maintain thermal equilibrium in an environment at 21°C (70°F), in a normally ventilated room (0.1 m/s air movement), and at a baseline Metabolic rate of exertion (MET). The higher the rate of the exertion, the lower the Clo value needs to be.
Several of the highest ranked insulation materials from Down to Primaloft would be way too warm to run. Further, their composition makes them only useable in the form of being fill-layers between other fabrics. Alpha Direct’s Clo value is 0.38, the highest insulation value of any stand-alone fabric. And, at only 2.5 ounces per square yard or 90g per square meter, other fleeces and shells are not able to come in as light. These two attributes together make it a very desirable performance fabric. Possibly its most remarkable attribute however is its breathability.
With running we know that insulation is only part of the equation, and that more isn’t necessarily better. Considering that the metabolic rate associated with running (MET) may be multiples greater than even hiking, Alpha Direct’s 0.38 value would be too warm for some. This drives home that an apparel piece’s ability to breathe is as, if not more important. What’s critical is that we’re also able to release heat, sweat, and allow air permeation. For most of us it’s a back and forth of zipping up, zipping down, tying a layer around our waist and then back on. Or, just accepting that a sweaty back if not fully saturated baselayer is just part of the game.
But what if a highly insulating fabric was also very highly breathable? Hereto we find the Alpha Direct fabric, as wind can literally whip right through it. Although that sounds and can be chilly, it strikes a functional balance. It indeed provides exceptional warmth enough direct ventilation to have the engine simultaneously cooled and vented. Threading the needle between the insulation value of fill materials, with the breathability needed for running, Alpha Direct is atop the podium as a stand-alone fabric.
Alpha Direct fabric was created for the U.S. Special Forces to keep soldiers warm and dry in the mountains of Afghanistan. It’s an open net-like structure with insulating tufts of fleece protruding from the intersections. To get a visual, check out a video on the fabric from Polartec here. The tufts create exceptional insulating value. Its CLO value (a measure of a fabric’s insulation capacity) of 0.38 makes it warmer than virtually any other fleece type fabric on the market by a large margin.
Alpha Direct’s low density in turn allows incredibly open air flow. When the air or your body are stationary, the insulation value is really high. Once you start moving and pushing hard, that heat and moisture your producing is easily pushed out and away. The benefit is that you’re unlikely to overheat. Further, Alpha won’t collect much moisture from perspiration as the fabric itself is hydrophobic. Any moisture that does collect from the inside or the outside dries exceptionally fast due to it being polyester and having such an open weave with copious airflow.
I met Dan Timmerman somewhere around 2009. I knew of him as a local sporting legend, a professional cyclist (at times on the pro road, mountain, and cyclocross circuits). When he wasn’t racing he was logging hours on the wrench at Swan’s Cycles, a cult community classic bike shop outside of Ithaca, NY. Adding to the intrigue was him living living in a yurt, then moving into an off-grid tiny home, and cycling 24 miles to/from work year-round.
Timmermade I’d say is a reflection of Dan himself. It’s not created for the glitz. His business model isn’t pre-planned to translate into factory production. And the price-points are reflective of both cutting out the middle-“men”, and fair & honest pricing. He started creating products out of curiosity, challenge, and necessity. A photo post drew orders from friends which officiated the business. A recent Outdoor Apparel of the Year Award from Bikepacking is a nod to how solid the products are. Products that keep you warm and dry, and whittling it down to the uber-light core.
Alpha Direct Hoodie
Timmermade’s Alpha Direct Hoodie is just that. While it insulates and breathes well, a trade-off is that it offers no weather-resistance. The “stock” version doesn’t offer bells or whistles unless you count the Timmermade patch on the chest. There’s no pockets, though he could sew you one in if you need one. No drawcords or zips. No California cancer warning, Made in China, or laundry Instruction labels either. Just 4.5 ounces worth of an amazingly effective fabric, and a dude willing to sew it together to your custom dimensions, at a price less than corporate competitors ($90).
The piece Dan provided me to test was sewn on his own specs as we’re similarly-sized. The fit was close, leaving a thin layer for air to warm between the fabric and my skin, with no bind points at any articulations. The seems are a bit bulkier than industrial applications, but they didn’t bother me even when wearing sans base layer.
A beautiful component of the Timmermade model, at least at this point in time, is that it’s custom. While there may be “stock” sizes, he’s able to fabricate a piece based on your dimensions and desires. There’s a small degree of four-way stretch to the fabric but not a ton, so you’ll want to give yourself some wiggle room for both functional fit and insulation.
I’ve run the Hoodie in temps between 10 and 40 degrees. Experimented with base-layers beneath, and over-layers including the Timmermade Argon 90 Wind Shell. On the coldest 10 – 15 degree days I wore a Smartwool 250 long sleeve baselayer, and Argon Wind Shell. For temps in the 20 – 30 degree range I switched to a Smartwool 150 long sleeve. And, for the 30 – 40, I’ve also run it next to skin.
On a couple runs with Dan, he was humored to look over and see steam rising from my back and shoulders. The fabric was doing as it’s designed, venting incredibly well. While water may lay on the fabric, it didn’t stick around for long. As is always the case, the Smartwool baselayers, while still feeling warm as wool does, came out wet in the chest and back, and took a while to dry post run. The Alpha Direct dried significantly faster.
On longer runs, where the pace slowed, or I moved to an exposed section of trail or open road, the wind could indeed whip right through the Alpha. On most days that was okay, if not desired, as it struck closer to an equilibrium than anything else I’ve run. It allowed me to maintain an solid effort without building up as much sweat over my core.
For those times where the chill bit, I’d pull the Argon Shell back out to layer back over. Although Dan markets the two to be used in unison, rare were the miles where the combination wasn’t too hot for more than a short stint. Although the Argon shell has a functional breathability rating of CFM, in my experience, running is more suited to ratings in the 60 CFM or above range. I have a Patagonia Airshed Pullover en route which I’m excited to test as an over-layer to the Alpha Direct. For rain in the mix, I’d go to a lightweight waterproof shell, many of which we reviewed here.
For the warmer days, that is mid 30’s, the Alpha Direct stood fine on its own. As the fabric is hydrophobic, it doesn’t do much to wick the sweat away, but the breathability, paired with light winds, struck a solid balance in letting heat diffuse quickly, a cooling effect on the skin, and sweat at bay. Additionally, at only 4.5 ounces, it’s tough to find or feel a running midlayer that’s lighter or softer.
One of my first forethoughts was on how durable the fabric would be. It’s so light, with such an open mesh weave, that it just seems like it wouldn’t hold up. So far so good. The tufts don’t appear to be matting, and the form is holding. It will occasionally catch on briars or prickers in passing, and that can pull some of the tuft fabric out. Whereas I thought a couple would have torn the fabric, it shed some tuft but emerged with mesh base in tact. Reading reviews of some who have owned and pushed the fabric, it sounds like it holds to being surprisingly durable for how light it is. I’ll continue to put miles and varied use into it and follow back up if durability issues emerge over the longer haul.
I’m very much a fan of well-fitting and functional hoods. The Alpha Direct’s hood fit a bit shallow for my moppy head, and with a relatively wide birth at the front. Running alone, let alone any breeze, tended to pull it back and off my head. While it has a decent casual fit and function, some tweaks could make it more functional for the run. Another beautiful angle to his custom and connected model, is that he agreed, and indicated modifications to the template.
Given that it’s custom, you could request other features. Maybe he’ll get there on his own, but, given he’s creating the lightest and most minimal products possible to achieve a superior functional level, it somewhat misses the point to request other features or improvements as stock.
To date it’s been used by a number of mountain brands such as RAB and STRAFE as an insulation layer between face fabrics. In those contexts, and supplying individuals without the same level of consistent metabolic output, that market application makes sense. A huge advantage though with Alpha Direct is that it can also be used as a stand alone fabric, without the need for inner or outer face fabrics. There haven’t been many products so far that have, but here’s one that does, as well as a couple other favorites in the mid-layer space.
RAB uses Alpha Direct in beautifully naked form with their $125 8.5 oz Alpha Flash Jacket. It’s wicked cozy, light, effective, and durable. I purchased one after loving Timmermade’s, to both wear and compare. It’s also very comfortable. The full zip allows additional venting, a pocket for storage, and brushed fleece paneling offers contrast, next to skin comfort, and durability. As the core function remains the same, ultimately RAB’s Alpha Flash just adds some style bells, and an upcharge for the business model and name. Timmermade‘s is equally effective (and cozy), cuts that weight nearly in half to 4.5 oz. Timmermade’s, despite being hand and custom made in New York, comes in at a much lower $90 price point.
Patagonia, in partnership with Polartec, has been a standard bearer for solid, functional apparel. My favorite jacket of all time is the Nano Air, and overlayer, a first generation windshield hoody with mits. The Capilene Air Crew makes use of another amazingly comfortable, warm, and breathable fabric. Comparably the fabric weave is tighter, and closer fitting on my body. Functionally it feels warmer secondary to offering less airflow. Although it’s also pretty light, at 6.8 oz for a men’s medium, it’s still 50% more than Timmermade’s Alpha Direct.
The durability isn’t quite a strong as it is prone to pill. The biggest detriments to it finding wider market success I think were style, and price point. It is for all style intents, a functional sweater. While that may be at home in mountain environments, I don’t think the average runner gets or wants to sport it. And, at a price point of $130, it was out of most runner’s mid layer ranges.
Despite owning several stores over the past 15 years, and being surrounded by gear, I continue to use a 15 year-old hand-me down R1 Pullover as a most frequent running midlayer. The current R1’s are a bit heavier than my oldie-but-goodie. The current Polartec Thermal Pro is an exception fabric in wicking and warmth. Although it’s a great midlayer, at 10 oz, more than doubling the weight of the Alpha Direct, and less breathable to boot, it’s hotter and heavier. Its $130 price point is relatively par for the course, but in that regard also significantly more than Timmermade’s Alpha Direct.
Timmermade’s Alpha Direct Hoodie offers quite possibly the highest warmth to weight ratio of any running midlayer on the market. Whereas its exceptional breathability may be a detrimental consideration to less aerobic activities, for running it offers the greatest opportunity to find temperature equilibrium. Although it doesn’t offer much weather resistance, it’s designed to be paired with a wind shell such as Timmermade’s Argon 90 for a more complete package in windy or extremely cold conditions. At $90 it comes in at a lower price point than nearly any competitor offering similarly functional fabric. To boot, it’s custom made for a individual’s size specs, or feature requests. For someone who runs hot, this could be as good a mid-layer as you’ll find. I’ve had a lot of great gear and favorites over the years. The Timmermade’s Alpha Direct may come in as one of the best running midlayers I’ve ever worn. Get yourself in one and lemme know how it runs!
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