Are Polarized Sunglasses Worth It for Runners?

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Sunglasses are an important piece of equipment for runners. Not only do they protect your eyes from harmful rays, but they can also actually improve your performance by helping you see what’s in front of you more clearly.

Not all sunglasses are created equal. There’s an ongoing debate about whether to choose polarized or non-polarized sunglasses and if it even makes a difference. While both of them are protective to an extent, most people have a preference.

But are polarized lenses worth it for runners? Or are they just the same as non-polarized lenses with a higher price tag?

In this article, we’ll dive into the pros and cons of polarized sunglasses so you can decide if they’re worth spending a few extra pennies.

What Are Polarized Lenses?

Polarized lenses are covered with a thin layer of chemical laminate that blocks glare. To understand how, we need to go just a little bit into the science of light.

Light travels in waves. These waves move in many different ways, all at the same time. When light reflects off of something—glare—it tends to rearrange itself into a horizontal light wave.

The chemical layer on polarized sunglasses allows vertical light to get past it but blocks these harsh horizontal waves. While you’ll still get the light from the sun, you won’t get any light that’s been reflected off of something else, effectively blocking any glare.

How Are Polarized Lenses Different From Non-Polarized?

Non-polarized lenses reduce the intensity of light. That means that any light getting through the lens isn’t as harsh as it would be going directly into your eyes.

But they still allow those horizontal glare waves to pass through, although at a slightly lower intensity. So while they have their place, they aren’t going to be as effective as polarized lenses against glare.

Pros and Cons of Polarized Sunglasses

Pros

Block Glare

The biggest pro of polarized sunglasses is that they block glare. When you’re running, there are plenty of things for light to reflect off of—puddles, car windows, lakes, the windows of buildings, or even someone else’s smartwatch.

Polarized sunglasses eliminate those harsh, painful glares. This is invaluable for runners – squinting into a glare can not only damage your eyes, but it can lead to premature wrinkles and diminish your running performance!

Helps Prevent Eye Fatigue

When you’re running into a glare, the muscles of your eyes have to work harder to interpret what they’re seeing and relay that info to your brain in order to keep you safe on the road.

This can easily lead to eye strain. If you find that your eyes feel sore and tired after a run, or you have sensitive eyes accompanied by a headache, this may be the reason.

Polarized sunglasses reduce the eye fatigue that many runners experience as a result of glare. This keeps your eyes safer and healthier for longer.

Increases Color Contrast on Your Run

Color contrast may not seem like an important thing for running, but the increased color contrast that polarized lenses offer can be helpful.

This makes darker areas darker and lighter areas lighter, so you can easily spot the difference between a safe route and potentially dangerous hazards.

This helps to improve visibility ahead of you, making hazards like potholes or elevation changes stand out more clearly so you can avoid them.

Sharpen Surroundings

If you’re running in a misty or foggy area, polarized lenses can help to sharpen your surroundings.

Mist often includes a glare, as light reflects off the water droplets in the air. Your polarized lenses help to reduce that glare and improve visibility in these conditions.

Great for Road Running

You’re more likely to struggle with glare when running on the road. This is because there are more objects for light to bounce off of, like cars, buildings, and puddles.

On the trail, there are much fewer objects to reflect light. You may experience glare from lakes or rivers, but you probably won’t come across cars or buildings!

Cons

Hard to Distinguish Depth of Surfaces

Although the increased contrast can show you when there’s an elevation change, it can be difficult to judge depth properly.

Knowing that there’s depth change is one thing, but being able to judge how deep you’re stepping is another.

Polarized lenses can cause some confusion in judging depth correctly. For this reason, they’re not really the best choice for trail running, where the ground is uneven and elevation changes are common.

Expensive

This is probably the biggest factor that deters people from buying polarized lenses. They are noticeably more expensive than others, but it’s because their lenses are of higher quality than regular sunglasses.

Difficulty Viewing LCD Screens

Chances are you won’t be checking your phone while you’re running, but if you’re planning on wearing polarized sunglasses while you’re out casually, it could be.

The chemical layer on polarized sunglasses makes it harder to see the light coming off of phone screens, televisions, GPS devices, and other screens.

Distorted Vision in Specific Environments

In some cases, you may find that your vision becomes distorted when looking through windows or car windshields.

This is because of strange patterns in the glass that develop during the glass tempering process, that you don’t notice with the naked eye.

When wearing a polarized lens, it becomes more apparent due to the way light reflects through the glass.

Polarization Can Wear Off

Polarization is essentially a layer on the surface of the lens. With wear, it can wear off and leave you with a half-polarized pair of sunglasses, or eventually, with a regular pair that doesn’t block glare.

If you treat your sunglasses well and take good care of them, you should find that the polarized layer lasts a long time.

UV Protection Not Guaranteed

Don’t assume that polarized sunglasses come with built-in UV protection. Not all of them do, so you will still need to double-check before buying so you don’t accidentally get a pair without protection.

Do Runners Need Polarized Sunglasses?

Polarized sunglasses are not absolutely necessary for runners. In fact, they may do more harm than good if you run on trails.

However, they can be very helpful for runners whose routes take them past bodies of water or who run in urban areas where car and building windows are plentiful.

What Is PRIZM?

PRIZM is a technology developed by sunglasses brand Oakley. The word is often used interchangeably with polarized lenses, but the two are actually different technologies.

Oakley has put 15 years of research into developing the PRIZM lenses. The end result is a range of lenses designed to suit specific surfaces and conditions by filtering out certain light and enhancing the light and color to provide the best possible visuals.

How Do Oakley PRIZM Lenses Work?

PRIZM lenses come in a wide variety of different colors. Each differently-colored lens works by increasing certain color wavelengths while reducing others.

This is the visual equivalent of a water filter! They filter out the “dirty” light and leave you with the clean, pure light that makes for a brighter and more contrasted picture.

Each PRIZM lens is designed for a different condition. The company researched the general surroundings of each sport and found where the light falls on the spectrum.

For example, the light coming into your lenses on a golf course is very different to what you see when you’re on a snowy slope skiing. This prompted Oakley to create different lenses for different conditions so you always have the best vision.

You should note that some PRIZM lenses are polarized, but some aren’t. Generally, those that are designed for sports in which you may need glare reduction—road running, kayaking, snowboarding, etc—are polarized, but those for other sports aren’t.

Do PRIZM Lenses Have UV Protection?

All PRIZM lenses—both polarized and non-polarized—come with comprehensive built-in UV protection.

These lenses block 100% of both UVA and UVB rays. They also block UVC and blue light up to 400 nanometers, so your eyes will be very well-protected when wearing them.

Which Is Better, PRIZM or Polarized Sunglasses?

PRIZM and polarized lenses are both more pricey than regular sunglass lenses, so if you’re already planning on spending some money on excellent glasses, they’re both great choices.

However, ultimately it depends on your needs and the conditions in which you’re planning to use them.

For running on the road, polarized lenses are worth the buy to reduce eye fatigue and protect you from glare. For running on the trail, polarized lenses are probably not worth the price.

But if you’re already expecting to spend a bit, it’s worthwhile choosing PRIZM lenses. They are made specifically for your sport and most of them come in both polarized and non-polarized. Here are your running-related choices:

  • Road PRIZM Lenses: Amplify dark spots like potholes for your safety.
  • Trail PRIZM Lenses: Increase green color to contrast better between your path and the surrounding forest.

If you play other sports, you may want to get a pair of Oakley sunglasses with interchangeable lenses and choose the appropriate ones:

  • Golf PRIZM Lenses: Enhance color, making it easier to spot the difference between fairway and the green and see your ball more easily.
  • Baseball PRIZM Lenses: Infield and outfield options with improved contrast to make the ball stand out against the background.
  • Fishing PRIZM Lenses: Come in both deep water and shallow water options, with different color tints. Polarized to reduce glare off the water.
  • Ski & Snowboard PRIZM Lenses: Oakley goggles reduce glare to prevent snow blindness and increase contrast so you can see more than just a great white space in front of you.
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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.