Running is one of the most popular forms of exercise, with its low barrier to entry and myriad health benefits. But when you factor in all the expensive accessories, training plans, and high-dollar fitness challenges that have gained popularity in recent years, this low-cost sport can start to get mighty pricey. From $600 GPS watches to $175 track jackets, running sometimes seems less like the everyman’s exercise and more like a sport reserved for millionaires. What’s a frugal health nut to do?
Luckily, running doesn’t have to break the bank. By thinking creatively and following these tips, you can keep running affordable.
How to Keep Your Running Costs Down
1. Avoid Costly Gadgets
Gone are the days when you had to guess at how far you’d run or needed a stopwatch and some mental math to figure out your pace. If you want to track your speed and distance now, and a pricey watch isn’t in your budget, there are many other ways to use technology that won’t cost a fortune.
These days, your smartphone can do almost anything, including taking the place of a fancy GPS watch. Apps such as Runkeeper, Strava, and Endomondo have free as well as paid versions. Strava especially is popular for its “challenges” in which users can participate for a chance to earn free stuff. Endomondo’s free version has all the features you could want, including one that allows you to see when friends with the app are out exercising and even send them notes of encouragement.
Most of these GPS apps record your pace, distance, time, and other useful metrics just like fancy watches do. Several of them even allow you to create a profile with your height and weight, which the app can then use to estimate how many calories you burned while you were exercising.
In addition to running, these apps have many other distance-based exercise modes to choose from, so you can use them to track your activity while doing things such as biking, hiking, walking, and kayaking. Several of them offer you the option to measure your workout activity from month to month and get updates on your progress. Endomondo, for example, will tell you when the 5K distance you’ve just completed is your fastest time this year or when you hit your longest-distance workout for the month.
With this many features on a free app, why bother paying for a fancy watch?
2. Skip the Gym Membership
If you like the idea of running for its social aspect, consider joining a local running club to connect with other runners in your area instead of paying for a pricey gym membership.
The Pittsburgh-based group I’m a member of, Steel City Road Runners, costs a mere $50 per year and offers membership perks such as guided training runs all over the city most days of the week, fun runs on the weekends, and weekly coached speed workouts at a nearby track. Membership to these kinds of clubs also often includes discount codes and early sign-up opportunities for races, extra swag or fuel, and access to member tents – which have better bathrooms and snacks – at local races.
If joining a running club isn’t in your budget, see if there’s a running shoe store in town that offers free group runs. There’s a Fleet Feet down the street from me that organizes free runs on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings and an Athleta offering monthly neighborhood runs that are free and open to anyone, whether or not you buy any of their merchandise.
If what you want is a person or group of people to keep you accountable, consider starting a neighborhood group of your own. Put out a call on Nextdoor, the free app that verifies addresses and connects you with your neighbors, to see if anyone nearby is a runner looking for a buddy. Just having someone else to keep you motivated may work better than a pricey gym membership.
One now-famous example of this kind of accountability at work is the November Project, which was started by two friends in Boston who wanted to keep each other motivated for their workouts throughout the month of November. It now has over 300 sites around the world, and members meet every Thursday morning year-round to exercise together for free.
If your reason for a gym membership is to have a safe place to run, most neighborhood and public schools will let people exercise on their tracks for free, provided the school isn’t using them at the time. The university near where I live opens the football field and track to the public every evening at 6pm, and it’s well-lit and always has at least a few people around playing pickup soccer, walking, or running laps. Even in the dead of winter, the track is usually cleared of snow and ice enough for me to run a few miles without having to resort to a treadmill indoors.
Finally, if you still want a gym membership, see if your employer’s wellness benefits or health insurance policy will cover all, or even a portion of, a membership fee. If you have a wellness plan at work and it doesn’t cover this kind of expense, consider asking if it could.
3. Save Money on Races
There’s no doubt about it; having a race or fitness challenge to train for can be hugely motivating. It can also be prohibitively expensive.
The New York City Marathon entry fee, for example, was $295 for a U.S. resident in 2018, and that’s if you managed to get a spot, which many people didn’t. It’s a notoriously expensive race in a notoriously expensive city, but even if you manage to find a marathon for under $100, running a few races a year can add up. If you’re doing an obstacle course race or some other special event, those can be even pricier. Luckily, there are many ways to make these entrance fees more affordable.
For example, you can pick a race in a less expensive or closer city. Tempting as it might be to spend a few weeks training in Dubai for one of the winter marathons described here, stateside runners can surely find an alternative in Florida or Arizona.
Running a race in your hometown is the best way to reduce or eliminate travel and accommodation costs. If your hometown or neighborhood has a race you’re interested in running, consider volunteering to help work a packet pickup shift or other pre-race-day commitment in exchange for a free or discounted entry. One year when I lived in Chicago, I volunteered at a fuel and water stop for the Chicago Marathon and got unlimited bagels, a free jacket, and a free entry into a neighborhood 5K put on by the same company on a different date. I also had the pleasure of cheering on an amazing group of runners just down the street from my apartment.
When you’re signing up for a race online, do a quick search for race discounts. Many races offer registration discount codes on sites like Groupon or through other promotions, and a simple search could save you a few bucks at sign-up. Just type the name of the race and “coupon” or “discount code” into the search engine and see what comes up.
If you have your eye on a specific race, make a note on your calendar for the day the race sign-up opens, because many races offer early bird discounts. For example, I signed up for the Pittsburgh Marathon on the day registration opened and paid half the usual registration fee, which was a bargain at $75 for 26.2 miles. If you’re running a race with friends or family members, see if there’s a group discount. If there isn’t, consider emailing the race organizer to ask for one.
In a similar vein, if you want to run a race but don’t need all the associated swag that often comes standard – such as a t-shirt, mug, or finisher’s medal – see if there’s a “race only” discounted fee. If there isn’t, ask for one or give feedback that you’d like to see that option in the future. It can often save you $5 to 15 off a race registration fee, and it means that you won’t take home a bunch of swag you’re not interested in keeping.
Finally, check to see if your employer offers an employee run group or discount for a local race. Many do, especially if a number of employees are registering for the race together or if it’s for a charity or cause.
4. Use a Free Training Plan
There are almost as many training plans out there as there are types of runners. Many of these plans, for distances from a 5K to a 50K, come at a price. However, there are plenty of free training plans you can access via smartphone apps or by downloading and printing a schedule off the Internet and taping it to your refrigerator. For example, the Couch to 5K program, which is designed for beginner runners, has a popular and much-lauded free app to help you train for a 5K race.
If you’re looking for a training program for longer distances or more advanced runners, I swear by Hal Higdon, a co-founder of the Road Runners Club of America who has been running for far longer than I’ve been alive. He has a set of free training plans for all distances and all types of runners, from people who just want to make it across the finish line to those who are aiming for a Boston-qualifying time. There’s no need to buy a training plan when there are so many great free options out there.
5. Save on Shoes
One of the things I always tell people who are interested in starting a running regimen is to get fitted for shoes by a professional at least once. Running in poorly made or ill-fitting shoes can lead to several problems, from minor discouraging discomfort to severe injuries that require medical intervention. Don’t skimp on shoes.
However, this doesn’t mean you have to spend hundreds of dollars a year on the latest models from popular brands. If you’re new to running, see if there’s a running store near you that can take a look at your gait and evaluate what kind of shoe will work best for you. Some runners supinate, which means that when they run, they land on the outside of their feet and may require a stabilizing shoe, depending on how far and frequently they’re planning to run. Some runners have a neutral gait and have more options to play around with new styles and fads. Heavier runners might need shoes that can stand up to wear and tear better, and runners looking for speed will probably want to run in a lighter sprinter shoe.
It’s hard to self-diagnose your stride and the best shoe for your specific circumstance, so leave it to the pros if you’re new to running. Most running shoe stores have a treadmill or indoor track for you to test shoes on, and many of them will let you return or exchange shoes after you’ve worn them a few times if they’re not a good match after all. So do many online shoe and boot specialists; Lowa, whose Renegade GTX is a trail walker’s dream, allows returns within 60 days of purchase. For your first pair of shoes, go to a running store or e-tailer, try a bunch of different options, and figure out which shoe is the best one for you.
Once you know for sure what shoe you like, you can look online at clearance sales or on sites like Amazon or Shoekicker to find your next pair at a discount. Shoe companies “update” their models at least every year, which means that if you fall in love with a shoe, they will probably change it and break your heart. Scouring the Internet for a pair or two of last year’s shoes on clearance will help soften the blow to your feelings and your wallet. I almost always buy the model from a year or two ago on deep clearance – sometimes multiple pairs if they’re available at a great price – rather than buying the latest and most expensive version from the brand as soon as it comes out.
Lastly, try to make the shoes you have last longer and don’t replace running shoes earlier than you need to. Experts recommend that you replace your shoes every 300 to 500 miles, which means that if you’re running about 15 miles a week, you should get at least 5 to 6 months out of your shoes. If you’re on the lighter side or mainly running on a treadmill or track, you may be able to eke out a bit more mileage; if you’re a heavier runner or a significant pronator or supinator, you may need to change your shoes more often. When the tread looks especially worn or if your knees or hips start to hurt, it might be time to change your shoes.
You should also make sure you’re taking good care of your shoes so they don’t wear out faster than they need to. Don’t wear your shoes for anything other than running. Going to the park with your kids or running errands around town are activities for leisure shoes or less expensive, non-specialized athletic sneakers, not your running shoes. Even if all you do is walk around the house in them, you’re still wearing out the cushioning, sole, and glue.
Second, when you’re not running in them, store your shoes in a cool, dry place where they can air out between runs. Don’t toss them in the trunk of your car or keep them in a plastic bag in your closet, or they’ll start to smell funny and the materials in them will degrade more quickly.
Finally, never put your shoes in the washing machine or dryer. If you must clean them off, do so gently by hand and then let them air dry. The high, dry heat in dryers is murder on shoes.
6. Save on Activewear and Clothing
Unlike running shoes, running clothes don’t need to be fit by a professional. You can run in whatever feels comfortable as long as you avoid heavy cotton, which can trap moisture and lead to chafing. You don’t need the latest and most fashionable duds for running – you’re just going to be sweating in them, after all – and if you take care of your running clothes, they can last for ages. I have much-loved running shorts that have never been put in the dryer and are going on 10 years old.
If you’re in the market for some new running clothes, scour the clearance sales of major retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods or Academy Sports and look for synthetic fabrics that will wick moisture away from your skin while you’re working out. These are often called “tech” fabric or go by brand names such as Dri-Fit.
You can also buy clothing offseason. Once retailers transition to fall and winter apparel, the short-sleeve tech fabric shirts and shorts they sold all summer will be on clearance, and you can snap them up for a song. If you’re a savvy secondhand shopper, you can also get good deals on workout gear from thrift or consignment stores. It’s a smart way to buy those high-end and expensive brands for a much more palatable price.
Once you have a running wardrobe, take care of your workout clothes. The unique synthetic fabric they’re made out of should not be put in the dryer. The elastic in socks and sports bras especially will break down much faster if they’re exposed to high heat, so wash them in cold water and hang them up to dry.
Finally, just as running shoes will wear out faster if you wear them for other activities, so will running clothes. If you reserve them only for running and wear other stuff for yard work, washing the car, and cleaning the house, they’ll last much longer and you won’t have to spend money to replace them as often.
7. Stream Free Listening Materials
Most runners like to listen to music or podcasts while they run, but gone are the days when you had to make a playlist and download it to your iPod before you headed out for a run. Now, you can stream almost anything from your phone easily and instantly. There are tons of places these days to find music for free on your phone. Skip the expensive subscription fees and listen to the free version of any number of popular options, such as Pandora and Spotify. The tradeoff is that you’ll have to listen to ads, but it may be worth it when you realize how much money you’re saving each month. If you have an Amazon Prime membership, then you will have access to Amazon Music where you’ll be able to create your own running playlist.
If you’re not into listening to music when you run but want something to keep you occupied, consider downloading podcasts instead. Almost all of the most popular options are free, and many of them are so engrossing, you’ll soon forget what your feet are doing and get lost in listening to the story.
8. Avoid Unnecessary Expenses
There is no end to the stuff that advertisers will tell you is an absolute necessity to begin a running routine or train for a race. However, somewhere to run and something to run in are all you really need to get started.
If you’re training for a specific event or race, you may need to add some extra nutrition into your routine slowly, but this also doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. For example, when you’re preparing for a marathon and your training runs are starting to get into the double digits, you may need to carry sports gels or energy bars with you to eat on your run so you have enough calories to burn to keep your body going. These can be expensive if you buy them one by one, but once you know what you like and what works well, you can save money by ordering them in bulk. You can also experiment with cheaper options during your training runs, such as jelly beans or fruit snacks instead of expensive gels. Even honey or peanut butter packets may do the trick.
The same reasoning goes for “recovery drinks” like Gatorade or Muscle Milk. Unless you’re running outside in sweltering conditions and losing tons of water and electrolytes through sweat, you probably don’t need to chug a sports drink after every workout. In fact, doing so can be counterproductive because sports drinks are often full of sugar as well as their much-touted electrolytes. Instead, drink water and eat something that will naturally replenish any electrolytes you may have lost, such as a bagel with some peanut butter, a banana, or a salty meal like soup. Skip the sports drinks, and you’ll avoid the extra cost and the extra calories.
9. Run Smart to Stay Injury-Free
With health care costs on the rise, staying injury-free and avoiding costly doctors visits and medical procedures is a crucial part of keeping running affordable. If you’re just beginning a training plan, go slow so you don’t pull or strain a muscle by overusing it. You may feel energetic and enthusiastic, but remind yourself that doing too much too soon is a good way to get sidelined by an injury.
When you do feel an unusual ache or pain, follow the RICE method – which stands for “rest, ice, compression, and elevation” – to nip a developing injury in the bud. Doctors appointments, X-rays, and physical therapy can be expensive, and doing everything you can to avoid them will help keep running affordable.
One way to combat injuries is to pay attention to cross-training in addition to running. Running involves very repetitive motion. It uses the same small sets of muscles to do an action over and over again without much variation, which is why it’s important to do other forms of exercise in addition to running. That can include swimming, cycling, yoga, or weight training – anything that utilizes different muscles from running. Cross-training is important because it gives your body a rest from that repetitive motion and helps you develop other muscles. Especially if you’re new to running, cross-training can help you continue to strengthen your core, back, legs, and feet even on the days you’re not running.
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of yoga, stretching, and foam rolling. Running can sometimes tighten your hamstrings or back muscles, which can lead to injuries. Stretching and strengthening your muscles will help combat muscle tightness and keep injuries at bay. Incorporate yoga into your fitness routine for cross-training days, and you’ll see the benefits of increased flexibility and improved running.
Foam rolling, which is essentially giving yourself a deep-tissue massage by rolling parts of your body over a cylindrical piece of firm foam, is a great way to break up scar tissue, increase circulation to sore muscles and aid in their repair, and help you work out knots and tender spots. Foam rollers, which usually cost less than $10 online, are one accessory that’s worth buying if you’re a runner. The savings you can realize by running injury-free make up for the modest one-time cost.
Although there are numerous gadgets, apparel, and services out there claiming to be essential for running, you don’t need a bunch of expensive stuff to run. After all, Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile wearing home-sharpened track spikes and a simple white running singlet. He certainly didn’t have a GPS watch, the newest waterproof running jacket, or a fancy recovery drink waiting for him at the finish line.