Tips for Running on the Cheap

Running on the CheapWhen I started running, I was a single mom living on my teacher’s salary during the Great Recession. Let’s just say there were many grocery store trips where I decided my favorite feta cheese was too expensive. My running gear investments included a pair of shoes and a sports bra. One of the greatest things about running is that you don’t need a bunch of super-expensive gear or instructor-led classes to get your run done. When I started, it was a relatively cheap hobby and even now when I’m up to seventy mile weeks it still costs me less than a monthly gym-fee to maintain.

However, at this level running this cheaply is not easy. Eight years into this hobby/lifestyle/addiction the costs can quickly add up. Between run-cations, race entries, high-tech gear, fancy outfits, medical costs, and shoes, shoes and more shoes, running can get really expensive really quickly.

Additionally, like everything in our consumer culture, there is an endless amount of running gear cleverly marketed to convince us that we need that shiny new product to run better. Although I don’t need to worry about splurging on the feta anymore, I am a cheapskate who is turned off by the running catalogs that tell me life just isn’t worth living without a $90 sheer color-block tank. Whether you’re a cheapskate, on a tight budget, or simply looking for a way to spend less on running, here are my tried and true tips for running on the cheap.

SHOES

Do pay premium for the most important part of your running gear, your shoes. When searching for the right make and model, start with your local running store where you may or may not (see GO LOCAL below) pay a premium for a knowledgable salesperson to fit you. However, once you know what make and model works for you, you can likely find it at a discount online. The site Shoekicker can guide you to the cheapest deal online, but I’ve also found some epic deals on the brand’s own site or non-running sites like DSW. Sign-up for your favorite brand’s email newsletter to receive notifications of sales.

New models tend to come out in the beginning of the year, which means right before that is when you might find steep discounts on the slightly stale model. Salty, for instance, counts on stocking up on running shoes around Christmas when they’re often offered at a steep discount. Any time of the year, look for last season’s version of your shoe for big savings. And for goodness sake, if you find a particularly great deal, buy in bulk because they go fast, especially if you have an average sized foot. I got four pairs of my $120 shoes for $50 each once. And go by feel as far as how many miles they’ll take rather than what they say they’ll get you; my shoes say they’re designed for 250-300 miles, but I routinely put 500-600 on mine. 

DISCOUNT STORES

Shop stores like TJ Maxx or Ross; they have a huge selection of sportswear, often name-brand and super cheap. I have a $14 bra and $4 shorts that I love from TJ Maxx. Costco, Target, Old Navy, and H&M all sell their brand of gear for lower cost and are still decent quality. What I’ve found from owning a mix of name-brand and random-brand running gear is that the brand or price does not always determine the most comfortable, my favorite, or longest-lasting gear.

GO LOCAL

Become friends with your local running store. I’ve got an on-going discount at mine, occasionally get left-over race shirts for free, and hear about other opportunities to get involved with my local running community. Networking leads to friends and money-savings! Your local running store might also sponsor a race team; consider joining for the team community, the store discount, and possibly the free swag. Going local also includes racing local for cheaper entry fees and shopping the Goodwill for left-over race shirts that didn’t get claimed.

FREE STUFF/GET PAID

Become a gear-tester! I currently do short- and long-term shoe testing for Nike; I found out about the short-term opportunity from my local running store, then the Nike rep asked me to apply for a long-term spot. I get a gift certificate to my local store for running a mile in three versions of a prototype and giving my opinion of them. For long-term testing, I have to run 300 miles within two months in a pair of prototypes, keep training logs and track wear, and answer surveys. This basically gets me the use of a free pair of shoes for several months, plus the added bonus of feeling like a V.I.P. BrooksNew Balance, and most likely your favorite brand, have testing applications available online.

GIFTS

Let people in your life know you’ll always appreciate running gear for gifts for your birthday and holidays. (Thank you in-laws for the tights, tank, and neon long-sleeve for Christmas this year!)

REWARDS

Reserve spendy purchases as rewards for yourself, like after signing up for a big race or achieving a PR. I liken shopping for a big race like prom dress shopping.

Vinegar and baking soda are possibly the best investments in your running you can make.
Vinegar and baking soda are possibly the best investments in your running you can make.

EXTEND

Take care of your gear! Don’t let it sit in a forgotten swampy pile in the trunk of your car. After your workout, immediately hang that running gear to dry if it’s going to be a while before you wash it or, better yet, wash it right away. Former Saltine, Saffron, writes a fabulous step-by-step guide to using  good ol’ vinegar and baking soda to keep your nastiest gear smelling fresh. Seriously, it WORKS even for the oldest, foulest tech fabric you own.

MINIMIZE

There is a ton of extraneous gear out there you don’t need. Remember those catalogs? Before you splurge on something, think about whether you really need it.

Case in point: I live in Western Oregon where it is WET much of the year and I run in all types of rain from heavy mist to precipitation best described as an atmospheric river, yet I do not own a running rain jacket, which often cost $100 or more. I am sure some will argue with me on this, but I’ve found that layering a long-sleeve or two over a tank and wearing a brimmed running cap actually works just fine, fine enough that I’ve never thought about investing in a jacket.

I also have never owned a pair of running gloves; layering a couple of cheap stretchy gloves with a hand-warmer tucked in on seriously cold days works great. Plus, if I lose a glove? Big deal. There went $0.99!

What are items you splurge on? Any other tips for saving money? 

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I'm an elementary P.E. teacher with a long-term, ongoing marathon addiction.The next big goal? Keeping up my BQ streak while aiming for a 3:10! I write about the not-so-glamorous side of running and fitting in serious training with a family while staying sane(ish).

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29 comments

  1. Couldn’t resist mentioning my cheap-ass trick for true wimps who hate the cold: socks as mittens. Those are the only things that will keep my hands warm in zero degree weather, and I get Raynauds as well. Layer ‘um up when needed!
    Also, I am going to join the thrifty brags and tout some running clothes I’ve had since junior year of high school. I’m now 32 with two kids! Oh yeahhh…16 years, blue Nike spandex leggings. Half my life. ::sentimental tear:: We spent more time sweating against each other than all my boyfriends and husband combined.

    1. Great idea with the socks for mittens! When it is finally time to give up those leggings you’ll have to have a funeral, or a celebration of life, or something :)

  2. For anyone who generally wears an adult small, often times children’s large and x large clothing fits the same. I’m short though and don’t have much going on up top. I just know I have saved a ton of money on top name gear shopping in the children’s section. It is even more of a perk if you hit up the children’s section at tj maxx or marshals.

    1. That is so smart! I could shop in the girls’ section for shirts.. and training bras probably! HA! My sister gets kids running shoes– and her foot isn’t even freakishly small (7.5).

  3. I loooooovvvvveeee racing, so I’m always looking for cheap races. See if volunteering will get you discounted for free entries. If you live in the NYC area, NYC Runs has a program where volunteering at a race gets you $25 credit for one of their races. I’ve done blogging, social media, & PR work in exchange for free entries. Being a member of a running club gets me discounted entries for the races that my club puts on.

    NYRR has a program for runners who need some financial help. They offer complimentary race entries for some of the races that they host. You can read more here: http://www.nyrr.org/race-free

  4. For cold weather running, I do splurge a little- at least on gloves and good quality cold weather tights. Since I don’t run TONS outside in the winter, my cold weather tights last forever. I have had the same pair of Nike clearance fleece lined tights for 4 years now. My husband’s greatest joy in life is finding good deals, so he is always finding gear for me on super clearance. I am never without cases of GU, jugs of protein powder, hydration tabs, and backup shoes. Most birthdays and holiday gifts are running gear too :) Oh and the socks I wear (FitSok) are regularly given out at a few of our local races as part of the swag- so I rarely have to pay actual money for more socks!

      1. Smartwool are great too! I can’t afford those enough to be in heavy rotation though. LOL. I pretty much exclusively wear running socks in my life. I can’t remember the last time I had to wear non-running socks!

  5. I don’t like your idea to go window shopping at the local store, and then going online to purchase it. I get it, there’s a discount. But you are getting a service, as you noted, from a knowledgeable local source. You redeemed yourself in part by suggesting to become friends with the store, but AFTER you planted the seed to window shop. As you suggested, “last year” models often go on sale too, and that also happens at the retailer. I’ll grant you a middle ground – buy your first pair at the store. If you want to then buy your duplicates/hoards online, go ahead.

    1. I think she was saying go and get your new models at the store but after that go on line for discounts. Also, though, I’m not sure there is a moral imperative to buy shoes from a local running store. I mean if I’m getting incredible service then I’ll happily pay for that, but not simply because I’m supposed to because I dont think I am supposed to. Isn’t it on the store to sell their services and things like that to us? That being said I shop at LRSs often for a variety of reasons but none of them is out of a sense of duty. I shop when their premium is worth paying to he whatever reason.

    2. I definitely didn’t mean go get fitted/customer service and window shop at your local place and then purchase online instead. I always go to my local place for my initial fitting/pair, but once I know exactly what I like, I go for cost-savings online.

  6. My biggest expense is shoes and race registrations. I find that 300-400 miles is all I’m going to comfortably get out of a pair, but purchasing online I find a lot of discounts. I love Road Runner Sports. And I limit myself to one race a year where I have to also book a motel, but I sign up for local taxes, too. A current series I’m in cost $200 and includes a 9 mile race, a half, a 10k, an 8k, 5k trail run, 5k mud run, and two additional 5ks. And at the end of the year, the three top points qualifiers win prizes ? Found a gaitor for $13 at Marshalls the day before the 9 mile race (it was 21 degrees with 14 mph winds) – SCORE!

  7. Never heard that bit about bras; yikes, if I heeded that advice I would have NO bras. TJ Maxx is the only place I shop for running clothes. I’ve found the best-fitting, most stylish running clothes there for 75% less than catalogs or regular retail stores. AND you can sometimes find other running gear there too (LED armbands, waist pack.)

  8. Sounds lame…but I splurge on race registration. I usually race once or twice a year – that’s about all I can stomach, money-wise. I hate how much it costs! Of course, this only works if you like training a lot better than racing. It would be harder for someone who loved competition to skip racing. I pretty much detest racing. But for a long time I felt like I was “supposed” to pony up and race (‘cuz that’s what “real” runners do, right…?) Once I figured out that I don’t HAVE to race if I don’t WANT to, I felt less pressure to sign up and pay.

    1. I only run a few races each year too (three in 2016, though two were spendy– Napa Valley Marathon & NYC). I usually try to double-dip with race destinations as vacations, too. Napa was amazing.

  9. I live in Ohio and will run in some very cold temps and have Raynauds. Until I invested in expensive cold weather gear it was painful for me to run in <20 degrees. I buy most of my other gear at Target

    1. I don’t generally splurge on clothes or shoes, but I splurge on maintaining running accessibility – so I’ve spent a ton on things like a nice treadmill for my basement (gently used but still spendy), two running strollers (a single and a double Bob ironman with lots of accessories) and a membership at our Y. Totally reasonable to splurge on things that enable running over things that simply make it minimally more comfortable, etc … Or at least that’s what I tell my husband ;)

      1. Yes, I have a treadmill too– not a crazy expensive one (I think we got it on a Black Friday for $650), but my stroller that is still going strong with literally thousands of miles on it, never had even a flat tire, is a $70 second-hand BabyTrend Expedition I got at a used sporting goods store. It clearly had been purchased and then sat in a garage, all dusty, but the tires still had those nubs on them.

  10. I do the same with big races, and like to treat myself to something new for them too. For the NYC Marathon I found a cheap tank at TJ Maxx, painted my name on it and voilá: it is now my favorite running top. It was $7!

    The one thing I’d add is that whoever said your bra shouldn’t have a birthday is full of ?, or put hers in the dryer. Hanging them vastly extends the life of bras, simply because high heat is no good for elastic. In fact, I hang dry all my best stuff and dry all my other gear on low heat. Tech fabric is made to dry fast anyway!

    1. Rules like that bra birthday nonsense are made to undermine consumers confidence in their abilities to know whether a product is working for them. You know how long you should keep a bra? As long as it works for you. For me that means I have some that are over 10 years old! And while I might not run in those without a shirt they’re freaking fine and didn’t spontaneously stop working after 12 months.

      1. But if you’re a fuller size and you wear them frequently, there’s zero chance of a bra functioning for more than 2 years. Plus, your size can change which is another reason to upgrade and phase out older styles. But yes, if it’s working, keep it.

        1. Excellent point! It’s easy for the “B on a good day” gal to dismiss this rule, but if you’re bra actually needs to support some serious boobage the rule is much more meaningful! Thanks Colleena :)