Readers Roundtable: Why Is Running a Rich People Sport?

running on a budgetBoutique spinning, yoga, and barre classes are definitely for the 1%. Running is different; all you need to run is a pair of trainers, a t-shirt and some cut-off sweatpants, right?

Maybe not. Statistics show that it’s not the lower classes who are flocking to the tracks and the trails. From $100 capri tights to race fees that break many a middle-class bank, the evidence is everywhere that running is for the relatively upper crust. So let’s talk about it.

Why is running a sport for the relatively wealthy? Should running be made more accessible to those less affluent? If so, how? 

For more on this and other interesting/thought-provoking/hilarious topics, join us Mondays at 8:00 p.m. EDT on Twitter for #SaltyChat!

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. This is something that bothers me on and off. Being someone who is on the lower income end and who is also incredibly frugal, I get really frustrated when I desperately need something (e.g., running tights for this cold weather), but can’t find the item within my budget. When I first started running, I LOVED the simplicity of it! I didn’t need a gym membership or expensive equipment, and no need to drive anywhere. All I needed was a pair of shoes, a sports bra, some cheap workout pants, a plain old cotton t-shirt, and the road. And I ran relatively cheaply for many years, but in the last few years, I began to increase my distances a lot and chafing became a huge and really painful problem. I decided to start investing, little by little, in better gear. Luckily, good running clothes seem to last a long time (but so expensive!). If I had a family, there is no way I would be able to afford running. The family thing will have to wait until after grad school…

    I’m not sure how this sport could be made more accessible. I read an article from about how much it costs to make a running shoe, and it seems shoes are pretty fairly priced. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why clothes and gear cost so much! Why does a 10oz. handheld water bottle cost $20? (there must be a reason!) But then again, it’s so easy to carry when I’m running, and so specifically made for running comfort, that I wouldn’t want to use anything else. I don’t know if companies could create an initiative to involve less affluent individuals in running, maybe by offering major discounts based on income (maybe some already do). I’m guessing there are ways to buy used gear (though shoes would be a bit more difficult here).

    I truly believe that if a person wants to run, they should be able to, no matter their income! Running is such a gift!

    1. I’m so glad you’re able to make it work! Much of what’s sold as necessities for running are not necessities. I wonder how many people don’t start running because they see people decked out in wire less headphones, expensive clothes and shoes, fuel belts, GPS watches and assume they can’t afford to! I feel lucky that when I first ran as a high school student, I wore cotton shirts and cut-off flannel pajama pants. So when I started back as an adult right after law school when I was faced with a mountain of debt, I just threw on what I had, bought some new shoes on sale and went. Maybe I looked dumb, but oh well!

    2. So…Just to let you know, my running tights are from Wal-mart and they were $12. They’re not awesome, but they’re 3 years old and going strong, so maybe check Wal-mart out!

  2. I agree with Becky. I also think that it depends on where you live and what the point of running is for you. For example, those that live in colder climates might need to spend more for winter running gear.

    To be honest, please shoot me if I ever spend $100 on any running gear other than sneakers (and even those I ask my running store for older editions of shoes so they are cheaper and also my feet are used to them). I am all for cotton tees and gym shorts or even just a bra.

    I also shop at thrift stores for a lot of those things (consignment stores, not the salvo) which makes it cheaper.

    Concerning goals, if your goal is to just run for fitness and fun or stress relief, you can run fewer miles, making it easier on your shoes. They will last longer and you also can get away with shoes that aren’t exactly right for your feet. Not promoting injury here, but when I started running, I bought cheaper shoes online and never had injuries. As I got more serious and ran more, shoes became more important, but not for the everyday runner.

    Just my thoughts!

    1. When I started back running, I wore thin wool dress sweaters I bought at the thrift store as a base layer! I wore cheap polyester sweat pants I bought at Target. I probably looked like a bag lady, but it did the trick 🙂

  3. Target’s C9 Champion gear is on the lower end of expense, but I’ve found their quality to be just as good as more pricey stuff. Their leggings (@$25), paired with an inexpensive, silk-weight pair of long underwear, get me through the cold (I just ran yesterday in 15*F in that combo and was plenty warm). I could never get myself to spend $50-100 on a pair of leggings.

    1. I’ll second Target, and it’s definitely where I got a lot of my starter gear. Then I started working at a running store, and I’m still running in free or really, really cheap stuff I got during my five years there. (Totally worth working a couple shifts a week at one for the discounts!)

    2. Agree it’s possible to run just fine in gear that doesn’t cost $200 per outfit! TJ maxx and Marshall’s have always been good sources of lower priced tops and tights for me.

      unfortunately the other reasons for class divide in running have to do with having the time, energy, and safe space to run (as outlined in the article mango linked below) – far more difficult problems to solve.

    3. +3 on Target, a lot of my starter stuff was from there and still grab things when I see them on sale too (the Cartwheel app a lot of times gives discount for the C9 line on top of the sale prices…huge help!)

  4. Hell no! I don’t know why anyone thinks they need ALL the expensive stuff to run. I still use and run in stuff I bought 9 years ago. If you get caught up in all the hype that you see runners using then yes, you will feel like you can’t run without that garmin that costs $300 and the LULU tights that are $90. But guess what, they’re aren’t going to make you run faster or better. I go out running and look like Sylvester Stallone from Rocky. IDGAF- it’s not the clothes or the shoes that make the runner. Now race fees are another story. If it’s not in your budget it’s not in your budget! Running doesn’t always have to be about signing up for races. I hate racing. I hate wasting my money to race and get a stupid cotton tshirt for $30. This might be bad advice but here it goes; if there a race you want to run but can’t afford it, and you want to test your fitness, then just crash the race. ( I don’t need anyone to reprimand me so save that noise for someone else) just don’t go over the timing mat , don’t take the free shit that’s for the paid people and don’t be an asshole. I will over extend the life of my shoes until they are visibly junk. Poor people can run, just don’t get caught up in the hype.

    1. I would agree Margaret in the sense that the hype can be what really drives prices up etc.Social media, or even just being around other runners can influence decisions in many ways and make people feel like they NEED something more than they have when it really comes down to WANTING something more than you have (like Pumpkin said, once you’re past the initial spend of running- a lot becomes about wants). Learning when and when not to give into that (to fit your budget, or simply because you might realize something isn’t necessary) can take a lot of time, experience and will power but it can be done (I know I myself struggle with this at times).

      You’re right in that not everyone likes to race, wants to race, and should race (realistically, people tend to make their budget work around running, when it should be making running fit in your budget- but that’s coming from me the person who works in finance). I think that is the point of all of this discussion though- What about running is important to you? What are you willing to spend money on? What are you willing to cut back on, or save on? For you, that means not racing. For someone else who loves racing, it might mean really being frugal on clothing, finding sales, older model shoes etc to save money to actually enter a race. There doesn’t need to be any judgement on who wants to spend money on what- but it’s definitely important to realize that it can be done on a lower budget.

      Then there is also the great point Chicory made- about trying to find ways to make it more accessible. It’s not just about race fee’s and gear. It can really come down to much larger things like safety, resources, and time. Definitely makes me think about what I can do in my community to help make it so people feel more free to run, or able to run without worry.

      1. Well, I had to condition myself to not want to race as much. My husband works a swing shift and they are 12 hour shifts. He does work weekends and that’s when races take place. Initially I was so sad that I couldn’t race ( I have 3 small kids) so there that. I was a single mom for a long time and lived in a not so great part of the city. If I ran at 5am, when all the pimps and hookers, and drug addicts were still out, I just really paid attention to my surroundings, no music and gave my oldest daughter the exact route I was running ( in case I didn’t make it back home) that’s me and I was obsessed with getting my runs in. I don’t have nannies and babysitters to ask for help. I’m running Boston this year, and yes, it’s expensive but it’s probably the only race I’ll do with the exception of Girls with Sole in Cleveland . We don’t have the disposable income right now and I’m fine with it (now) its like anything else in life, if you want something, maybe you can’t have it now but save up and next time. Running is very important to me and i had to learn that doing a race is what makes me a runner, running makes me a runner, rich or poor.

        1. I think you hit on a great point here that time to run, a place to run, and the arrangements that make it possible are hidden costs of running that go beyond gear.

  5. It’s not just gear – it’s also the cost of entering and travelling to races! For time and cost reasons, I only race once or twice a year. In 2015 I raced exactly once (ok, I also had a baby, and the race was a 5k). Last year it was thrice. This year, I’m probably only going to race twice. Unless you’re getting comped/ elite entries, or actually winning enough to offset the cost of racing, doing a lot of races indicates you have the means and leisure time to make racing a priority.

    You can run with a group, but there’s also the cost and time factor of getting to group meetups, and sometimes a small club fee to be paid.

    And finally, there’s the cost and time factor of gaining access to safe/ warm places to work out. I shared this on social media a couple of days ago: You can run in the street, but you’ll need warm and reflective gear.

    I agree there are definitely places to cut back in a running budget: apart from sports bras and shoes, you can accumulate clothing slowly and keep it for years (but oh such a tension for me between cheap clothes and ethically/ locally made!); the internet is a great source of guidance for training plans, and memberships at the local Y are probably the most cost-effective ones I’ve found. I wonder if any clubs have income-based discounts (eg for grad students)?

  6. hink the same thing can happen with any hobby. You can do a lot of things for very little money, but then the more you get into it, the more you want to spend on it. The same is true from sports to scrap booking. Think of it this way. Say you decide you would like to ride a bike in the park. You pick up a used huffy at a garage sale for 15 bucks and you happily ride your huffy everyday. Then one daya friend says “hey you want to take my more expensive bike for a spin” You feel bad, but you ride that other bike. You realize how much smoother the ride is and think wow I would ride my bike so much more if it was this comfortable. So you upgrade. Then you notice other bikers have water bottle holders and you think “that would allow me to go even farther” You start noticing the bikes that the super fast guys on the road have and before you know it, you are dropping a couple of grand on a new bike and some spandex at the local bike store. What happened? Wasn’t your huffy good enough? Well yes… and well, no…

  7. Sure, there are plenty of ways to be frugal about running. You can race less, buy less gear, whatever.

    But isn’t the issue that poorer people aren’t even considering running as something to do? Or exercise in general? If you’re a single mom working two jobs on minimum wage, the last thing you’re going to want to do with the little free time you have is workout (even if it would make your life better). And, like Mango said — even if you want to, if you’re lower-income, the areas you may have to run in might not be safe at all. And you likely can’t afford a gym, even if there is one close.

    I read the same article Mango shared above over the weekend and there’s a stunning statistic: “The poor get half as much exercise as the rich.” It’s not that running is a “rich people sport” (as we’ve shows above) — it’s that exercise is a luxury some people simply can’t afford for multiple reasons including time and resources.

    “This exercise gap is widening at a time when 45 percent of American youth don’t have parks, playground areas, community centers, or sidewalks and trails in their neighborhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (That average hides a lot of inequality and variation at the state and neighborhood level.) Less than forty percent of adults live within half a mile of a park.” (From the Vox article.)

    How do we make running, and exercise in general, more accessible? Encourage your city officials to increase the number of parks and recreational centers. If you’re a fitness instructor, donate your time to teach a class somewhere that doesn’t have a lot of access or might not have ever tried what you teach.

    And, support organizations like Girls on the Run (which offers programs in many low-income schools) or Back on My Feet, through your time, money or social influence, both of which utilize exercise as a way to affect greater life changes and inspire lifelong wellness.

  8. I agree with a lot of the above comments. We have to keep a pretty tight budget in our house, so in my 6 years of running I have learned to be a master of bargain shopping for my running gear. I very very rarely pay MSRP for any of my stuff. When I bought my Garmin, I purchased it with Amazon gift cards I got from my employer’s wellness incentive program. All of my shoes are last year’s model, and sometimes discount codes are applied on top of those. I buy a lot of my basic run tops when Target or Old Navy have sales. I do feel like I have to invest a little bit more in gear than someone who lives in a warmer climate, so I’m willing to pay a little bit more on really good winter tights, but even those I get on sale! It did take a lot more money when I first started running to build up my collection of gear, but I don’t find I have to replace items very often now (other than shoes). Most of my running purchases now are wants rather than needs.

    Race fees though. Ooof. I try to keep my races local (or within a few hours) and don’t tend to race a ton.

  9. I think you can make it a lot more expensive than it has to be, especially if you think you need (or if you want to have) the latest gear/electronics/accessories. Good sneakers and sports bra are pretty important and for me (I am not anywhere near “wealthy” not even close) it helps that I am “sponsored” by a local running store which helps in the shoe/sock department. I have to say I really like Nike clothes – the fit works really well for me – but I am super cheap when it comes to buying stuff for myself – yes, their stuff can be pricey, BUT the clearance section is fantastic and they often have 25% promo codes on clearance stuff (I just bought a pair of $120 running tights for around $65 – I run competitively, so $65 for a pair of tights that will get worn a lot is worth it to me). I own a GPS watch, but only because my family bought me one for Christmas a few years ago – I only use it if I’m running a workout or if I’m away from home and running somewhere new.

    I don’t pay for a gym membership, except when I was injured and could only swim/bike, but was able to get a month-to-month membership at an LA fitness that wasn’t too expensive, also many gyms like that run promotions. There is a great local fitness studio by me that I have gone to on and off – they offer discounts to teachers, students, military & law enforcement.

    As far as races – I would say that is the one area that gets expensive, even without travel depending on where you live/how often you race/etc. For me, a lot of times I can get into races in their “elite” field which covers anything from the race to entry to occasionally help with travel/hotel. When I first started running I would just do races that were local so travel/hotel wasn’t an issue.

    So yes, it can be expensive, but if you want to, you can make it inexpensive.

  10. I agree with the above comments! I have always firmly believed that you can be a runner, and a good one at that–for relatively cheap. I started out running in a cut-off t-shift and old gym shorts, and some basic running shoes. I had some of the greatest runs of my life in that gear! Running to me is about the simplicity of the run itself–being outside, in nature, with friends or solo, enjoying the movement. I actually get kind of annoyed when people around me are buying into all the crap out there that is supposed to enhance your running–the best running watches, the most expensive running tights, etc. I don’t think it’s about the gear, gear won’t make us faster. Training will, and hard work. It stinks that races cost so much sometimes, like Boston and the bigger marathons. I guess we just have to spend less on our fancy gear in order to make it to the bigger races? You can score some cheap running gear on ebay too (clothing).

  11. I can only say that running is far less expensive than triathlon!!! OMG! But, like everything else, there are ways to fit it into your budget if you really want to.

  12. Salty, I calculated out for my blog what running a local spring marathon cost. I took out some extra items and also had a bare minimum cost as well which came out to $970. Although i did include a monthly massage membership for $60 because I find this to be necessary body maintenance. This also included the money spent during the 4 months of training leading up to the race and did not include any travel expenses.

    1. +3 on the massage. I cut out some other spending to be able to afford to go every 3 weeks, which is what I seem to need. Cheaper than the PT later! Then again, I also get a discount because I teach at the gym where the spa is! (Genius.)

  13. I’ve always thought of running as a cheaper sport relative to most alternatives — biking, yoga, tennis, skiing, etc. I grew up 1 of 7 in Detroit and my teacher dad ran for fitness, so ultimately I did when I was too poor to join a gym.

    We are fortunate that technology has advanced to give us all this new gear that makes it easier to run, but really for the casual runner, you just need running shoes and the right clothes (loose/tight -what works for your body). Doing more intense workouts, racing, and maxing out distances — well that gets more complex, but again we make it so because we runners are competitive, don’t want to get injured, and want to perform well. I think the main issues are those that others already stated – time, access, and I’ll add one more, education. Many people may not even be aware of the benefits of running, exercise and general health. Just as many people lack basic financial education, we take for granted that the benefits of and importance of running (or regular exercise) are obvious and apply to all. I love Girls on the Run and other programs that promote this and wish there were more.

    I am blessed with greater than average financial flexibility to spend what I want on running/fitness. But even then, I don’t. Being raised poor, I try to buy my gear on sale and rarely pay full price. I hand dry everything and it lasts longer. If I had the time (and the laundry room), I’d hand wash it all. I always donate clothes that are too old/don’t fit to salvation army or goodwill, but I know that is not enough. I do like to travel to race and want to continue to do that more.

    I think big races need to consider discounted fees based on income or have special sponsors that fund these discounts. Or even ask those of us who can to consider “sponsoring” a low income entrant when we register. I know I’d be inclined to do that, especially if I had more information on how they run the program and who it helps. We need to promote running to all ages, races, classes. It is one of the cheaper athletic activities we can all do.

  14. So as experienced runners, we know how cheaply one can run. But even so, many in working and lower class communities do not run. It’s not the price of tights that’s preventing them from running likely – it’s something else. What is it?

    1. No support- and lack of knowledge. If it’s a single mom and she has no one to watch her kids then she isn’t going to go out. Also the hours of their job. Typically, they aren’t working 9-5 hours. I’m all in if we want brain storm and get something going for low income in Cleveland. I speak Spanish fluently so I could go to the Hispanic center where they assist the Latin community with welfare. I would go and ask questions and see what keeps them from working out.

      1. Yes! Lack of childcare is huge! Also lack of energy and just amorphous support. How many of these women would feel safe running outside where they live. I lived on the near east side of CLE when I was finishing up school and the cat calls were just … whoa. Some guy screamed “BITCH!” at me once. I was just running! Also stray dogs all over the place, crazy oblivious drivers. I also worry that people might misconstrue someone running in a “bad” neighborhood – that they must be a criminal or a threat if they’re running, especially if not in a runner costume (the high end clothes and gear that have become the runner stereotype over the years).

        1. I would guess time is a huge issue as well. If you’re working two jobs or having to take multiple buses to one job because you don’t have a car then you don’t really have the disposable time to go out and run. I’m sure there’s also a component of it not really being in your headspace or something to worry about either. The day-to-day concerns like money, food, safety are way more important than anything for fun or fitness.

    2. I think you’re right, Salty. Seems to me that who runs and who doesn’t is also linked to cultural patterns that have totally cemented as groups have responded to inequality–race, class, gender. So it’s not just a practical question (the “anyone who wants to run can” argument, which is valid in some ways, but inadequate too). It’s linked to the ways groups have formed practices to deal with different forms of marginalization. If you come up in a culture where physical activity has been linked to hard labor as a means of survival, you may not choose running to get your yeah-yeahs.

      I’m really inspired by the running communities that build up from this awareness and encourage running as a form of resisting social unevenness. Runners World sometimes features them. They’re out there!

    3. I think a lot of it comes down to what Chicory said- time and resources. If someone has limited time, or ability to run outside (weather, safety, time of day etc.)- if they start thinking of a way to be active- I would guess they are more likely to turn to DVD’s and things that they can do at home without leaving the house, and seem much less expensive (pay $15 for a DVD and use it over and over). Running/walking might not be the first thing they think of because logistically it could mean jumping through hoops (finding a treadmill, running at night /AM don’t seem feasible at first, no childcare etc etc).

      Basically, like Margaret said it’s lack of knowledge of how/why to incorporate running.

  15. I have some of the same running tights, shirts, coats, etc., that I wore years ago. Running for me is definitely not about any bling. One word -EBAY. When I need a new pair of running shoes – that is my go to source. I can get a new pair of running shoes (sometimes in the old model that I love way more than the newer model) for a fraction of the cost. I got my newest pair of running shoes, which were floor models and look/feel brand new for $23 dollars on Ebay. In a running store it would have cost me over $100. I am all about saving and trimming costs. The Garmin that I wear now I also got off of Ebay for a fraction of the cost. The race fee’s are what kills me. I wish they weren’t so expensive. I have my eyes on registering for the NYC marathon, but it is something that I have to talk over with my husband to make sure we can afford it. With all the extra travel expenses that go in to it, it can get to be too pricey.

  16. You say rich. I say affluent. In my estimates, I spend up to a few thousand dollar a year on this sport. That could be $1000 or more on shoes and gear (remember that at 3000 miles per year in shoes that barely go father than 3000 miles is ten pair of shoes). One injury scare with imaging could be a lot of cost regardless of if it my money or my insurance company’s. I travel to maybe one race a year, but others spend thousands to try to run Boston out of OCD habits. Yet nearly all of my running clothing is way old, and new stuff is stuff I bought on amazon clearance or found sitting on the sidewalk. I try to buy other people’s used shoes on ebay. They run the first ten miles in shoes and I run the next 300 (and how else do you find your shoes when they get canceled?)

    but running has nothing on Yoga. I’ve never seen a more expensive pair of pants. And the local yoga joint costs more than the most expensive gym in town (which by the way also has yoga in addition to treadmills, three pools, towels, and is open 24 hours.) Actually the yoga place is about 50% more expensive than that most expensive gym in town.

    Rich people do yoga. Running is the every man sport.

  17. Running is not a rich people sport. Triathlon, on the other hand, gets REALLY pricey… running shoes can get pricey at ~$100 per pair, but bikes are much more expensive and definitely a need. Tri suits, swimwear, etc… USAT membership… Triathlon fees are generally more expensive than running races. It is a big initial investment for the sport, but there’s also upkeep of bikes, replacing shoes, etc.

    Like anything else, you can choose to drop a lot of cash on running if you want the latest and greatest everything, but I can set a PR in a tech shirt from a race and a pair of $10 shorts from the Nike outlet without spending hundreds of dollars. I’ll say my biggest running expense is race entry fees because I like to race, but I justify that as my chance to socialize since I work from home and typically run the same races as my friends (and I don’t go out to happy hour, lunch, etc).

    I do think for adult runners, it is easier if you are in the middle class to upper middle class on the socioeconomic scale, especially if you have kids because you need access to childcare or a very supportive spouse.