A Mini-Manifesto in Defense of Cheap Running Gear (And What’s Actually Worth The Moolah)

mini manifesto in defense of cheap running gear

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This is a running website and you’re here for running tips, but let’s be interdisciplinary for a moment.

A now disgraced former Tour de France champion cyclist who we’ll leave unnamed left the sporting world a few worthwhile, untainted gems in the wake of his downfall, including a curious mantra that became the title of his 2012 book: It’s Not About the Bike.

All controversy aside, this is actually quite a profound sentiment from someone who was once one of the wealthiest and most influential cyclists in the world, easily able to afford the most expensive, high-performance racing bikes. Yet: It’s Not About the Bike. This statement has stuck with me as I’ve navigated the worlds of road and trail running, which—perhaps you’ll agree—can sometimes be afflicted with a bit of gear mania.

Newer! Better! Newer! Better!

What about cheaper? What about something that will get the job done but won’t eat up my paycheck? And what about when it actually is about the equipment, energy bar, or item of clothing? How do I decide what’s worth it and what’s not?

I hope to untangle these issues a bit below.

A quick note: Please take what I suggest here with an enormous grain of salt (or better yet, salt pills for electrolyte replacement, which I do recommend for extreme heat or long distances). As always, everything that follows is anecdotal. You may find it useful, or you may find that your own running journey requires a very different approach to gear. You do you. Or, perhaps more accurately, you do you and please also do what any medical expert (read: not me) recommends. If, on their advice, you’re doomed to a running life of Brooks Hyperion Elite shoes (upwards of 200 bucks) and Lululemon Speed Wunder Tights (roughly the same price), so be it. You’ll feel good, look great, and likely run excellently.

My own jogging (can’t sit still after work? me neither!) marathoning (semi-respectable times in 4 events), trail running (total single-track dirtbag, right here), and foray into ultras (one euphoric/abominable 35 mile romp through New Jersey) has relied on everything I suggest below. Just as he-who-doped-and-must-not-be-named knew that cycling isn’t about bikes that cost as much as a used car, I suspect that running is, at its core, not about $250 shoes or $150 pants.

1. It’s Not About the Shoes.

I’ve never paid more than $59.99 for running shoes – I know, I’ve just reviewed every footwear purchase I’ve ever made on Amazon. My go-to kicks are ASICS, particularly the Gel Venture 6 and the Gel Venture 7, and Brooks, specifically the Signal. Full disclosure: I am a grad student on a grad student budget and these are the cheapest models offered online by such reputable running shoe brands (though I did once run an ill-advised 10k in some $20 shoes from Payless, the brand of which I don’t remember… needless to say, it was a A-W-F-U-L).

My rationale is that avid runners burn through pairs of shoes in just a few months (more if you’re putting down anything close to Jenn Shelton or Courtney Dauwalter miles), the $40 or $50 sneakers get the job done, and the less fussy my shoes are, the less fussy I’ll be about convincing myself to lace up in the rain or explore a muddy trail when some part of me would rather curl up and watch the “Fun Run” episode of The Office on Netflix for the 89th time. For me, the low-end ASICS and Brooks check all the boxes and, to be honest, I’ll get whichever is cheapest since prices fluctuate. I think the Gel Venture tend to handle trails better, while the Signal are substantially lighter, which aids road running.

Concessions are necessary, though. The ASICS and Brooks (available in men’s and women’s models, btw) that I wear often come in limited colors and, even more problematically, sometimes limited sizes. Unlike their sleeker, sexier, more fashionable counterparts at higher price points or at Nike, On, or HOKA, the Gel Venture and Signal are very much your “running only” shoes. They don’t go with jeans, or with your bag, or with brunch (but if you’re a dirtbag like me, you don’t care).

2. It’s Not About the Shorts and Shirts.

Now, onto clothing. While I’ve admittedly got my share of lycra, nylon, and other lightweight, quick-dry materials in my gear closet, I’ve managed to avoid big ticket buys in the shorts and shirts department. My running tops tend to be old t-shirts of the “wear to the gym” or “clean the house” variety. They’re thin, loose fitting, disposable, and, most importantly, cheap. The $50 elite sport top does not an elite runner make, in my opinion. I know my amazing, badass fiancée, Julia, agrees since her running shirt of choice is an old undershirt.

In my experience, whatever the cheapest result is when you Google, Amazon, etc. “running shorts with pockets” is just fine. While I’ve since acquired sub-$20 athletic shorts from H&M and Uniqlo (both of which I earnestly endorse), I ran that New Brunswick-to-Trenton ultra marathon in literal basketball shorts, which were literally too baggy and needed to be rolled up, and literally had paint spilled on them. You could do better (and I suggest you do) but, crucially, you could also do much worse. Save your money and spend it on…

3. It IS About the socks and electrolytes.

All that dough I save not buying top-of-the-line shoes and clothes? I spend it on Balega socks, Clif Bar Bloks, and Liquid I.V. electrolyte drink mix. Seriously. None of these items are especially expensive, but I’d happily pay double if they were.

Balega socks: oh my gosh, where to begin? They are simply the best. I cannot—repeat: cannot—live or run without them. From the Blister Resist variety, made with fine mohair and constructed with our arches in mind, to the Silver model, which contains antimicrobial ions of the eponymous metal to repel wetness and odor, these socks are a runner’s best friend. Buy them. Wear them. Love them. That ultra I did in basketball shorts? While my midsection looked ridiculous, my feet were, even at miles 26, 30, and 34, weary, but entirely blister and irritation-free due to my beloved Balegas. (At this point, I’m aware of how much of a fanboy with the tone of an infomercial I’ve become, but I don’t care. Coming in at about the price of a monthly Netflix fee, these socks are worth the hype).

Finally, what do I stash in my zippered pockets now that I’ve graduated to actual (affordable) running shorts? Clif Bloks and Liquid I.V. The former satisfies my sweating body’s need for electrolytes and my nostalgic soul’s need for the gummy candy of my youth, while the latter keeps me going in hour two or at mile 10 and wards off the dreaded post-long run headaches. Really, they’re invaluable. While I’m obviously somewhat suspicious of sports apparel, I’m an absolute devotee of sports nutrition. Ultimately, whether you’re rounding the corner at mile 3 or pounding up the hill at mile 19, what matters is whether you feel good enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Balegas, Clif Bloks, and Liquid I.V. are, in my opinion, the best investments you can make with this goal in mind.

Running isn’t about the gear. Running is about freedom, exercise, meditation, breath-work, exploration, community, and, most importantly, _______________________ (that’s for you to fill in, since a vital part of what running is “about” is largely personal). Yet, deciding for yourself what gear and nutrition can serve your own journey, and what is for you superfluous, is an important exercise.

Need a little inspiration in your life? Check out Suzanne’s running transformation story here.

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