28 Ideas to Help You Afford Those Pesky Running and Triathlon Habits

Post written by Susan Lacke.

New York marathon 2011

#1: Skip the big city, big brand races and go for smaller, local ones.

“Running is becoming so … elitist.” sighed a friend recently. “It used to be so cheap to just put on a pair of shoes and do a 5K, but now it’s ridiculously expensive. And triathlon, ha! Don’t even get me started on triathlon.”

The statement gave me pause. Is it really that expensive? In my head, I did the math:

A marathon entry fee can be pricey, sure. According to FindMyMarathon.com, at least 41 marathons in the United States charge more than $100 to enter. The New York City Marathon, for example, has a $255 entry fee.

Of course, you’d need the proper running shoes, socks, shorts, shirts … let’s throw in a hat, too. We’ll say, ballpark … $200. And a watch, for $35 — unless you want GPS, then we’re looking at a couple hundred dollars. You eat more, too, so there’s an increase in your everyday food budget. Speaking of food, I need to go buy a box of gels ($34).

That’s just for running. My friend was right – don’t even get me started on triathlon.

But is it elitist? I’m not quite buying what she’s selling. It really doesn’t have to be that expensive. Over the past few years, I’ve found a few tricks for saving cash as a runner and triathlete. Here are 28 tips that will have you paying like a pauper, but running like a prince.

Race Fees

1. Shop around. Though name-brand races have a lot of bells and whistles, they’re also very expensive. Look for small but well-organized races where registration fees are a fraction of the price of the big races. To find the best, ask local running shops or inquire on forums like LetsRun.com or TriFuel.com.

2. Register early. Committing to a race months or even a year in advance not only helps you plan your training schedule – it can save you some serious dough. The HITS triathlon series, for example, offers 75 percent off registration fees if you register more than four months before race day!

3. Volunteer. A few months before the race, e-mail the race director and ask if he or she needs volunteers to stuff swag bags, write newsletters, or deliver race flyers to local running stores and gyms. Race directors often comp entries in exchange for labor.

4. Join a team. When you join a club, chances are you’ll pay a small membership fee. This is one of those rare circumstances where you get much more than what you pay for. Teams and clubs will not only connect you with new training partners, free group workouts, and social events, you’ll also receive discounts from local shops and races.

5. Sign up for e-mail lists and Facebook groups. If you don’t want to sign up for a team, at least sign up for their electronic notices. Many running clubs and triathlon teams post their discount codes in team newsletters or Facebook groups. Some races do the same, and may also share special one-day-only discount codes on Twitter.

Training

6. Work out at home. Don’t get suckered into the notion that you must join a gym. Your workout can be free – do lunges, crunches, and pushups, and run outside … yes, even when the weather is hot/cold/windy/rainy/snowy. Hey, if the weather sucks on race day, nobody will be able to say you didn’t train in it.

7. Check out deal sites. Like Groupon and LivingSocial, which often have deals on gym memberships, spin studio workouts, or yoga sessions.

8. Explore your ‘hood. Search for websites of the gyms and workout studios close by – many have new member deals. For example, there are seven yoga studios within walking distance of my home. All of them offer two free weeks of unlimited yoga for new members. Theoretically, that’s three and a half months of free yoga, all without using a single dollar or gallon of gas.

9. Streamline. If you only need a place to swim, there’s no need to pay a ton of money for membership for the giant gym across town that has weights, cardio equipment, fitness classes, massage, juice bar … things you’ll never use. Instead, inquire about open swim at your local high schools, colleges, and rec centers.

10. Don’t delude yourself. I’ve seen far too many people purchase expensive exercise equipment under the facade of “I don’t have time to go to the gym, but I’ll exercise at home!” If you make excuses for not going to the gym, you’ll make excuses to get out of exercising at home, too.

11. Buy from the deluded. Eventually, the aforementioned excuse-makers will be sick of seeing the spin bike in their basement, tripping over dumbbells in the garage, and watching workout videos collecting dust on the shelf. Inquire on Facebook, search on Craigslist and Freecycle, and visit secondhand stores for free and cheap workout gear.

12. Join the community. You’d be surprised how many groups offer free workouts. Ask your local running store about free track workouts. Your bike shop may organize a weekly group ride for free.  Triathlon teams may host open-water swims – if you’re not a member, shoot them an e-mail and ask if you can tag along. Most will say yes!

Gear

13. Buy quality gear. I used to spend 19 dollars for the “cheap” goggles at a local triathlon shop. After realizing how much money I was spending every three months for replacing goggles with leaks, scratches, or cloudy lenses, I splurged on a pair of fifty-dollar goggles suggested by a friend who swims daily. I haven’t needed to replace them in over a year.

14. Shop end-of-season sales. Just as parkas are their cheapest in April, running and triathlon gear goes on sale depending on the season. Fall is a great time to buy a bike, since cycling season is winding down and retailers want to get last year’s models out the door. Likewise, stock up on running tights and jackets in the spring and swimsuits at the end of summer.

15. Buy items that multitask. Running shirts with built-in sports bras, cycling jackets with removable sleeves, a cell phone with downloadable fitness apps for tracking pace and distance are all examples of cutting down on the amount of “stuff” you need to buy.

16. Increase the longevity of your clothes & shoes. Wash your workout clothes in a good detergent and air-dry instead of using your dryer. Use your running shoes only for running. Never, ever, ever put your running shoes in the washing machine.

17. Do your own work. Have someone teach you how to perform maintenance on your bike. There’s no reason to pay a shop 65 bucks a pop for someone to clean your bike, put new tape on the handlebars, and oil your chain.

18. Negotiate. It’s unlikely you’ll get a giant discount on a big-ticket item like a bike. However, you might be able to sweet-talk your way into other perks, like a better seat, sharply-discounted accessories, or a year of free maintenance.

Nutrition

19. Track sales. The manufacturers for some of your more expensive items, like protein powders, may offer sales on their website, Twitter, or Facebook page. However, if you contact the manufacturer just to say “hey, thanks for such a great product, it’s my favorite” they’ll often reply with a coupon to show their gratitude.

20. Join a CSA or co-op. Fresh vegetables from local farmers? What’s not to love? And the price! The price is definitely something to love. Shop around, and do the math – some CSAs deliver a week’s worth of produce to you for as little as 20 dollars a week.

21. Stop going to the smoothie bar. Make your own, at home, with fresh ingredients.

22. Make your own nutrition drinks/gels/bars. No Meat Athlete has a great collection of recipes for this. However, depending on the workout you’re doing, dried dates, honey, or even Swedish Fish can be a fine (and cheap!) substitution to gels and “Chomps.”

23. Eat right. You can eat a lot of cheap crap, be hungry all the time, and waste money buying more cheap crap. Or you can refuel correctly and choose foods high in protein and fiber, which will typically satisfy your post-run belly. Also, you can learn a few tricks to save money on healthy, vegetarian food.

Don’t …

24. Bandit. Participating in a race without paying not only makes you a giant dick, it’s also illegal. Thanks to a sharp increase in the number of people banditing races, some race directors have started asking police to arrest anyone they see who is running the race without a bib number or timing chip. Your legal fees are guaranteed to be more than a 70-dollar race registration.

25. Sell your bib number or swap bibs without permission. If a 40 year-old man wears a 20 year-old woman’s chip and bib, he will skew the results for the women in the 20-24 age group. Also, if that man has a medical emergency and is wearing his 20 year old female friend’s bib, there will be much trouble identifying him, getting the help he needs, and notifying his family.

26. Overlook your local mom-and-pop stores. I don’t visit big-box stores for my gear. I recently wrote a column on why I always shop local (you can read it here). The short version: there’s more to life than saving 39 cents on a pair of running shorts.

27. Buy it just because it’s on sale. It’s easy to fall victim to sales racks (“It’s HALF OFF!”) but a 50 percent savings isn’t a very good deal if you only wear it 1 percent of the time.

28. Be hasty. To save money, you may need to spend your time – time doing research, shopping around, and being patient until the price drops. It also may require you to do some prioritizing – for example, do you absolutely have to run the big-box $135 half marathon, or will you still have a great time doing the smaller, locally organized $50 race the following weekend?

Let’s hear it from you – what tips do you use to save money on race fees, clothing, gear, or food?

About the Author: Susan Lacke, No Meat Athlete’s Resident Triathlete and author of the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap, refuses to pay more than $15 for a pair of “normal” shoes, but will very happily plop down $115 for a pair of trainers that don’t make her knees hurt. Priorities, people. “Like” her on Facebook to receive her latest columns for Competitor Magazine, Triathlete.com, and Fit Bottomed Girls.

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Photo credit: Wikipedia (Creative Commons)

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Comments

  1. It would be great to get the inside scoop on local 5K races. All too often I learn the hard and expensive way that a race is not really a race but a walk with a race thrown in ala mode.

    • It’s really as simple as calling the race director – seriously. Ask him or her how many runners vs. walkers, if it’s a timed (re: competitive) race, and if age group awards are handed out. Answers to those questions should typically give you a good feel for what kind of vibe that race has.

  2. For newbies (like myself) the key is to hop online and do research. I’ve entered 4 5k’s this year alone through online discount deals (Groupon, Living Social, etc.). Also sit down and look in that race pack they give you. Some races offer deals for other races in the area, especially smaller towns outside larger cities.
    Thanks for the advice – keep it coming!

  3. Mary Kate says:

    Amen.

  4. Ha – I’ve been on both sides of 10 and 11. Too funny.

    I’d definitely second running some smaller races if you’re looking to save some coin. Another upside is that startup races tend to offer a stronger sense of community than some of the franchise races. And, who knows, your little-race-that-could may become the next RnR – then you can say, “I was running this race before it was cool.” ;)

    • It’s true that smaller races offer more warm-fuzzies, but there are also ways to create community with the larger races, too! If a runner’s heart is set on running a franchise race, there are many training groups, organized track workouts, and running clubs that can create that sense of community.

      And yes, I agree – being hip before its time is always fantastic. :)

  5. i do alot of those things, but i did pick up a few new ideas :) more importantly, I want to know what kind of goggles those are?!?!

    • They’re Sable goggles (http://www.sablewateroptics.com). Pricey, but like I said – I’ve ended up saving money on in the long run!

      • Thanks Susan, I have gone through about 4, maybe more, pairs of Blue Seventy goggles this season. The salt water chews up the rubber gaskets and the chlorine destroyes the lenses. I need to get another pair of goggles before Ironman Arizona this year so I will be checking these out. Do you have any issues with the chlorine or salt water? Do you have pool and open water specific goggles or just one set that you use for both?

        • I’m as cheap as they come – so I have one pair that I use for everything! I can’t speak for salt water, since I’ve never done a race in the ocean, but they’ve performed very well in the pool and the lake (including Tempe Town Lake, where your IMAZ swim will be taking place!).

  6. Dynamic Running is inexpensive running club located in Manhattan Beach. Check out their website @ Dynamicrunning.com

  7. Would love to know which quality goggles you use?
    Thanks

  8. Well, having spent like a million years now as a poor graduate student, I think I do everything on your list, hehe… I have a few other tips to add, take ‘em or leave ‘em.

    1 – form your own training groups with friends. It’s not that difficult, use facebook or e-mail and get a list going, or find one of the many already out there. Lots of these groups have “experts” who don’t have a coach but may have been coached in the past (myself included).

    2 – this takes some diligence, but even if you don’t need shoes right away, periodically search for your running shoe model on amazon, roadrunnersports, and google. When they go on deep discount (like when the next model is coming out) buy at least two pairs at once. That way when one pair dies in 4-6 months you have two more lined up to get you through the next year when they go on sale again. I haven’t paid more than $55-75 (w/free shipping!) for a pair of running shoes since I started grad school in 2006 just by following this one rule.

    3 – you said it before, but I’ll say it again: invest your money in high-quality sports gear, *especially* in apparel like sports bras and running tights. Buy at least 2-3 high quality of each item, preferably during a sale or using one of those percent off coupons from another race packet. (If you’re a member of a local club or a student, most local stores will give you an additional 10-20% off.) Use the clothing in rotation (and yes, air dry is really important) for less wear and tear. Don’t buy tech tees (long or short sleeved) — sign up for races that will give you those for free (see below). Buy socks and mesh hats and what not at race expos in the discount bins, where it seems they are always the cheapest. Some gear, such as socks and winter fleeces/jackets, can also be bought at places like Ross and TJ Maxx for super cheap. My Nike reflective running jacket ($30) and long-sleeved/fleece-lined compression shirt ($18) were both bought at Ross because they were “previous season” gear.

    4 – when signing up for a race of any kind, consider the registration cost vs what you get for it and if discounts are available. First off, local races often offer discounts for local stores and restaurants in the area. Sometimes a local race registration is cheaper if you’re a member of a local running or triathlon club — a club that may be free to student members or unemployed people (it’s worth asking if money is a real concern), or only charge $30-40 membership for the whole year. Additional important questions: what’s included in the race fee besides insurance? e.g., will you get a tech tee? If so, that’ll save you the cost of having to buy one and in some cases almost pays off the race fee. Will you get fed a full meal (e.g. pasta party or what not) the night before or the day of? Do you get a free massage afterwards? Is there free beer on the finish line? (I live in Germany these days, the last question is most definitely a very important and valid one!)

  9. Oops! I just saw what you wrote about the local mom and pop stores. I do, of course, totally agree with that in principle – if it’s possible and feasible, my advice would be to see if any discounts are available or ask about what their sales are. Usually places would rather have your long-term business and establish a relationship with you in these ways, they are not there to rip you off.

  10. My biggest money problem is with races that do not come through with what they advertise. I recently did two 5K races that were advertised as professinally managed races only to find competitive running was almost impossible. Wish there were an online review of local races so I could spend my entry fees selectively.

  11. This is great! I just signed up for my first Olympic tri and I just found an amazing deal for use of a pool and gym at a community college! Never thought of that before. I’ll save over $300!!!

  12. Shopping off season is huge, also wait for a deal. If you’re running right now in your old gear, wait to stock up till you see a good sale. 2 years ago, runningwarehouse.com did a 20% off sale on gift cards- i Bought the max- 300 dollars worth. So already, their stuff is lower than retail, no tax or shipping, plus I had a 15% off code I used. I bought all my xmas gifts and waited until there was a sale on winter clothing in january, I was getting pairs of shorts for over 80% off what I would have paid at the local running shop!

    • That’s such a perfect example of how patience really pays off! It’s too easy to go to the store on Friday evening after we get paid, but that isn’t always the most economical decision.

  13. When I first started running I was doing all kinds of 5ks and 10ks. Now I have the more negative view of – I’m not paying 50 bucks to run 3 miles.

  14. Consider just running for the sake of running and bagging “races” altogether. It seems too many people think they can’t get motivated to train unless there is a race at the end. I stopped entering races a few years ago and haven’t looked back. I still run the same training schedule, minus all the fartleks. I now pick out my own course or challenge, work toward it, run it whenever I feel I’m ready, finish without fanfare and go on with my day. I’ve run multiple solo marathons and ultras, never paid a dime for a lame t-shirt, never got a sticker to adorn my car, started when I wanted, finished where I wanted, and feel great about my accomplishments. I was in Boston for a board examination and ran the marathon course alone the day before. I think if we’d lose this need to race all the time and just find a reason to run, we’d all enjoy running a lot more. Oh and extra bonus reason to do this, no listening to race people going on about all their past races ad nauseum. I feel a rant coming on so I’ll stop there.

  15. Bravo, Susan! Looks like you’re in first place when it comes to saving money in the running world.

    I especially loved your food tips. Homemade shakes, snacks and food always tastes better. Plus, at home, the runner can monitor for themselves exact ingredients and quantities.

    And eating healthy does not need to cost a lot of money. In fact, by going organic, expensive sprints to the doctor are spared because the body is not being poisoned with GMOs, nest-ce pas?

    Again, many thanks for your stellar post.

  16. After finishing my novice tri season I learned some wonderful things. Look into your local YMCA and see if they have a tri club. After joining my club I found out some great perks. Our club earned some free races next season by racing through the set up series events and winning some age group awards. We are being sponsored by a tri group in the area which is offering huge discounts on Felt brand bikes. Our club leader is always getting free swag and stuff from places like epix and bringing it in as give aways. Joining a tri club can be very rewarding in terms of finances.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] No Meat Athlete published a list of tips on cutting the cost of Running/Triathlons.  (Image above is theirs, not mine).  Its pretty great, you should check it out.  The tips are very comprehensive, and pretty helpful.  I know I’ve broken at least half of them and felt guilty about it later, so they must be right.  The writing is pretty great too, I need to start following them more closely.  They’re on twitter, but they’re sneaky about it, so look them up at @NoMeatAthlete.  ”Explore your ‘hood” and “Buy from the deluded” brightened my morning for sure. [...]

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