Run for Free?

I've heard it, you probably have too: "Running is free". Yes, if you run naked and barefoot.

But most of us need clothes and footwear, at least. What do you have to buy? What do you actually need? What can you get for free or for cheap, and what should you spend your hard-earned cash on?

Here are some smart shopping tips for runners, coming at you from the frigid north, so these are winter tips … summer tips coming later! Much later! Here is a good info graphic about what to wear in different winter temperatures:

Shoes are the most important things you will have to buy. Of course, they are one of the most controversial. The running shoe industry is a billion dollar industry that has a healthy growth every year. This is not just because more people are running (which they are, especially women), but because our ideas of formal wear and fashion have changed so it is now perfectly acceptable to wear leggings and trainers to work.
In the running world, we started wearing specialized shoes about fifty years ago, when a crazy coach made a pair of shoes using a waffle iron to meld the soles into a half-decent shape. That coach went on to found Nike, which is now a gazillion dollar-a-year company. Now there are tens of thousands of models to choose from, and the big controversy revolves around minimalist or barefoot shoes, and those with more support.
In 2004, Vibram came out with the VibramFiveFingers. The theory was that wearing these shoes would reduce injuries and increase performance. The shoes feel like you’re running barefoot, and they keep your toes apart. I wore them for a few years and I loved them!

Then I went to a slightly more closed shoe, but still minimal. The research actually shows that it’s probably better to wear shoes (see this Runner’s World article), but in 2009, a book came out that appealed to those runners who wanted to get “back to our roots”.
Born to Run really appealed to me too. I loved it!

The reality is that you have to find a shoe that suits your foot, your body and your running style. Go to a good running store or an outdoors store and try on a bunch of shoes, or if you have a store in your area with a treadmill and an expert, get them to check your gait and make suggestions.

You don’t have to pick the most expensive model! But you do have to buy new shoes and spend time on choosing the best ones for your feet and for your body and soul. I have a pair of Fivefingers, that I love. I have two pairs of Merrell barefoot. One has a hole in it, so I just wear it to work. One pair I bought to replace them but they’re not the same model, so not as comfortable. I run in Sayonara Wave but it’s winter now and my feet are getting super cold. Maybe time for a pair of winter running shoes? 

If you’re running on icy or icy snow, you may want to invest in some traction. I had a look at the reviews and these seem to be the best: KahtoolaThese are also a little pricy, but worth it if it will keep you from falling and breaking a bone! You can just strap these on to your regular shoes, so you  your feet won’t have to adjust too much every season change.

Socks must be worn with shoes or your feet will hate you, unless you’re wearing Vibram Fivefingers. You have to spend a little money on decent running socks: merino wool socks are the best, but two pairs of socks are fine and you don’t have to get $50 socks with inlaid silver. I have two pairs of merino wool socks, because I run in cold weather, and a couple of pairs of cotton socks and I’m good and my feet love me, more or less. 

Lower Body means everything below your waist, down to your socks.

You want to keep your muscles covered and warm, but not too warm. In warmer weather, I love to run in a running skirt, so I just have one garment to pull off and on during that frantic pee break at a race. It has soft briefs/shorts underneath and the skirt over top. In cooler weather I have running capris, not skin tight, and in the cold I wear leggings AND a pair of running pants. Or you can wear winter running leggings with a warm pair of shorts over top. You can get all this gear used! I go to Value Village, or you can scour the online garage sales or go to real ones. Okay, maybe you don’t want used leggings, but everything else is WAY cheaper used, and its never used that much, because whoever bought it got tired of running and gave it away. I’ve bought hundreds of dollars worth of running gear for 10% of the price. Also, check out online trading sites in your area. They are a great way to get rid of stuff you no longer need, and pick up stuff you do need, all without exchanging money.

Upper Body is basically, torso above the waist. What to wear? Short-sleeved, long-sleeved, fleecy, my gram’s old cotton T-shirt? What you want is a reasonable quality short-sleeved running shirt over your undershirt or bra. Wicking is the key word here. It means that the fabric doesn’t trap water, so when you sweat it will allow the moisture to move away from your body and into the air space between the under layer of clothing and the next one. Your two options to achieve this are either synthetics, which simply allow the moisture to pass through, or merino wool, which will absorb the excess water and keep you warm and dry. It is nice if this layer can be snug, as it will help with removing the sweat from your bod, and make you feel cozy. 

Over that, you will want a mid-layer that can be a fleecy or a synthetic long-sleeved shirt or thin jacket. If its really cold, you can put a fleecy vest over those two layers. These layers can be picked up gently used at your local thrift store, or at online or real garage sales. Also, check for clearance sales at outdoor stores. MEC  regularly sells slightly damaged items for WAY cheaper than regular price and they have a swap section on their site, if you're in Canada.

Outerwear You won’t usually need to wear a jacket over your running wear unless 1. it is raining or 2. it is very cold (below -10 Celsius or 10 Fahrenheit). If it’s raining, obviously you need a waterproof jacket. A light cool rain is lovely to run in, and a waterproof jacket makes you sweat so you have to decide whether to bother with a rain jacket, depending on how cold it is, how rainy it is and where you are running. I got my running rain jacket from an online trading site. I traded a pair of heeled shoes that didn’t agree with my Plantar’s fasciitis, and got a great bright red jacket!
If it’s super cold out, you don’t want a waterproof jacket; you will need something breathable so your sweat doesn’t get trapped inside, which will cool you down. If you are running through the winter in a very cold climate, this may be another expensive item for your shopping list.

Underwear Yes, you have to buy underwear.

I may be thrifty but I draw the line at wearing someone else’s undies. Top underwear for men is insignificant. I imagine you guys might want to wear a thermal/wicking undershirt or T-shirt under your base layer. If you have chafing issues, make sure you get your undershirt in a fabric that will be kind to your nipples. Women, you already know the importance of a good running bra. Go and try on a bunch of different bras, read up on themdon’t settle for anything that isn’t super comfortable and gives you the support you need. I’m lucky, being less endowed in the bosom area, so I usually wear a tight-fitting tank top under my base layer and I’m happy with it. In the summer, though, I like more support just so I don’t feel like people are staring at my small breasts bobbing around.
A big fuss is made of the importance of insulated underwear for men during the colder months. Apparently there is some danger of freezing your junk off. So make sure you get one of the apparently hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties of insulated boxers if you plan on running outside in cold weather.
However, us women also freeze our butts off in the cold, because the glutes don’t have that much insulating fat. I’ve gone on runs in very cold weather and been toasty warm everywhere else, but felt like I had actual frostbite on my butt. The danger is, you can also put yourself at risk for a bladder infection if you’re so inclined. Not to mention those cold glutes will affect your running form and may leave you with sore hips.
What to do? I find even with leggings I have this problem, and many women I talk to agree. So we’re looking at finding, buying or making women’s insulated boxers. There are a few (very few!) brands of merino women’s boxer briefs: Valhalla, Norrona, Helly Hansens. They start at around $50. If you don’t have that much, or don’t want to spend that much on undies, you could either get your Aunt Gertrude to knit you a pair, or try cutting a pair of woolen tights at the knee and see if they work. Remember to go commando whenever you can. If you’re wearing leggings and pants, or shorts over top, you don’t need panties as well. The less extra padding you have the better, unless you are wearing it for insulation. ps. I got a pair of Helly Hansen Women's Boxer Briefs, and they are kind of bun huggers. I was wanting something that would keep my bum warm, and they stop just short of being thongs.


There are three important accessories that you will need if you’re running in cold weather. You need a hat. It should cover your ears. There are so many hats that just cover the top of your head, and they’re fine if you’re just running for the bus, but if you’re outside doing a two-hour run, your ears need to be covered. Again, you don’t need to buy a hat. You will probably pick one up at a fall or winter race, or at a thrift store, or on the bus (kidding!). Or you’ll get one as a gift.A neck warmer is SUPER important for cold weather runs. I have a tube neckwarmer. This is a tube made of thin material, and you can wear it around your neck, or bring it over part of your head, or completely over nose and mouth when its very cold. I bought mine at an outdoor store, and I got another two at different races. 
Gloves! I wear fingerless gloves when it’s not too cold out. A little colder, I wear very thin under-gloves with my fingerless gloves over top. The other day it was minus 14 C, that’s around 9 F. I wore thin gloves with mitts over top. My hands were warm enough but I spent some time during the run with my hands balled up in my mitts. All my gloves and mitts I have gotten as gifts.
Read any running magazine and you will be bombarded by advice about this and that extra thing you could use to make your run faster, more fun, more productive, and you get the picture. I am lucky enough to have gotten running watch as a gift for my 60th birthday last year (you may not have to wait so long!). Mine is a Tomtom, the basic model (no heart monitor attached), and I am very happy with it. 


I also use my phone a lot when I run. I have the Runkeeper app. When I choose to, which is for about 2/3 of all my runs, I can set it to let me know my pace at various intervals. I also love to listen to music when I’m running. I only put in one earphone, so I can hear oncoming traffic or dogs or whatever, but I find music is inspiring, helps me run faster, and keeps me in the zone. I know there are purists out there who never listen to music, and that’s fine too. I love to leave my music at home sometimes and run just listening to what’s around me, especially when I’m trail running. Remember, though, these are extras! You don’t need them!And obviously if I’m running with my buddies I won’t be plugged in But mostly, if I’m in the city, I run on my own and I’m listening to my favorite upbeat songs.

Skin care is very important when you’re running outside. I always wear a high-quality sunscreen. It is expensive, but I need it. You have to find one that suits your skin, and it has to stay on through sweating. You’re going to sweat even in the winter, and I always sweat, my eyes tear up, and my nose runs during the winter. So my face can get wet and chafed from the neck warmer if I am running in very cold weather. Wear a good sunscreen AND a good moisturizer, and lip balm. If you’re winter running and wearing your neck warmer over your mouth and nose, don’t bother with lipstick. I usually like a nice fresh lipstick for a summer run, but you don’t want to get it all over the inside of your neck warmer, and then all over your face, so stick to lip balm.
Foot care is also important, so treat yourself to a pedi every once in a while, but a good old foot soak (try bath oil and a couple of drops of cypress essential oil) in the evening while your relaxing can do wonders!

Races can break the bank! Have a look at your budget, at the beginning of your racing year. This could be in January, or when your school year starts, or any time when you can look ahead at 12 months. Decide what races, if any, you would like to go for in the coming year. Then prioritize. Which race (or distance) is the most important? Can you race somewhere else and turn it into a vacation? Are you attracted to one race over another? Do you like the thought of a big race with tens of thousands of participants, lots of bling, and a big party? These are usually presented by big for-profit companies. Or do you like the idea of running to support a charity. Either way, unless you run purely for your own pleasure, you are likely to spend anywhere from $35 to thousands of dollars (if you’ve decided that a destination marathon is living your dream). Most of us mortals, however, will spend about $70-100 for a big race every year and then about $100 altogether for a few smaller runs. If you have a gimmick to sell or lots of contacts in high places you may be able to get a sponsorship for your race. That would be amazing!

Gym membership fees are not absolutely necessary for a runner, after all, that’s why we’re runners right? Because we love to run outside! A few reasons for a runner to join a gym: if you’re training for a race, strength training and cross training are important elements of your program, although this opinion is also controversial (have a look at this argument in Runner’sWorld)
I am a gym member because there are days when it’s just too cold, too blizzard or too icy for me to run outside. Also, I love going to a yoga class every week, and I like to take in a spinning class or use the weights … you get the picture. I’m lucky – I am a member of an amazing gym, and I’m over sixty, so I pay under $60 (that’s Canadian dollars!) a month. Shop around for a gym that suits you; most of them offer a free week so you can get a sense of what it’s like. If you really don’t want or need to join a gym, that’s great! Put that extra money towards healthy food to fuel your runs!

Food is always useful. If you’re running a lot of miles you will need to eat more, and your food choices need to be right for your body. Don’t go vegan if you are always craving meat. Don’t eat lots of meat if you don’t want to. Every body needs its own sources of protein. You need healthy sources of fat, vitamins, and minerals, and you need to base your diet on healthy carbs. Reduce added sugar to under an ounce a day Look at what you’re eating and drinking – I indulge in a gin and tonic on a Friday evening – a tin of tonic water has 38 grams of sugar! I don’t eat much sugar the rest of the week, but I’m not sure I want to use my quota on a canned drink!
Do you need protein powder?
Because I worked as a midwife for many years, and I was assisting women through the time in a woman’s life when her nutritional needs skyrocket, I do know that most people in the affluent world eat too much protein. That said, athletes, even amateurs like you or me, need protein to repair those muscles we are building every time we work out. So it’s a good idea to have a protein shake within about a half hour after a long run, if you are so inclined. A scoop of most protein powders will give you 25-30 grams of protein. That’s a lot for your body to process, and can be from animal or veggie sources. But it’s helpful, if you can afford it. Those big tubs of protein powder are costly, and if you can’t afford them, then you need to be creative about your grocery shopping and make sure you get a good protein snack after a long run. Basically, any workout where your muscles feel sore means that you have very slightly injured those muscles. Rebuilding them is the process the body is going through to build stronger muscles that will endure more. And you need protein for your building blocks.

So, do we need to spend a lot of money on our running passion?

Here’s a breakdown, per year. For the upper limit I have only gone to a modest limit – of course, if you’re independently wealthy, the sky’s the limit! All figures in Canadian dollars.

Shoes                                                                 $70-200
Socks                                                                   $15-50
Lower Body                                                         $20-40
Upper Body                                                         $20-40
Outerwear                                                          $20-150
Underwear                                                           $10-80
Accessories                                                          $0-25
Extras                                                                  $0-200
Races                                                                   $0-200
Gym membership fees                                     $0-1200

TOTAL                                                           $155-2,185

So, it looks like you can either run naked or spend the very minimum of around $150 a year on your favorite sport. Looking good to me!

While we’re on the subject of money, let’s take a peek at some other places you can put your money, now that you’re buying your running clothing at the thrift store.

These are just a few of the organizations that are using running as a way to open new avenues for women and girls living in dangerous or difficult situations around the globe.

I’d love to hear how you’ve found ways to run for cheap, and please let me know about other interesting charities that are supporting young runners! Stay healthy and keep moving!


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