As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. When it comes to running shoes and gear, we have lab-developed foams and fabrics that help cushion our feet and wick away sweat and reduce chafing-and can cost us a pretty penny. A perk of running's increased popularity, though, is that more and more stores are offering "technical" running gear (that is, not cotton) at prices that are much easier to stomach, which is good news for all of us.
Last summer, I participated in a Runner's World story where the editors were challenged to dress themselves head to toe for $100 or less. (Yes, that figure included running shoes.) I was sent to Sears and was somewhat baffled to see that they sold apparel made by NordicTrack, but that was my best option for shorts and a top so I went with it. I also picked up a Hanes sports bra and New Balance shoes and socks.
One year later, I still run in the shirt, socks, and bra-the shorts and shoes just weren't up to snuff for me. But that doesn't mean I haven't found shorts and other perfectly good gear at department or big box stores. I have. But when trying to save money on workout gear, I recommend that you still "splurge" on running shoes and, for well-endowed women, sports bras.
The Runner's World $100 Challenge
Your shoes are your most important piece of gear. We always recommend that runners get fitted for shoes at a specialty running store, where employees watch you run or walk to determine what shoes are best for your gait and the natural movement of your feet and ankles, with the aim of helping to distribute the forces of impact. The employees are often runners themselves and can answer most, if not all, of your questions. Trust me, you will not get this kind of service at a department store, and many times, not even at a sporting goods store. However, once you find a shoe that works for you, you can find ways to save money on future pairs. For instance, when a new version of the shoe comes out, you can save big on the older "retired" model at your running store or online. If it's a shoe you really like, buy a few pairs.
Fall shoe reviews from the Runner's World Shoe Lab
If you do opt to get shoes outside a specialty running store, our testing last summer indicated that you couldn't get an adequate running shoe for less than $40. Around that price point, we found a couple well-made shoes on sale that offered decent cushioning and fit. The shoes were part of no-frills product lines that aren't sold through specialty retailers (nor reviewed in RW's shoe buyer's guides.) If you need extra cushioning or if it's your first time buying running shoes, then you'll be better served at a specialty retailer.
As for running apparel, here's what to look for:
- Tops made with synthetic fabric and seams that don't itch or scratch when trying them on
- Shorts with a liner-and, if you're lucky, a pocket
- Socks that aren't 100 percent cotton. Cotton isn't the greatest at wicking sweat and when you combine wet feet and friction, you often get blisters. A cotton/synthetic blend is fine; all synthetic is ideal.
- Shoes from a brand you recognize. Run down an aisle in them and make sure they don't feel stiff or scratchy around your ankles.
- Sports bras that either have two layers of fabric, soft internal cups, or any other shaping that's going to help lift and separate. Jump up and down in the dressing room to see if the bra offers enough support for your shape. Smaller-chested women will likely have an advantage when it comes to shopping for bargain sports bras as many of the bras offered are made of one seamless layer of fabric.
Where to shop:
Specialty stores and race expos
Running stores by and large have the highest quality gear-but it's not cheap. You can save big money by buying apparel for next year at the end of the season. So now would be a good time to shop your local specialty running store's sale rack for summer gear. Many stores also offer year-round discounts for members of area running clubs, so if you're a member, speak up. Many larger races have vendors selling running gear at the expo where participants pick up their race number and a lot of these vendors offer expo specials. Sometimes you can get a great deal and other times, the special price isn't that much better than the sticker price.
Find a specialty retailer near you
Big box and sporting goods stores
You can find house brand technical apparel at stores like Target and Wal-mart and name brand gear at sporting goods stores like Sports Authority and Dick's. Both offer sales and specials and sporting goods stores often have good sale and clearance racks. That's where I found a pair of name brand shorts with a liner and a pocket that retailed for $28 for $9 and change. And I have to say, the C9 by Champion brand at Target has come a long way in the past few years in terms of quality, fit, and color choice. It's my favorite house brand.
Stores like Macy's, Kohl's, Sears, and JCPenney all sell running apparel and run sales every week, though workout gear may not be included every time. Some stores mention these sales in their circulars and some don't-though come January, it's in EVERY store's ad, as they're hoping to capitalize on customers' New Year's Resolutions. If you're headed to a department store to get something, take a lap through the activewear section to see if they're running a sale. And always ask if your store coupons are valid on this apparel. Some stores may exclude certain brands.
Shirts that repel odor
Marshall's, T.J. Maxx, Ross, and other discount clothing stores often have brand-name running apparel-sometimes you just have to flick through a mish-mosh of items to find a diamond in the rough.
You may not have noticed, but amid the clothing stores at your nearest outlet mall, there is probably at least one store outlet for a brand that makes workout gear. As with most outlet shopping, the sticker price might not be a better deal than you could find elsewhere but you can really save some cash when there are sales and coupons. Sign up for an outlet's mailing list whenever possible to be alerted about upcoming sales.
Not only can you find good deals on manufacturer's individual web sites, but online running stores like Road Runner Sports can simplify your search by offering multiple brands in one place-and for one shipping charge. I've also spotted running shoes and workout gear on members-only shopping sites like Gilt Groupe and Rue La La. Make sure you review the return policy on each site as some only offer credit to the site, not a full refund. If you do sign up, these sites send daily emails to let you know what's on sale that day. So if you're always swimming in a sea of unread emails, this option might not be worth it to you.
What's your best advice for saving money on workout gear? What's the best deal you've ever gotten?
Susan Rinkunas is an associate editor at Runner's World, a magazine (and website) that informs, advises, and motivates runners of all ages and abilities-and we mean it. Her blog on Yahoo! Shine offers tips on running technique, nutrition and weight loss, shoes and apparel, and balancing fitness and life.
[photo credit: Getty Images]
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