A Beginner’s Guide for Frugal Runners


A Runner's Guide to Training on the Cheap

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If you need a new sport or hobby that won’t break the bank and will provide you with challenges, confidence, and a community of like-minded, crazy-supportive people, you need to start running. Anyone can become a runner, and the only upfront investment is the cost of a fresh pair of running shoes.

Running is wonderful because it doesn’t cost too much to do and for many people, it provides an excellent outlet for a range of emotions that might otherwise manifest themselves in ways that aren’t exactly beneficial to your physical or fiscal health. If you have lots of time on your hands, you may be prone to boredom spending. Running will fix that. If you resort to spending lots of money on new things when you feel down or are prone to seeking comfort in your favorite tasty snacks when you’re upset, you’re only creating a vicious cycle where these bad behaviors only make you feel worse than you originally did. Running will fix that. If you’re missing out on opportunities for social interactions for any reason, you may eventually start feeling isolated and lonely. Running will fix that.

And before you say you’re not a runner or you can’t run – stop that negative thinking! It doesn’t matter if you run five feet or fifty miles. If you run, you are a runner. As a runner, you’ll constantly be surrounded by all kinds of different people. Different ages, different backgrounds, different fitness levels, different motivations for getting out and taking a run. There will always be someone ahead of you, and someone behind you. And that’s okay! Everyone is at a different point in their experience and training, but we’re all out there enjoying the same thing, enduring the same pain, together.

That’s what makes a community of runners so special and unique. You can be the fastest person out there or you can be regularly outstripped by snails, and you’re going to experience the same highs and lows together.

Now that I’ve convinced you, let’s look at how beginning runners can get started – without breaking the bank.

What Frugal Runners Need to Get Started

You need a properly-fitted pair of running shoes.

Really, that is all you need to become a runner! Don’t try to squeak by with some old sneakers you found abandoned in the back of your closet. Go to a running store and ask for helping picking out a decent pair of shoes (and do a bit of research on your own before you head in). There are a million different kinds of shoes you can try, and a million different opinions on which one is the “best.”

Personally, I prefer minimalist footwear because it encourages me to land with a midfoot strike instead of smacking into the ground with my heel first.

As for other apparel? Honestly, you don’t need it. You don’t need fancy shorts or technical t-shirts, and some brands (*cough* Nike *cough*) are criminally overpriced. It is smart to wear a shirt that wicks moisture (and to avoid cotton) when it’s hot out, but you don’t need to go and buy a $40 technical running shirt and a pair of $60 running shorts. When you’re starting out, head to Target and buy one of their activewear-brand tanks and shorts or tights. In our local store, I’ve never spent more than $20 on a piece of clothing made specifically for activities like running.

So, to review:

  • Decent pair of running shoes
  • Inexpensive, non-brand-name workout tops and bottoms (for hot weather, avoid cotton)

Got it? Good! You’re ready to roll!

Avoid Injury – and a Big Medical Bill – by Starting Smart

When you’re new to running, the most important training advice you can hear and remember is to start slow. A couch-to-5k program is a great way to slowly work your way to running for 30 minutes at a time – or the average time it takes for someone to run a 5k race (which is 3.1 miles).

These programs are available as smartphone apps and there are even small ebooks available on Amazon that will walk you through about 8 weeks of workouts. They all progress slowly, which allows you to build up the strength and stamina you’ll need to run faster and for longer distances.

If you get impatient, you will pay for it. Too-much-to-soon or overuse injuries are really common in new runners and cause huge setbacks that are often discouraging and demoralizing. You may experience anything from shin splints to stress fractures if you push yourself without giving the bones, tendons, and ligaments in your legs time to adjust to the new load and stresses you’re exerting on them. If you need more reason to be patient consider this: once you have tendonitis, for example, you always have tendonitis. You can manage it, of course, but in the future you’ll be prone to re-aggravating it. And stress fractures? You’re looking at 6 to 8 weeks of not being able to do any impact activity (which includes “excessive walking”) if you’re lucky. If you’re not, that’s 6 to 8 weeks getting to walk around with an air cast. They aren’t cheap and it isn’t fun to try to hobble around everywhere with a moonboot.

So choose a basic, extreme beginner running program and stick with it. Don’t rush things and be sure to celebrate every little bit of progress. Remember, slow progress leads to steady progress – and steady, regular improvement is the name of the game with running.

Put Good In and Get Good Out

As a runner, you’re an athlete, and your diet does matter. If you don’t eat properly, you’re going to have a difficult time feeling great during a run and you won’t be able to make progress. Food is fuel, so give your body what it needs to perform and function well.

Don’t think you have to start spending big bucks at the grocery store. You simply need to remember that the better you eat, the better you feel. Follow a few basic rules and you should be alright.

  • Eat whole foods. If you need help deciding what is a real, whole food and what is a food product, use this general rule of thumb: if it has more than five ingredients, it’s not actually food. Don’t eat (or buy) it.
  • Veggies are good for you. Aim to eat the rainbow!
  • Although I’m a vegetarian, I understand some folks like their meats. And that’s okay – just try to avoid stuff that’s processed and aim to eat more vegetables, legumes, and grains than meats.
  • Don’t feel like you need a bunch of fancy energy bars or gels. While energy gel is handy for a race, for basic training you don’t need it. And go for natural snacks over processed bars. Try something like nuts or homemade oatmeal bars for a portable, healthy, energizing snack.
  • No processed foods! Drop the Cheez-Its and put the Oreos back where they came from. And don’t even think about soda. If you need something to crunch on, try natural veggie chips (I love sweet potato chips from time to time!). If you gotta have something sweet, pick up a dark chocolate bar.

By adhering to these guidelines, you’ll not only be healthier and run-ready – but you may actually see some savings in your grocery bills. Food runs get a lot cheaper when you’re only buying real food and skipping all the processed junk.

Show Off Your Stuff – Run Your First Race!

Once you’ve been running regularly for at least two months, consider signing up for a local 5k! Organizations hold races like this all the time and many are put on to benefit a cause or charity. The cost to run is usually around $25, and your entry fee will include a goodie bag complete with race t-shirt and assorted items usually donated by various sponsors. Smaller events might be made up of about fifty people, while bigger and well-known races can have hundreds (even thousands) of participants.

They all function in pretty much the same way, though. They are all high-energy, fun, and friendly gatherings that welcome runners of all experience and skill levels. Some people there will undoubtedly be running 5 minute miles, while others will walk the entire course. No matter where you’re at, you’ll fit in to some part of the crowd.

Be sure to arrive about an hour before the race starts. Give yourself plenty of time to park, head to the registration table to grab your race bib, and to settle into whatever you need your pre-race routine to be. Some people do extensive warm ups while others hang out and catch up with friends and fellow runners. When the event organizers announce that it’s time to head to the start line, place yourself in the pack according to your pace. The faster runners will be at the very front – unless you’re also speedy, settle in somewhere behind them. Don’t place yourself at the back if you plan to run at a moderate pace, however. If there are slower people in front of them, you’ll waste a lot of energy at the start trying to weave around the crowd.

No matter where you finish, at the end of the race there’s always a positive and happy atmosphere waiting for you. People will be lined up and cheering you and all the other racers on to the end. The cool thing is that, even though you’re technically running with a bunch of other people and getting to feed off that awesome energy that builds up when you run with a pack, you’re only truly competing against yourself. At the end of the day, whenever you finish you’ve accomplished something big – and before you get home, you’ll probably start thinking about when you can do it again!

Have a specific question about getting started as a frugal runner? Ask me in the comments!


25 Responses

  1. Charlotte

    March 24, 2014 9:03 am

    Love this post, Kali! I’m a fellow runner (and vegetarian!) and all your insights are right on point. I went from not even running for the bus all the way up to half marathon in about 10 months back in 2012 and had an incredible time with the process. Running is perfect because you can lace up and head out whenever you want…no need to time your workout around a fitness class or gym hours. I also found that I got some of my best thinking done during my runs and would often feel much more centred afterwards. Finally, I can’t recommend running groups enough! I joined my local Running Room (I think they have them in the US as well?) and it’s totally free on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. It’s such a social thing and I met a lot of friends through it (we’re still friends today!).

    • Kali Hawlk

      March 24, 2014 4:57 pm

      Yay, love it when I bump into other veggies ;)

      I agree that running is great because you can do it anytime, anywhere. Thanks for sharing about that running group – I’ll have to check it out!

  2. anna

    March 24, 2014 10:03 am

    Oh hey, where did you find this pic of my latest race? ;) Great tips, Kali, and I agree 100% with the shoes especially – I have flat feet, so before I would always just get generic shoes that would give me huge blisters that would really frustrate me. Once I got to a specialty store, they advised shoes for my feet and footstrike (over-pronate) and I’ve been running well since! I’d also tack on a really good sports bra and wick socks to avoid blisters – even if you can only afford one pair for the time being, if you hand wash and wring it really good, then it’s dry by the next run! :)

    • Kali Hawlk

      March 24, 2014 5:00 pm

      Hahaha Anna! I would totally believe it if that were you – you and Tonya are my PF running heroes!

      I totally understand about feet that don’t work in generic shoes. I have the opposite problem: high arches. Either way, plain ol’ shoes really don’t work when you’re running multiple miles multiple days of the week!

      Great addition on the sports bra and socks – and nice tip on making just a single good one work when you’re just getting started with running.

  3. Tonya@Budget and the Beach

    March 24, 2014 11:01 am

    Good post Kali! I hate it when people negative self talk that they can’t run. Can’t? or Won’t? Big difference! I take my frugal-ness to the next level by running barefoot on the beach. No shoe purchase necessary! lol, or course I pay for that in rent so…I gotta say though I regret doing the half marathon. Despite the amount of time I gave myself to train, I’m SILL feeling the shin/calf pain I got from the race. :( It’ been nearly two months! But I think if you’re just training for a 5 or 10k, most people are going to be fine, and those are fun races!

    • Kali Hawlk

      March 24, 2014 5:02 pm

      Thanks, Tonya! I agree, negative self-talk is frustrating and it just doesn’t line up with what you’ll see at a race: all kinds of people of all ages and shapes and experience levels are out there and they run their race!

      I hate to hear you’re still hurting from your half-marathon, though. Boo! I hope you can work through it a bit and get the kinks out. I know feeling pain/being injured from running just sucks.

  4. Leslie Beslie

    March 24, 2014 12:26 pm

    When I’m not regularly running, my diet is the best! Then when I am regularly running, I find myself eating more process foods than otherwise. I just can’t get enough salt in my diet without eating potato chips (or other salty junk), especially right after a run. And at the end of a long run day nothing sounds better than a giant cheeseburger.

    • Kali Hawlk

      March 24, 2014 5:10 pm

      I have a harder time with my diet when I’m running hard, too, but for different reasons! I think it has something to do with the fact that I do the majority of my running when it’s hot out – and when I get hot, I don’t get hungry (all I want is all the water I can find!) And when I’m not feeling hungry, it’s SUCH an effort to fix something decent, so I usually just start snacking because it’s easier. One of my goals is to get that straightened out this year and eat better, consistently!

  5. KK @ Student Debt Survivor

    March 24, 2014 8:11 pm

    I need to get a new pair of running shoes really bad. I bought a “great” pair of Sauconys a few months back at TJ maxx that kill my feet. It’s strange because in high school that’s the only shoe I’d run in. Now they give me horrible blisters on the arch of my foot. I’ve decided it’s worth the cost to head to a running store and get a pair that fit me right. I’d be much more motivated to hit the pavement if my shoes didn’t kill my feet.

  6. Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life

    March 24, 2014 10:28 pm

    You’re right, you really don’t need anything but shoes to start running. When I signed up for the marathon, I was worried that I’d have to spend a fortune on all the “stuff”- water belts, special gear, etc. Turns out, I was able to train and do the race without it.

  7. DC @ Young Adult Money

    March 25, 2014 7:38 am

    Running is something I like to do a few times a week because, as you said, it can be very frugal. I think the need for a good pair of shoes can’t be stressed enough. I’ve had “runner’s knee” and it’s not fun. I am convinced it was from running in a pair of shoes that were past their prime. I also think signing up for a race is a great idea because it helps motivate you to stick to a regular training schedule.

    • Kali Hawlk

      March 25, 2014 5:45 pm

      Yikes, sorry to hear about that injury. That’s never any fun! Love what you pointed out about races, though. I agree that they can be great motivational factors in keeping up with regular training. Plus, they are SO much fun!

  8. Syed

    March 25, 2014 6:42 pm

    Very informative post. I started running more under the guidance of one of my more experienced runner friends and it’s been great. Costs a lot less than the gym and it’s fun when you beat your previous best. I like mixing up basketball and weight training during the week for a good full body workout.

    • Kali Hawlk

      March 26, 2014 11:45 am

      Thanks, Syed! That’s wonderful that you had a running mentor in the form of your friend :) It’s always nice to have help especially when you’re just figuring the whole running thing out! Also smart to mix up your routine and throw in a weight training/strength training workout – helps you become a better runner.

  9. Daisy

    March 25, 2014 9:28 pm

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve never been a runner, simply because I haven’t ever been good at it and I get bored of doing any exercise when I am doing only that exercise for more than a couple of minutes. I do agree with eating healthy no matter what; I am too a vegetarian so I think that puts us at a healthy eating advantage.

    • Kali Hawlk

      March 26, 2014 11:46 am

      I agree that us veggies have a slight advantage ;) If all meats were raised sustainably on local farms, that might be one thing.. but eating the meat that is commercially produced just can’t be good for you. Bleh.

  10. David

    March 26, 2014 8:59 pm

    Apparently running a marathon has so many expenses that I was not aware of. First, sneakers cost close to $100. What??? When did this happen. Next, even if you run a marathon for a cause, it still costs money to enter. I just have a problem with this.
    Great post anyways!

    • Kali Hawlk

      March 26, 2014 9:39 pm

      There is an incredible amount of work, time, and effort on the part of countless volunteers that goes into putting on a successful event. Your entry fees are covering the cost associated with hosting a race – from supplies to equipment to providing awards and medals. Plus, of course, if the race supports a cause most profits go to that organization. Very few legitimate races are strictly for-profit.

      Also, running a marathon is definitely going to require more of a commitment on all fronts – time, work, and money. I would not suggest beginner runners, who this post is for, start by trying to tackle a marathon :) If someone wants to, more power to them! But you can definitely get started with running and have an awesome time either just doing it for fun, or sticking with smaller and shorter events.


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