When the coronavirus pandemic began, gyms and fitness studios closed. But people didn't stop exercising; they just did it differently. Many of them laced up their shoes and went outside for a run, some for the first time (or the first time in a while, at least). The phenomenon was visible; paths and trails suddenly seemed crowded, even as we spent more time at home and less in public spaces. A running boom was occurring, proclaimed media outlets, local and national.
The stats back them up. The popular fitness tracking app Strava recently published a report based on data from its 73 million users that reveals nearly twice as many people logged outdoor runs in the spring of 2020 as in the same period in 2019. The app amassed more than two million new users per month throughout the year.
A separate study by RunRepeat surveying nearly 13,000 people found that it was moderate and average runners who increased their mileage the most. It makes sense. Running is the most approachable type of fitness activity, requiring nothing more than a pair of shoes, some clothing and a sidewalk/path/dirt road/street. If you can't go to the gym, where else do you go?
New runners and recommitted runners will quickly find that this spartan image of running is surface-level only — the running gear rabbit hole is as deep as that of any other activity. Nike makes a $275 running shoe, for instance, but even singlets can go for three digits. Knowing what to buy, how much to spend, what to spend a little extra on and what to keep basic isn't always clear. Here's our best, expert-augmented advice for investing wisely.
Don't Cheap Out on Shoes.
Perhaps it's obvious, but the first thing you should spend money on is your shoes. "Your feet are the primary piece of equipment for runners, so it pays to outfit them with high-quality gear," says Cory Smith, founder and head coach at Run Your Personal Best and running gear reviewer for Gear Patrol, Outside and Gear Institute, among others. "There's a huge difference between an $80 and $140 pair of shoes. Often the cheaper running shoes use lower quality, less durable foam."
But that doesn't mean you should buy the most expensive pair on the wall, either. Those $275 Nikes are the very same that Eliud Kipchoge wore to run the first sub-two-hour marathon in 2019; you don't need them for laps around your neighborhood, and probably not your first go at a half marathon, either.
"It's worth investing in a shoe that really makes your foot feel good," advises Ashley Mateo, a running coach, marathoner, writer and gear tester.
Even Nike believes this, which is why it recently released the Air Zoom Tempo NEXT%, which has similar tech but is better suited to daily training (read our review of the shoe here). For $200, even this shoe is at the high end of performance that casual runners may not benefit from. Something like the $120 Air Zoom Pegasus 37, a best-seller for the company, may be more appropriate. (We've reviewed that one too.)
Nike's lineup is just one example; every running shoe brand offers models varying in fit and features to suit different running habits. "Go to a running store, get properly fitted/get your gait analyzed, and get a shoe that's going to support your body in the most efficient, comfortable way," says Mateo. Let fit and function guide your purchase, not price.
Socks Are an Affordable Upgrade.
Smith recommends pairing your shoes with high-quality socks. Running-specific socks offer targeted cushioning and compression, long-lasting durability, blister prevention and even odor control. A premium pair goes for around $15, so buying some is the most budget-friendly way to upgrade your running kit. Once you do, you'll never go back to the basic cotton kind that comes in packs of six.
Premium Apparel Doesn't Have to Be Expensive.
You can get through a run in a cotton t-shirt and whatever athletic shorts you have lying around. The regulars who log laps around your neighborhood don't do it in stretchy, sweat-wicking t-shirts and lightweight, Lycra-enhanced shorts for style, though, and affordable options do exist.
For example, Gear Patrol highly recommends Lululemon's Metal Vent Tech Short Sleeve, which costs $78, but Patagonia's Capilene Cool Lightweight Shirt is equally awesome (and still far superior to cotton) for $45.
Shorts come in a similar price range. At the high end are examples like Tracksmith's $68 Session Shorts, which are lightweight, stretchy, odor-resistant and include a pocket for your phone that'll keep it from bouncing around. Those same features are available in The Graves PX Shorts by Path Projects for $47, thanks to the company's cost-saving direct-to-consumer model.
Should You Buy a GPS Watch?
The first pricey accessory you might find yourself considering adding to your running kit is a GPS watch with a built-in heart rate monitor. Pros and amateurs use these to guide and track training progress, but, given that they can cost hundreds, does an everyday runner need one?
Smith says no, and Mateo agrees. "Yes, it's super fun to track everything from your VO2 max to altitude adjustment to vertical oscillation, but certain watches can run up to $900," she points out. "That's insane. If you must track, all you really need to know is your pace, distance and total time."
You can do that the old-fashioned way, with a watch, notebook and a little help from Google Maps. Alternatively, there are plenty of run-tracking apps available for free that have GPS tracking via your phone but won't provide heart rate info. MapMyRun, Strava, Nike Run Club and Runkeeper are a few examples.
One Last Thing: Ignore the Hype.
Just because a particular shoe or brand is splattered all over Instagram and magazine pages doesn't mean that buying it will lead to a better running experience for you. "Don't buy anything just because someone else told you to buy it," Mateo concludes. "Running is so specific to the individual; your anatomy and mechanics are in no way comparable to another runner, so buying something just because of the hype is a huge mistake people make."