Why I Gave Up Long Distance Running When I Had to Exercise on a Budget

exercise on a budget

My story of how I became a long distance runner is typical and boring. 3 miles turned into 7, which eventually turned into 13, 17, and 26.2. My increase in miles correlated with my love for the sport and I found myself craving time on the road. Aside from physical fatigue, I saw little downside to my new hobby. I was becoming stronger, faster, more disciplined, and goal oriented. I was well on my way to accepting an identity as a long distance runner.

Everything hit a dead end when I accepted an unpaid internship in a new state. While I pulled on my running shoes that first morning with intentions to continue the running routine I had maintained when I was employed, it became clear that I couldn’t afford it. A sport that is so often touted as being perfect for the poor man was now making me choose between it and my saving’s account. I needed to learn how to exercise on a budget.

Food

Even if I were to sit motionless all day, I’d still need to eat a lot of food to maintain these chicken legs of mine. While a fast metabolism is a blessing at an all-you-can-eat buffet, it’s more of a burden when you find yourself at the grocery store buying a family-size cart of food. When money became an issue, I needed to think more strategically. Gone were the days of buying kale because it was trendy and pounding cucumbers because I had nothing better to do.

exercise on a budget

I was on the lookout for calorie dense foods. If I could buy a jar of peanut butter for $4 and get almost 5,000 calories from it, that was a better buy than a $6 pint of blueberries for 200. While everyone around me scoured labels to get as much food as possible for the least amount of calories, my mind was working differently. When you think about it, my “backwards thinking” makes a lot of sense and speaks to the twisted ideology dieting has enticed us to adopt. If we were hunter gatherers living years ago in pursuit of our own food, we’d pass up a bushel of lettuce for a caribou carcass in an instant. Today though, we want as little caloric value for our efforts as possible. How did that happen?

If I spend a lot of money on food when I sit on the couch like a sloth, you bet I go into debt the second I start running. General advice is that you should add about 100 calories to your daily diet for each mile you run. Following this rule, I need to add an extra 800 to 1,300 calories to my daily intake to account for my regular 8 to 13 mile runs. Running four times a week, this is anywhere between 3,200 and 4,500 calories I need to add to my weekly diet. That’s a lot of money spent on $6 pints of blueberries.

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exercise on a budget

Once I was watching my wallet, it didn’t take long to realize that, if I ran less, I’d need to eat less, which meant I’d be spending less money on food. So, my 10 mile runs soon became 6, 4, and even 2. Every mile lost was food that stayed on the shelf, and dollars I got to keep in my account.

It’s no new thing to say that food comprises a big portion of our living expenses. While we can save pennies by foregoing new shoes, cars, toothbrushes, or comic books, we can’t completely eliminate food from our budgets. On top of that, we often spend more on food than we realize. Matt Walrath is an athlete who was unpleasantly surprised when he did an audit of his food budget. This inspired a mission to drop his food costs, which you can read here.

Time

Working 40 hours a week with no paycheck made me realize I needed to be intentional about the time I was spending outside of my “job.” I could no longer treat my business and book writing as a fun side hustle that may bring in a few dollars someday down the road. The big fat negative numbers I was seeing each month when I looked at my business expenses could no longer be shrugged off. I needed to get to work and make something of this project I had undertaken.

When you commit to running long distances, you also commit to giving up a lot of your time each week. As a morning runner, this meant turning over the hours I’m at my most mentally fresh and primed for writing to the demands of my running shoes. This was fine when I wasn’t concerned about growing my writing and business to a point of sustaining my lifestyle. A lost hour of writing in exchange for a good long run was worth it to me. This changed once my bank account started glaring at me.

exercise on a budget

So as to not give up running altogether, I changed my routine so that my run fell during a time when I was mentally exhausted and otherwise incapable of putting coherent sentences together anyway. Putting my daily run in the evenings instead of the mornings was no small feat. I felt like a was starting back at square 1 as a runner and hated every step of my runs for a good number of weeks. If you’re looking to change the time of day you run, check out this post for some tips.

Check out another great post from BTA!

exercise journals

Being intentional about safeguarding my best writing hours for the time in the mornings before I left for work greatly increased my productivity. I was now creating more content than I ever had before and was able to devote time, even though limited, to the growth of my business each day. The downside was that I wasn’t too keen on running long distances in the evenings after a tiring day of work. By the time I would get home and get changed into my running clothes, it would already be 7pm. A normal hour and a half run would leave me eating dinner at 9pm and going to bed far later than I found acceptable for a 5am wake-up call the next day. On week days, long runs just weren’t possible. I had to be satisfied with minimizing my running time and finding an endorphin kick in much shorter distances. I was not only trying to exercise on a financial budget, but on a time budget as well.

Gear

I’m not completely convinced that running shoes need to be replaced as often as companies would have us believe. I’m sure they would be thrilled if science proved that shoes needed to be replaced daily. I've worn countless pairs of shoes beyond their “best by” dates and suffered no consequences. On the other hand, I’ve experienced a couple of times when I’ve opted for the cheap socks, shorts, shoes, or fuel and regretted it.

While running is cheap as far as sports are concerned, it’s not without its costs. I look at my running shoes and wonder how long I can put off another $150 purchase. If I really want to be a minimalist runner, I’d ditch my shoes altogether and really be able to maximize my budget. When your job is unpaid, every dollar that goes out is a dollar that may not be coming back in for a long time to come. Purchases are reserved for the urgent and necessary items, not the trivial and desired. So, I give my running watch a stern talking to whenever it decides to short out on me and I keep running.

Races

There’s nothing more magical than a race. For such a solitary sport, running really knows how to bring a community together when the time is right. I had the honor of running the Boston Marathon and now understand why hours of grueling training to achieve a qualifying time are worth the few hours spent on the course. That race was powerful.

exercise on a budget

The problem with races is that they are really expensive. If you’re a marathoner, registration for a typical race can run you between $150 and $200. Including race photos, food, additional swag, and parking, you could be out another $150. If you’re looking to travel to a race and make a vacation out of it, well, you can imagine how quickly that adds up. Running has become such a popular sport that someone could participate in a race every week if they wanted to. The high price of admission though makes them inaccessible to those who don’t have a lot of money to spend on the sport. Races become special and rare indulgences that are not splurged upon lightly.

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I’m not opposed to the ideology that goes along with signing up for only one or two races a year and cherishing them. Doing this can make us more thorough with our training, more intentional about creating meaningful experiences, and more thoughtful about the races we sign up for. Only having one or two races a year also allows our bodies adequate rest time to fully recover before taking on the next challenge. I would prefer though that this decision was driven by choice as opposed to restricted finances. If we really believe running should be accessible to everyone, we shouldn’t have any financial barriers to our community events.

I have a bucket list on my computer devoted to the races I’d like to complete during my time as a runner. It’s a long list and I don’t have even a notion of knocking through it any time soon. I’m learning to find joy in my own runs around my hometown; trying hard to infuse my solitary jaunts along the highway with the same spirit and enthusiasm found in races like Boston. Someday I hope to travel and run but, for now, I’ll learn to be content with my imagination and embrace my abilities to exercise on a budget.

What is running doing to your bank account? Leave a comment below so we can mourn those flying dollar signs for the sake of the sport we love.


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