Ultrarunning on a Budget


Running is a decidedly simple sport. You don’t need a team, opponent or a lot of gear. It’s seemingly the perfect sport for the miserly – until you start ultrarunning. The costs of ultrarunning can easily pile up faster than the miles. So how can you keep your budget from bonking but still get out and enjoy long distances? Here are some ideas for ultrarunning on a budget.


Unless you are a barefoot runner, shoes are probably the biggest recurring expense in the sport. While road shoes will likely get you through most trail races, I do think trail shoes offer additional features that are worth having, especially if you are running on particularly rugged terrain. Look for sales and last year’s models to trim costs. Also, I never judge the age of my shoes by the number of miles they have on them, but rather by their wear and tear (particularly, changes in the sole). And a run through the washer can renew a muddy pair. I routinely get 800-1,000 miles on my shoes before replacing them (injury-prone runners may need to be a bit more cautious here). Since blisters are one of the major whammies when it comes to derailing a race or long run, I don’t cheap out on socks.


When it comes to gear, I’d say the most important way to budget is to separate “need” from “want.” Every year, companies are coming out with the latest and greatest in shoes, packs, watches, lights and even duffle bags. It’s only natural to covet all the fancy new gear, especially if you see your favorite elite athlete is using all of it on Instagram. But do you really need it?

Of course, there are some things that are necessary for ultrarunning, like a headlamp, if you will be running at night, or a pack to carry food and water when heading into remote locations. Before making a purchase, do your homework by researching different features and talking to friends. Then, if possible, test out what you want to buy, either by borrowing it from a friend or going to a running store. A good piece of equipment that you love should last for many years. For example, I bought the original AK vest from Ultimate Direction in 2012. I know there have been upgrades, new designs and female specific models, but it is still my go-to race vest. It has gotten me through four Western States, Angeles Crest, Mohican 100, Spartathlon and Badwater to name a few, and I don’t plan to replace it any time soon.

And then, some ultra gear just isn’t necessary or can be replaced with cheaper options. I use gallon-size ziplock bags for all my drop bags, and my crew will just have to put up with my old ratty backpacks to lug my gear. Vaseline and Desitin are cheap alternatives to expensive body lubes. Free promotional water bottles hold liquids just as well the name brand bottles, and leave you a lot less disappointed if you leave one behind. Polarized sunglasses are easy to find under $30, so no need to fork over $80. I have also found that headlamps geared for campers are cheaper than those marketed for ultrarunners, even with similar lumen output.


I like to say “Maltodextrin is not God’s gift to ultrarunners!” (this applies to all other synthetic carbohydrates as well). Yes, gels and powders can provide large quantities of easily portable calories, but proprietary brands are often quite expensive, running up to $2 per pouch. The texture of gels can be gag-inducing after a while, and drink mixes start to taste sickly sweet. Not all people can fully digest these carbohydrates, so they experience gas and bloating. Shopping at the supermarket can save you a lot of money, and junk food snacks make great running food. One of my favorites are fruit snacks, which taste great and come in perfectly sized portions. During a recent three-day trip on the Wonderland Trail, fruit snacks and Good & Plentys made up a significant portion of my calories. I did Run Rabbit Run 100 primarily on Red Vines and Sprite, and Badwater was almost entirely fueled on soda, bottled Frappuccinos and Pringles. Plus, if you can eat real food, it means race aid stations are basically free buffets (at least you’re getting your money’s worth out of your race entry). Post run, I often make my own recovery drinks. Even mixing Gatorade and a protein powder is about half the cost of a pre-packaged recovery drink mix. Many people opt for chocolate milk, while making your own smoothies with ingredients like bananas and peanut butter is another cheap option. And remember, your recovery food doesn’t have to be a drink – a sandwich or cup of yogurt will do just fine.

For being a relatively simple sport, ultrarunning can come with a big price tag. Being mindful of what you buy and what you really need can help you get “high mileage” out of your money.


About Author

Pam Smith ran her first trail race in 1992 and started ultra-distance races in 2002, with more than 70 finishes. She was the 2013 Western States champion and holds the Angeles Crest course record. She has been on a total of seven national teams for both the 100km and 24-hour events. Pam is running her seventh Western States 100 in 2018 under the Active Joe sponsorship. She lives in Salem with her husband and two children and she works as a pathologist. More of Pam’s writing can be found on her blog, “The Turtle Path.”


  1. John Bryan on

    My biggest recurring costs are race fees. A couple of my favorite local shorter distance races have pretty much priced themselves out of my annual race fee budget – if it’s a distance I can do self-supported simply then I’ll just go there and run on my own – I don’t have to have the race day experience. That way I can save up for a couple longer distance events. I know that the cost of putting on racing events continues to rise, at my current income level I tend to be more selective.

  2. John- I agree and I included a section on minimizing race costs but it looks like it didn’t make the editing cuts! -Pam

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