Long gone are the days of running in mesh basketball shorts and a cotton T-shirt. Now runners can be picky about what they wear—and for good reason. When you’re taking approximately 1,700 steps per 10-minute mile, you want clothing that can not only keep up with you, but won’t chafe or cling or rub. And even better, you want workout clothes that are quality enough to last.
Female runners spend around $1,132 per year (21 percent more than men) on everything from shoes to coaching, according to a 2020 survey by the product review site Running Shoes Guru. The average apparel budget of $248.40, though, doesn’t go too far—just one pair of Nike performance leggings could cost you $140, while a Lululemon running bra rings up anywhere between $58 and $108.
There’s no arguing that high-performance running apparel can be a point of tension for runners: Should one pair of tights really cost as much as your monthly cable bill? But apparel technology has evolved so much over the last decade or so that a lot of that tech you’ll find in the priciest items (such as moisture-wicking polyester blends and antimicrobial odor-control materials) has trickled down into even the most basic products. Quality, affordable workout clothes are more ubiquitous than ever: You can easily find budget-friendly tops with high-performance elements that will help you get the most out of your workout.
Take Asics’s Ventilate technology, which was created for Olympic athletes—like gold medal discus thrower Valarie Allman—training for Tokyo’s heat and humidity this summer. “We wanted to make sure they were wearing something that they didn’t feel created any distractions from their performance,” says Siobhan Duffy, a product merchandising manager at Asics. “So we studied athletes’ biometrics under rigorous control conditions, trying to mimic what a really hot day in Japan would be like, in order to create our lightest weight, most breathable materials.”
Ventilate apparel pieces feature body-mapped ventilation technology to help sweat evaporate quickly and reduce the humidity inside a garment in higher heat zones (like under the sports bra line or at your mid-back). It typically takes the brand more than two years to develop this type of technology, says Duffy. First, the Asics Institute of Sports Science in Kobe, Japan, conducts rigorous biometric analyses, then it takes about 20 months from the first product development briefing to get to market.
After a new technology has been created, “we’ll take that research and design more budget-friendly items,” says Duffy. Case in point: The Ventilate Crop Top ($55) is made from 100 percent polyester and features that body mapping technology and strategically placed mesh vents to improve breathability, while the W Tank ($30) is made from a poly-blend and uses a breathable back mesh panel to improve airflow. It’s a design derived from the Ventilate technology, but at a more affordable price point.
High costs can be a sticking point for specialty brands like Tracksmith, Janji, or Oiselle. These smaller brands aren’t trying to gouge customers, but including as many high-performance elements as possible in a piece of apparel can jack up the number on the price tag.
“Our philosophy around apparel is that we are creating a premium product, and part of that is not just the tech we develop but the long-term durability of the product,” says Sally Bergesen, founder and CEO of Oiselle.
Some basic Oiselle tanks and T-shirts, for example, are made from a fabric called Tee-Lux; it’s a combination of polyester and Tencel and a tiny bit of spandex, says Bergesen. Pieces start at around $42. That’s a lot higher than the price of a workout top you could score somewhere like Forever21 or H&M, but the lifespan of the materials makes it so you’ll likely be spending less in the long run.
“This fabric will look exactly the same after 20 washes as it did when you bought it—it won’t pill or change shape, and you won’t have to trash it after a couple months,” says Bergesen. It’s a no-brainer: When you buy higher-quality items, you buy fewer things. “But, on the manufacturing side, that does increase costs, because we’re using fibers that inherently have those properties or something has been added to give them that durability,” she says. (And, for certain brands, it’s not just about the quality of “ingredients” that contribute to a higher price point; it’s also about accounting for the human rights parts of the supply chain—including fair pay and workers’ health—in the price as well.)
That’s not to say you can’t get quality products at much lower prices. Brands like Target, Old Navy, and Aerie have been building up their activewear offerings to rival industry stalwarts. Look at Fabletics—you’ve probably seen the company advertising two pairs of leggings for $24. Even with the $50 monthly membership fee, that means each one will cost you just $26 (a steal compared to pricier running brands). Your body will be as happy as your wallet in them, though, because you’re not sacrificing high-performance technology.
The company takes anywhere from 12 to 24 months to create a new fabric or technology (like Motion365, a sweat-wicking nylon that’s highly compressive and still breathable), says Felix del Toro, Fabletics’s chief merchandising and design officer. Once a material meets the brand’s performance, quality, and value standards, those findings can be applied across the board to make even the basics better. “It’s a combination of understanding what’s important to our [customers] and prioritizing the depth and dimension of the technology we’re applying,” he says.
If you compare the Teagan Racerback Tank ($30) and Phoenix Lite Racerback Tank ($40), you’ll see that the former is marketed as merely breathable, while the latter is moisture-wicking and has all-way stretch. “While breathability and moisture wicking are not the same, they are on the continuum of keeping the temperature comfortable while working out,” says del Toro.
When it comes to determining price points, he adds, the more a customer expects from a product—like leggings you’ll wear for high-intensity workouts versus those you put on just to hang around—the higher the cost might be.
No matter the price, how you feel in what you wear while working out is one of the most important elements. Fortunately, the fitness apparel industry has finally evolved to the point where you can feel just as comfortable in a $20 pair of leggings as a $90 pair. And the better you feel, the stronger you’ll run.
How to Shop for More Budget-Friendly Gear
- Determine what type of run you’re shopping for. Short runs don’t really require high-performance clothing, so save your money if you don’t often go the distance. Because fit is the most important element for longer runs, features like bonded seams that reduce chafing or drawstrings that adjust the waistband may be worth splurging on.
- Buy last season. Brands tend to launch new collections every six months (spring/summer and fall/winter). Styles and fabrics don’t change much from year to year—unless a brand is debuting something totally new—so waiting for those markdowns saves you money with little to no compromise.
- Shop indirect. Brand stores tend to focus on top-of-the-line products. But at national retailers like Kohl’s, JCPenney, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Marshalls, or TJ Maxx, you can often find name brands and certain styles at a fraction of the price of what you’d find in the brand store.
- Shop used. While you don’t want to thrift running shoes someone else has already broken in, you can often score apparel from higher-end brands at a steep discount in local secondhand shops or on sites like Poshmark, ThredUp, or Mercari.