Perhaps you’ve never dared ask yourself which is the more expensive sport; running, riding or swimming? A few of the people I asked responded quickly.
“Oh, cycling. Easily.”
And it might appear on the surface that cycling is the most expensive sport. But you also might be surprised how comparatively expensive running has gotten in comparison to cycling.
Or perhaps it’s all part of the same rate of inflation with sports in general. With the cost of running shoes skyrocketing over the past half decade, and cycling gear not getting any cheaper year to year, the costs of participating in two of America’s most popular recreational activities is possibly getting prohibitive.
And that makes swimming look like a pretty good bargain. But we’ll get to that later.
What follows is an amateur’s analysis of the costs of participating at the approximate same level of caliber in running and riding.
A typical “serious” runner logs about 40 miles per week. That’s 5.7 miles per day on average, or nearly a 10k per day. If our serious runner averages 8 minutes per mile in training, that’s 48:00 per day or 336 minutes a week. About 5.6 hours of running.
At that rate of mileage, a runner is doing 160 miles per month.
That means a serious runner will need to purchase four pairs of shoes per year for training. At an average of $130 per pair, that is $520 per year.
A serious runner will also own at least one other pair of shoes for training on alternate days or in specific conditions. These might be trail shoes ($130) minimalist shoes ($120) or lightweight training flats ($110). In general these “alternative shoes will cost in the range of $250 since no serious runner can resist an extra pair of training shoes, or two.
In addition there will be a pair of racing flats for competition. These can range from $90 to $140, but we’ll use a sum of $120 as an average price.
All told that means shoes alone will cost the serious runner around $900-$1000 per year.
Now, you’ll recall that serious runners log about 420 miles per quarter for about 1680 miles per year. And we’re only factoring in the costs of actually getting out on the road or trails to do the sport.
We haven’t added in the costs of nutrition bars, sports drinks and a host of other superficial and highly variable costs because they are too diverse between runners to get a decently firm handle on how much people spend. Some people would add coffee or cola to the mix, or Ibuprofen. You name it. But for the sake of argument let us suppose that serious runners spend $200 per year on these items that help them train better, and longer. The rest is part of a good diet and general lifestyle.
That brings out total costs to about $1000 per year, minimum. For a runner covering between 1680 and 2000 miles that’s just over $2 per mile to engage in the sport of running. Really not a bad investment.
To compare cycling to running, one can use a factor of 4X typical daily mileage. Most serious cyclists ride two long weekend rides between 3-4 hours, plus three other rides during the week, each averaging between 1-2 hours. That makes a total weekly riding time of 14-17 hours.
At an average rate of 18 mph, a serious cyclist traveling at that pace will cover about 140-160 miles per week, which is how we come up with the factor of 4X the mileage of the serious runner. That level of cycling adds up to about 4000 miles a year.
To become involved in cycling, there is a one-time investment of about $2000 required for a road bike suited for high mileage. Bike costs can start as low as $1000 for a road machine and of course rise as high as $10,000 for a full-on pro-level racing bike. For the “serious” cyclist interested in a carbon fiber or high-grade steel or aluminum bike, the price starts at about $2000.
Amortized over a 10-year lifespan for a bicycle, the cyclist who spends $2000 upfront will be using about $200 worth of the bike’s value each year. One must also amortize the cost of a professional bike fitting, which runs between $80 and $450. For fitting adjustments over time, we’ll amortize $200 over the life of a bike, about 10 years at $20 a year.
Tuneups cost $80 to $200 each year. Generally it is required to change the chain once a year, about $80 to $100. New water bottles (an absolute requirement for long mileage cyclists) can run about $50 per year. Add in the cost of tires at between $80 to $140 per set, possibly twice a year, and you can expect spending at least $200 on new tires.
Sunglasses generally last a few years and cost between $30 and $200. We’ll write that up as $100.
So for a serious cyclist the yearly costs adds up to about $1000 per season, about the same as the typical serious runner will spend on their sport each year. Yet cyclists get about 4X the total mileage for their equipment investment. So technically the cost per mile is about $.50 per mile versus $1-$2 per mile for serious runners.
The good news on the cost front is that swimming is a relatively cheaper sport compared to running and riding. There’s no foot gear to buy, nor bike to maintain. Swimsuits aren’t cheap, requiring an investment of $100 or so, and pool membership runs about $400 per year at most clubs. So we’re really talking about $500 per year.
A serious swimmer will cover about 1/4 the mileage in comparison to a serious runner. Swimming 2000 yards a day is about the equivalent of running 5 miles per day.
Interestingly, the world record for swimming 1500 meters is 14:31.02. The current 1500 world record for runners is 3:26. You get about 15:00 if you multiply the 1500 meter running record 4x. So there’s a rather direct relationship of 4X running times to swim times of the same distance. Fascinating, isn’t it?
Yet swimming stacks up as the least expensive of the three sports in a triathlon.
Of course if you’re a triathlete, you’re spending about $3000 per year minimum just to get out on the road. And that’s not counting entrance fees. So let’s take a quick look at that factor for serious athletes in all three sports.
A serious runner competes in about 10 events per year at an average entry fee of $40 for 5K races or above. That’s $400.
A serious cyclist competing in 10 events per year will need to buy a license ($50) and pay entry fees of $50 per event. That’s $550.
A swim competitor will enroll in a Master’s or other type of organization at about $50 per year. Events range from $25 to $50 depending on the scale or level of competition and that runs about $500 per year as well.
Triathletes crank it all together and not too many athletes do 10 events per year even if they’re serious competitors. Sprint triathlons maybe. Even Olympic tri’s take quite a bit of preparation. Doing a Half-Ironman or Ironman takes at least six months to prepare for and cost about $200 or more to register. Triathlons cost more in terms of logistics for the event, hence the higher costs. Athletes typically also travel quite a ways to find events, since they don’t take place as often as running or cycling events. It’s easy to say that a triathlete could spend $1000 year minimum entering 4-6 total races.
At least you don’t play golf. Or do you?
In any case, running and riding, swimming and triathlons are still cheaper in relative terms than golf, in which participants spend $1000-$2000 on golf clubs that might last a couple seasons before the player starts to blame them for poor scores. Then they trade them in on a new set of clubs or plop the old ones in the garage before buying a new set.
Let us not forget that the cost of membership at a private golf club ranges between $10,000-$20000 a year. Even public courses charge between $65 and $150 per round, double that of a typical running or riding event, and about on part with a typical triathlon.
If a golfer plays two rounds a week at an average rate of $85 that’s $170 per week or $680 per month. Over the course of six months that’s an investment of $4080. Let’s not forget to factor in the cost of lost golf balls. A typical pack of 12 balls runs $25-$45. Depending on your caliber of play, even a serious golfer goes through three packs or so a year for a cost of about $120. Minimum.
Then comes the cost of renting a cart or paying a caddie, which can be another $50-$100 per round. Money spent at the 19th hole can run you $100-$300 per round.
All for a sport where the best you might do is 2-3 miles an hour walking the 7-miles around the golf course. There’s a little twisting and bending involved, and some sweating perhaps during hot weather, or from stress caused by generally poor play.
Unfortunately when it comes to maintaining your health in comparison to running, riding, swimming or triathlon, golf finishes way behind in terms of the best investment of money versus health benefits. Add in the fact that a typical round requires 4-5 hours to play and that’s an investment of 8 hours a week, not counting time on the range cursing your slice or hook.
Don’t get me wrong. I like an occasional round of golf, but the return on investment is much better on sports like running, cycling, swimming and triathlon.
But you’d never know it given the fact that golf is a $25B industry. Some estimates indicate there are about 1.2M acres of golf course land in the United States alone. In desert environments it takes 1M gallons per day to keep the grass green.
Of course there are many millions more acres under the roads we use to run and ride. So no one is the innocent party here. We humans require a lot of dedicated property to partake in the amusements we love. We also spend a lot of money keeping ourselves busy and fit.
So you can judge for yourself if it’s worth it. Obviously I’m no economist, but it appears you get a little more return for your dollar from cycling than you do from running. And swimming is the cheapest of all three. Triathlons? You buy the store when you sign up to do all that.
Get out there and enjoy. And keep a $20 in your pocket in case you get hungry or thirsty. You can’t put a price on finishing a workout in good stead.