Coach Tip Tuesday: When is it Time to Say Goodbye to Gear?
No matter which endurance sport you prefer, there is a certain amount (and in some cases, a lot!) of gear that comes along with being an endurance athlete. Both athletes new to endurance sports and seasoned athletes alike are often surprised to learn that certain gear items have lifespans and that items need to be replaced once this lifespan is reached. Depending on the item, using gear beyond its useful lifespan will be uncomfortable at best and downright dangerous at its worst. This week, we’ll talk about some of the most common endurance sports gear items and their useful lifespans:
Most athletes who get into running learn pretty quickly that running shoes have a certain lifespan that is generally measured in miles. Basically, running shoes are only good to be run in for a certain amount of miles before the support in the shoe starts to break down and not support the runner in the way that they are designed to.
There are many different types of running shoes, and how many miles they will last is honestly unique to each athlete and depends on a number of factors. One of the biggest factors is the weight of the athlete, regardless of gender. This is basic physics: the more weight that is distributed through a shoe, the more quickly it will break down. If they log their miles on their shoes (which can easily be done via platforms such as Final Surge, Garmin Connect, or Strava) and pay attention to how they feel, each athlete will be able to determine how many miles they can personally get out of a given pair of running shoes.
Generally speaking, a pair of running shoes designed for training will last an athlete anywhere between 350-500 miles. These shoes are designed with durable materials that can absorb the impact forces of running (which are anywhere from 5-7 times the body weight of the athlete) over a decent amount of miles. Most runners need to replace their running shoes at least once per year. Runners training for longer events such as half marathons or marathons may need to replace their shoes at least four times per year.
A pair of running shoes designed for racing and/or high performance will often only last for 80-100 miles. Ironically enough, even though their lifespan is short, the shoes designed for racing and/or high performance are also usually the most expensive running shoes. (For instance, the current popular shoes with carbon plates fall into this category.) Because they are so expensive, athletes often want to keep them for a long time. However, these shoes are designed for springiness, responsiveness, and performance. They are designed for racing, not training, and are thus not designed to be as durable as training shoes are. For marathoners, this means that you may get 2-3 full marathons on a single pair of these types of shoes. Yes, that’s it. 2-3 races in total.
Even if shoes look “good” from the outside (including the rubber outsole on the bottom of the shoe), the foam and supportive materials may be broken down, and these components of the shoe are the most important ones. If the shoe is not supportive, it must be replaced or injury is a risk.
Every single person should wear a helmet every single time they get on any kind of bicycle. Every. Single. Time. Don’t even try to justify not doing this; I have seen firsthand how important helmets are on leisurely slow rides and on higher-speed rides alike. One of my friends was killed when she decided not to wear one on a leisurely neighborhood bike ride and helmets have saved the lives of me and my brother three times on various rides.
Bike helmets are good for one crash or impact. No matter the speed you are riding at, if you crash and hit your head, the foam in the helmet is compromised and will not have the same protective strength going forward. In order to ensure that the helmet will do what it is intended and designed to do when you need it most, you must replace your helmet after any impact or any crash.
Even if you don’t crash and hit your head, helmets do have a lifespan of five years assuming that the helmet is stored in a climate-controlled environment and is handled well. If the helmet is stored in a hot or very cold environment (such as a garage or car) or is thrown about (such as into luggage, into a car, etc.), then the lifespan will be shortened because all of those things compromise the integrity of the foam in the helmet.
Most runners understand how important properly fitting and supportive running shoes are to success in that sport. In fact, there are entire forums on the internet dedicated to conversations around this one gear item. Unfortunately, bike shoes do not get the same consideration, though they should.
As a Bike Fitter, I am constantly seeing just how important shoes are for a cyclist’s riding experience. Properly fitting bike shoes are just as important - if not more so - than running shoes, especially because the lifespan on bike shoes is significantly longer than running shoes. However, many, many athletes often spend less time, energy, and money on getting bike shoes than they do on running shoes. (I can’t even begin to tell you how many times a cyclist will tell me that they got their shoes because they were online and on sale; the same athlete would likely not purchase running shoes as blindly.)
Bike shoes have an average lifespan of 5-7 years. Variables such as total riding time/mileage, how much the shoes are walked in, and what the shoes themselves are made of can alter this lifespan, but 5-7 years is a solid average. Quality, properly-fitting bike shoes are worth the investment, as the athlete’s rate of return on that investment is usually extremely high (again, especially when compared to the cost and lifespan of running shoes).
Related (though definitely not the same) as bike shoes: Bike cleats (that go with clipless pedaling systems) have a lifespan that is important to be aware of. Bike cleats attach to the bottom of bike shoes and can be made of either plastic or metal depending on the type of pedaling system they are compatible with.
The lifespan of bike cleats is dependent on a few factors including the material the cleat itself is made out of, how much the rider walks on the bike shoes/bike cleats. That being said, a good rule of thumb is to replace bike cleats at least every 3,000-5,000 miles. For many endurance athletes, this means replacing cleats at least once per year.
The bike saddle is the center of the bike fitting universe. The hips are the engine in most human movement activities, and cycling is not an exception to that. Contrary to popular belief, the hips (the saddle) is where the majority of the steering and control of the bike comes from (not the handlebars or the arms/hands). Many, many issues that riders face (such as hand numbness, foot numbness, back pain, and knee pain) are often traced back to saddle issues, whether it’s due to the incorrect saddle being ridden or the saddle being in the incorrect position. The right saddle in the wrong position is just as bad - if not worse - than riding on the wrong saddle.
I’ve observed that athletes have a lot of misconceptions about bike saddles and, as they often do with cycling shoes, I find that that athletes choose saddles based on inappropriate considerations, including choosing a saddle because it’s on sale, because it worked for their friend, or because it looked like it would be comfortable hanging on the rack in the bike shop.
However, just like running shoes and bike shoes, saddle selection should be made based on the anatomy of the rider. Saddles come in a plethora of shapes in sizes because humans come in a plethora of shapes and sizes. Bike saddles should be selected based on the rider’s pelvic anatomy (meaning how wide their sit bones are or how wide their rami bones are, depending on the position that is being fit). A saddle that does not match the shape of its rider will never be comfortable for that rider.
As a general rule, saddles last 10,000-12,000 miles. For many endurance athletes, this means that saddles last 5-6 years. Like bike shoes, since saddles do last a long time, the return on investment is high here, and since the saddle is the center they are worth spending money on.
Bike Chains, Cassettes, Tires, and Brakes
Additional gear items that have lifespans in cycling are bike chains, cassettes, tires, and brakes.
Bike chains have the second shortest lifespan of any item on a bicycle because it is what drives the bicycle. It is literally being used and strained every single time an athlete rides. Over time, the chain stretches out and won’t function the way it’s designed. Once this happens, the chain needs to be replaced. Bike chains typically last 2,000-3,000 miles.
Bike cassettes can actually last a long time, but how long they last does depend heavily on the riding style of the athlete. Athletes who do not shift a lot will wear out their cassettes prematurely because they are constantly using the same gears. Over time, the teeth on the cogs of the cassette wear down and eventually won’t grab the chain to keep the bike moving forward. A good rule of thumb here is to replace a cassette every 5,000 miles or so.
Bike tires are designed to be durable and to withstand the friction that is imposed on them as one rides. How long they last depends on the weight of the rider, the weather conditions one rides in, the terrain that is being ridden, and the surface of the road or trail. That being said, bike tires generally last around 3,000 miles.
Bike brakes have the shortest lifespan of any item on a bicycle because of how much friction they have to withstand when they are deployed. How long they last varies widely and depends on what they are made out of, what type of riding the athlete is doing, what conditions the athlete is riding in, and how much the rider uses their brakes. Bike brake pads can have a lifespan of anywhere from 500-2,000 miles depending on all of these factors.
Sports bras are one of the most essential pieces of gear for female athletes. They provide critical support, which leads to increased comfort for female athletes while exercising. Sports bras get the majority of their support from the band (not the cup or underwire), and eventually, the band does break down with use over time between wearing and washing the garment. If a sports bra is worn once per week, it should generally be replaced after it’s been in use for one year.
For many triathletes, wetsuits are a very beloved piece of equipment. How long a wetsuit will last largely depends on how well it is cared for. Over time, a wetsuit’s materials can start to break down and become brittle. Additionally, cuts and tears in the neoprene can expedite the end of a wetsuit’s life. That being said, a well-cared for wetsuit can last an athlete anywhere from 2-8 years depending on frequency of use.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.