the hard to shop fors

The Best Holiday Gifts for Beginning, Advanced, and Marathon Runners

Photo: Courtesy HBO

Finding the perfect holiday gift can be maddening (is this the color they’d want? Is it something they already have? Is it so last year?), but really, once you have a sense of a person’s taste, it’s not impossible. This season, we’ll be talking to members of various tribes to find out exactly what to get that college student, or serious home cook, or boss (who has everything) in your life. Think of it as a window into their brain trust — or, at least, a very helpful starting point.

Runners can be picky about their gear and rightly so, as my favorite Gu flavor might make you sick, and your tried-and-true sneakers could leave me with shin splints. That lands them firmly in the hard-to-shop-for category, but as long as you avoid ultrapersonal items like nutrition, it’s possible to give runners in your life gifts they’ll love this holiday season. Based on my own favorites, plus an informal survey of nine friends who run everything from 5Ks to marathons, I’ve narrowed down the best gifts for runners of all experience levels, from new runners tackling their first miles to speedsters collecting age-group race prizes. From tried-and-true classics to brand-new gear, you’ll be sure to find something for your favorite runner. Don’t miss all of the Strategist’s holiday gift coverage right here, too.

For new runners

Feetures High Performance Ultra Light No Show Tab 3-Pair Pack

New runners often don’t invest in moisture-wicking socks made from synthetics or wool, and run in their old cotton socks. A wet cotton sock rubbing against the foot can cause painful blisters that may stop new runners in their tracks. These thin and breathable socks from Feetures keep feet dry, and a heel tab protects against irritation from the back of the shoe. For runners picking up the habit, a three-pack should get them through a week of running without doing laundry.

Smartwool PhD Run Ultra Light Low Cut

If you know someone who started running this spring or summer and is going to be dealing with cold weather for the first time, you can’t go wrong with a pair or two of wool socks. Wool naturally wicks moisture away from the skin to keep feet warm and dry on icy days. Go with an ankle sock instead of a no-show to keep that little gap of skin between their socks and tights covered.

Tracksmith Women’s Brighton Base Layer

Another winter essential is a good base layer. These long-sleeve, close-fitting tops can be worn on their own on mild days or layered underneath a heavier jacket when it gets very cold out. When we spoke to experts about base layers, merino wool came up again and again because of its moisture-wicking and temperature-regulating properties. These supersoft ones from Tracksmith are my favorites. They come in hues like sunny yellow and burgundy wine that mix up an all black and gray running wardrobe. The men’s version is available here.

Sugoi Zap Training Tuke

A warm hat is a must-have for runners, and this one comes from Sugoi, the maker of, in my opinion anyway, the coziest warm running tights on the market. The hat incorporates the same fleecey material for keeping your head and ears warm, even on cold and windy days, and visibility details on the exterior keep runners safe when running in the dark.

Yurbuds Inspire 300 Noise Isolating In-Ear Headphones, Purple

Listening to music or podcasts can be hugely motivating for runners who need a distraction from the long road ahead. While Bluetooth wireless headphones eliminate any annoying cord tangles, I actually prefer old-school headphones because they never need charging. If RapCaviar is the only thing getting the runner in your life through their daily miles, you don’t want them stuck with a pair of dead headphones. Yurbuds stick in sweaty ears, and mine have lasted for years.

Bose SoundSport Free Truly Wireless Headphones — Bright Orange

On the other hand, if the latest technology gets a new runner going, Strategist writer Maxine Builder recently tested out truly wireless earbuds and liked all the workout-friendly features this pair had to offer. They don’t block out ambient noise — which is a good thing for outdoor runners who need to hear things like oncoming cars — and they’re easy to adjust with a light touch while on the run. Maxine says, “There’s also a so-called ‘Sport Tip,’ a plastic hook that helps secure the earbuds to your ears even while you’re bouncing around.”

Garmin Forerunner 35 GPS Running Watch

As your miles start accumulating and your runs get longer, it’s exciting to track your progress with a GPS watch. Getting a Garmin — the name itself is synonymous with running watch in certain circles — can be a rite of passage for runners marking their transition to full-blown data-obsessed run nerds. This entry-level model monitors speed, time, and distance, and functions as a daily activity tracker when you’re not running. A friend who runs two to three times per week said, “I’ve been using the Nike+ Run app, and even though it shows mileage numbers, it doesn’t always appear to be accurate, since there is no map that shows where I’ve actually run. The Garmin would make tracking my mileage more accurate.”

Apple Watch Nike+ Series 3 GPS

For the new runner who isn’t quite sure if the habit is going to stick, an Apple Watch has most of the functions of a dedicated running GPS watch, and the band can be swapped out for everyday wear. “The Apple Watch is a good option to help novices appreciate accountability and structure,” said Meghan Takacs, a running trainer for the fitness app Aaptiv told us when we were looking into the best GPS watches. “It offers a daily steps goal to meet, along with reminders to get them in [and] the ability to sync popular apps.”

FlipBelt Crops

Good gifts for new runners address concerns that might keep them on the couch and off the road. We’ve touched on blisters and boredom, and this armband answers another common question: Where do I put my stuff?! There are armbands and running belts, of course, but these innovative crop tights have a waistband-wide pocket that fits everything with no moving parts. For a longer-length tight, the Tracksmith Turnover legging has a similarly roomy back pocket.

For veteran runners

On Point Sports Care Sports Massage

Runners pounding the pavement several times a week know all about aching muscles. A good rubdown by a pro relieves pain by loosening muscle fibers and increasing circulation. Among my running friends, massages were the most wished for gifts hands down. One runner I spoke with said she’d love “a gift card to get a good massage, somewhere they really know how to treat athletes or somewhere that’s really swanky and worth the splurge after a big race.” At On Point Sports Care in New York, the massage therapists are athletes themselves who understand the unique needs of runners.

Zeel Massage on Demand

Or you can indulge your runner with an in-home massage from Zeel. They’re currently available in more than 85 metropolitan areas across the country. Perfect for the runner whose legs won’t carry them one more inch.

Hyperice Vyper 2.0 High-Intensity Vibrating Fitness Roller

If they’re too busy running to take time out for a massage, this vibrating foam roller gets deep into sore muscle tissues at home. There are three speed settings for controlling the intensity of the vibrations. I’ve tried one at a physical therapist’s office and never got beyond the first level — so there’s a good chance this will be a favorite of hard-core runners who find traditional foam rollers too soft.

Belmint Shiatsu Foot Massager Machine with Heat Function

A longtime Strategist favorite, this heated foot massager will give aching feet a rest after long winter runs.

Nathan Trail Mix Plus Insulated Hydration Belt

Runners tackling longer distances may want to bring water with them to hydrate along the run — especially during the winter when many public water fountains are turned off. This belt features two water bottles and a pocket big enough to stash a phone and keys.

Yaktrax Run Traction Cleats

Don’t let icy streets keep your favorite runner indoors this winter. Even the most dedicated runner who goes out in triple-digit temps and torrential downpours can feel hesitant when the sidewalk starts to resemble an ice-skating rink. Yaktrax cleats strap on to their sneakers and give them traction and stability, so they can get their miles in without worrying about slips and falls.

TrailHeads Touchscreen Gloves with Reflective Waterproof Mitten Shell

Sometimes runners want a glove, and sometimes they want a mitten. With this pair, they get the best of both worlds. The mitten shell folds over to cover their fingers when they want it, and tucks into the glove when they don’t. And with touchscreen fingertips, they can take a call or change up their music while keeping their hands warm.

Injinji Unisex Run Lightweight Ultra Thin Cushioning No Show Toesocks Bundle (2 Pairs)

Even longtime runners can’t resist new socks, especially if they have specific concerns like blisters in between the toes. A friend of mine with this issue said, “Injinji socks were game-changing for me. They help keep me blister-free on my runs and come in all different blends, thicknesses, and even some fun colors.”

Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.: Quick-Fix Recipes for Hangry Athletes

Carbo-loading may be one of the most enticing things about running, but it’s also important to make sure you’re getting the right kind of calories and nutrients to fuel your runs. The second in a collaboration between Olympian and 2017 New York City Marathon winner Shalane Flanagan and chef Elyse Kopecky, this cookbook features recipes geared toward runners’ needs that are also quick and easy to make, so they can spend more time, you know, running.

Daniels’ Running Formula by Jack Daniels

Speedy runners, or anyone looking to shed seconds off their times, will appreciate the science-backed training plans from expert coach Jack Daniels. Using the tables in the book, runners can discover their “VDOT” value — a measure of fitness developed by Daniels — to set smart goals for future races, develop a weekly workout plan, and determine their ideal training speeds.

For marathon runners

Vim & Vigr Women’s Solid Black Moisture-Wick Nylon Compression Socks
Photo: Athena Lonsdale/Athena Lonsdale
Vim & Vigr Women’s Solid Black Moisture-Wick Nylon Compression Socks

Writer Alison Freer bought these compression socks for her mom who was recovering from surgery, but they’re just as useful for distance runners. Marathon training requires running nearly every day of the week — even when your body isn’t fully recovered from your last run. Compression socks speed up muscle recovery and decrease the muscle vibration caused by the high impact of running. Get the moisture-wicking ones to avoid overheating.

Coola Mineral Sport SPF 50 Sunscreen Stick

When you’re running outside for several hours each week, you’re going to get a lot of sun exposure. Runners know to use Body Glide to prevent chafing and wear hats to keep their ears warm, but often forget to protect their skin, thinking they’ll either sweat off sunscreen or it’ll run into their eyes. Dr. Jennifer Stein, a dermatologist at NYU Langone Health, says “a stick is a good way to get a sunscreen that doesn’t run as much.” Treat them to this high SPF, water-resistant sunscreen stick to keep a runner’s skin looking just as good as their form.

Lululemon Run All Day Backpack II 13L

Whether it’s running to and from work, squeezing in a workout while doing errands, or jogging to brunch to earn your mimosa, marathon training often requires getting creative to fit all your runs into an already-packed schedule. A lightweight running backpack with adjustable straps can securely hold a change of clothes or shoes, or your work stuff, without being too distracting on the run. I’ve used the older version of this Lululemon backpack and was impressed by how snugly it fit with minimal bounce.

Suunto 9 GPS Watch

For runners tackling ultramarathons (distances longer than 26.2 miles) or even marathoners who want the security of extra battery life, this Suunto watch will last anywhere from 25 to 120 hours, depending on the mode its in, without a charge. Even if they’re not tackling epic distances, runners will appreciate being able to go a week without charging their watch.

Personalized New York City Marathon Map Print

These minimalist course prints, personalized with a runner’s time and race number, are an understated way for marathoners to show off their accomplishments. They’re available for popular races including Boston and London, and look better hanging on the wall than a tattered bib.

TriggerPoint Grid X Foam Roller

As painful as it can be at times, regular foam-rolling should be a fact of life for anyone training for a marathon. Rolled out muscles feel better on daily runs, and getting in the habit can prevent more serious overuse injuries. Several runners wished for a TriggerPoint by name, including one former collegiate runner who said it’s “amazing for rolling out any aches and pains.” The Grid X model is extra firm for full-body rolling.

TriggerPoint Foam Massage Ball

More inconspicuous, this tiny yet powerful ball provides muscle relief wherever you are. Sitting with one underneath an achy glute or hamstring is a great way to squeeze in some recovery time at work. It also feels superb to roll under your foot.

Bkr Spiked Metallic 1 Liter Water Bottle

Besides leaving you sore, marathon training also tends to make you constantly dehydrated. This glass bottle holds a full 32 ounces of water (that’s around six glasses, if they’re keeping track), and the spiky silicone cover feels just a little bit punk.

For the runner who has everything

OOFOS OOriginal Sandal

Slipping into old sneakers or a pair of slippers after a race is a big relief for sore feet, so why not treat the runner in your life to these sandals specifically designed for recovery? The sandals’ contour and cushioning supposedly absorb impact and reduce stress on the feet, knees, and lower back. They also just feel plush and squishy.

Janji Runpaca Long Sleeve in Potosí
Janji 2-in-1 Pace Short in Kikko Triangle

While they probably don’t need more running clothing, at least they can justify that the technical gear from Boston-based Janji supports a good cause. The company gives 5 percent of all profits to funding clean water projects in a different developing country, like Uganda or Bolivia, each season. For each collection, they collaborate with local artists for pieces inspired by regional designs. This shorts-and-long-sleeve combo has been one of my go-to outfits for fall running. Men’s styles are also available here.

Air Relax Sequential Compression Device

Usually only found in physical therapists’ offices, air-compression boots speed up recovery by alleviating inflammation, improving circulation, and bringing down swelling in the muscles. Or as one of my running buddies said, “It’ll squeeze the pain right out of you.” This would be an impressive addition to any runner’s recovery arsenal.

Garmin Fenix 5S Sapphire

They probably already have a running watch, but do they have a watch with a built-in compass and altimeter that will measure their cadence and lactic threshold and predict race times? What about one that will also give data on swimming, cycling, golf, and hiking? Or one with a sleek “Champagne” metal band? Probably not.

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The Best Holiday Gifts for All Types of Runners