How can runners and races be more Sustainable?

Happy March to you all.


I hope life is treating you well. I haven't written a blog post in over two months and I can't believe the time has passed so quickly.


After the Christmas lockdown announcement I found things quite overwhelming and if I am honest, I haven't felt inspired to write anything. It's been a strange time and I've tried to stay focussed on doing my best to be a good mum and get through each day.


I've continued to progress through the accreditation process with my refill mylks and I'll send out an update newsletter soon, so make sure you are subscribed here if you'd like to hear my latest news.


One thing that has kept me going throughout this lockdown has been my running. It's always been my passion but now more than ever it's been my crutch. My running time is my time to reflect and listen to podcasts or run with a friend and explore new routes.


I set myself a weekly distance goal most weeks and feel accomplished when I achieve it. My run punctuates my day in the same way my cup of coffee does! I look forward to it.


I recently started reading "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. It's a book about the secret tribe of Mexican ultra runners known as The Tarahumara, who are the world's greatest distance runners, and go for hundreds of miles enjoying every minute.


This tribe of barefoot runners made me think about many things that the modern world has created. Many innovations that have helped us, but also many that are harming our planet because we constantly feel the need to upgrade what we have. 


As runners we are targeted by marketing and enticed into buying the latest gadgets, shoes, watches, backpacks, clothing and much more. We are also goal diggers and love to take part in races.


As someone who enjoys races, having done several abroad and in the UK, I never consciously considered the environmental impact of my running until relatively recently.


The more time we've gone without racing I've started thinking about whether this period is in fact an opportunity to consider how as runners we can reduce our carbon emissions in the longer term. I haven't spoken  to any event organisers personally but I've been hoping they too are using this time to make positive changes for the sake of our planet and future running generations.


I became more conscious of how my decisions impact on the environment when I did "Plastic Free July" (2018).


Since then I've tried to minimise unnecessary purchases, buy second hand, reuse rather than recycle and look at how we as a family can minimise our food and packaging waste.


This journey sparked something in me that led on to the development of Jo's MacMylk, which will soon offer refill nut mylks in glass bottles. My premise was to make it easier for other families who want to reduce packaging waste and COs emissions, by switching to plant based mylks.


These efforts to reduce our waste filtered into my running. When I make a decision to purchase running attire I shop second hand where I can or look for brands who are environmentally conscious. Where I place my money IS within my control and I want to support companies who're making positive change rather than those who aren't willing to consider change.


During 2020 I started thinking about the races I want to take part in after lockdown. I usually sign up for 2-3 races each year and have done for the past 10 years. Sometimes these races are further afield, outside Scotland or abroad.


Whilst I plan to keep doing races, I'm aware that this adds up in terms of my carbon footprint. I want to take more responsibility for this, but I'm not perfect and I do find balancing these considerations hard.


There are many places in the world I still want to see and share with my children, to experience new cultures, food and experiences. This means flying and aviation contributes about 2% of the world's global carbon emissions according to the International Air Transport Association. Flying creates more emissions than any other mode of transport. I know I will continue to travel to races but there are things I plan to do to reduce my impact on the planet.


I will be more selective about the races I choose, based on how they contribute to positive change. I will reduce my personal waste & emissions associated with races and running overall, combining any trips I take with family holidays or places I've always wanted to visit. I will travel economy because it's been shown that passenger emissions travelling business class on a long haul flight are three times higher per km than economy. First class is 4 times higher per km than economy. (Dep for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy).


Racing and other big event companies have a responsibility to manage their environmental impact, especially the larger races, such as London Marathon, New York and Boston, who lead the way for the smaller races. These races introduce runners to new products, they're sponsored by big brands, who also have a responsibility to limit their environmental impact and make positive changes for our planet.


There isn't much research into the exact volume of waste created by races globally but one US survey of 19 marathons found the average amount of waste sent to landfill was 7.11 tons per race (Runner's World).


I am going to talk through some of the things I've noticed while participating in races over the years. These are areas others have also discussed that could be improved to make events more sustainable and responsible.


The Council For Responsible Sport recently co-created a 10 point guide for endurance event organisers and described a responsible event as "one that undertakes a holistic assessment of the ways the event affects people, generates economic activity, and uses raw materials and energy that affect local ecosystems and Earth's broader ecology."


In some cases these things are already being considered with some races doing a much better job than others. I'll include some of the stats I've found, races that are doing a better job and anything else I can think of.


I'm not an expert and haven't conducted primary research, only my own observations, but I want to start a conversation about this because I believe we can all make a difference by making considered choices.




Races use a LOT of plastic. In 2018 The London Marathon got through 920,000 water bottles while Westminster City Council collected 5,200kg of rubbish and 3,500kg of recycling from the streets, including approximately 47,000 plastic bottles (BBC website).


Plastic pollution is a huge problem globally with between 2.5 and 12.7 million tons of plastic ending up in our oceans every year (Journal Science, 2015). 


There are a number of races doing away with plastic water bottles and offering water-refills instead or utilising compostable cups. The London Marathon in 2019 trialled recycle bottle belts with 700 runners, reduced their drink stations from 26 to 19 and offered Lucozade sport in compostable cups. Overall, they reduced their bottles by 215,000 - but leaving some 720,000, which still seems like way too much for a one day event. 


I ran my first Ultra marathon in October 2020 and they offered refills, which suited me fine as I always prefer to run with my own water bottle and top it up. I think this change may have been partly Covid-related but nevertheless it was the first race i've done like this and I don't see why more races couldn't adopt this strategy.


Something most of us can do as runners is practice carrying our own water, whether that's using a hydration vest or water bottle with a handle. For elite athletes this may not be an option because every second counts but for most runners, we are not professionals and can try carrying our own water. Personally, I find this saves me time because I don't need to stop for water as often and it's easier to drink from a running water bottle than a plastic cup or capped bottle of water.




The much coveted race T shirt is something many runners like to collect at the end of a race. However, 300,000 t0ns of clothing go to landfill in the UK each year (The Economist) and many runners don't use their race t-shirts, disposing of them after the race, which adds to the textile waste in landfill.


Some races have started offering an opt out of a T-shirt in the sign up process. Refusing one at the end is pointless because the T-shirt already exists and will likely go to waste regardless.


Manchester Half Marathon decided to do away with T-shirts completely in 2019, after recognising that the 100kg of left over t shirts from their 2018 race was not okay.


As runners we can consider if we really need that race t-shirt and whether we will wear it after the event. If we don't think we will then we can decline the t-shirt offer during sign up.


Another common thing I've noticed at races is the number of runners who come with layers they remove and throw onto the course as they warm up. This is something that has bothered me for years. I know it's hard to get the balance right and stay warm before the race but throwing away clothing is something I can't get my head around. I'd rather freeze or be too hot, put excess clothing around my waist or in a running vest, than throw it away.


Royal Parks Half marathon was the first major half to go plastic bottle free. It's T-shirts are made from bamboo and recycled bottles and medals from FSC certified wood. The reason they switched to wood was because metal medals are almost exclusively made in China and shipped or air freighted  to the UK.


The Bennachie Ultra Marathon I entered in November 2020 also gave out wooden medals, which was the first wooden medal I have received. 


I would suggest the medal becomes an option, similar to the t-shirt. Even if it's only a small percentage of runners who decline a medal, it will save energy in the process of engineering the medal and in potential waste further down the line.




Food, like everything comes in packaging and some packaging is more environmentally friendly than others. Races traditionally offer energy bars, sweets and energy drinks and you only need to look at the ground after any race to see a plethora of plastic bottles, gel wrappers and goodie bags left behind.


There is a slowly growing number of companies offering more sustainable running snack options. 


The 2019 London Marathon for example, offered edible-seaweed energy drink capsules called Oohos. The Royal Parks Half marathon also offered these at their race that same year.


The Original Mountain Marathon have their very own ecologist to help conduct a detailed impact assessment report. The food, beer, and supplies they provide are all sourced from local suppliers and use compostable disposables. They aim to be 100% disposable free.


The Royal Parks Half marathon ensure that 58% of waste from their food festival is composted. 


In terms of food, I believe the best thing we can do is make and bring our own food or at least select and buy our food from companies who care about the planet and are making positive change. There are benefits to making your own running snacks; selecting ingredients you enjoy and minimising waste by carrying your snacks in reusable wrappers.


I recently tried Lucho Dillitos Guava fruit bars, which are wrapped in a compostable leaf and 100% vegan. They were really tasty, easy to carry and easy to dispose of the wrapper, without worrying about where to throw it.


Reconsidering the amount of animal products we consume is another thing we can do. By switching to plant based running fuel, vegan protein powders and bars we can lesson our personal impact through what we eat whilst training and during our races.


Whilst I know going vegan isn't possible or suitable for everyone, there is growing research to show how a plant based diet lessens our impact on  the planet. A recent study called The Veganism Impact Report suggests that if 100% of the global meat eating population switched to a plant based diet, we would see a 70% decrease in CO2 and one billion hectares of land currently used for livestock would be made available for growing plant based proteins, fruits and vegetables. Other studies have shown a Flextarian diet can have a significant impact on CO2 emissions. That is a diet that minimises animal products but doesn't eliminate them entirely. 


Even reducing our consumption of animal products in snacks and running fuel could make a difference and it's easier to do than cutting out all or most animal products. I love to make energy balls and bars using ingredients I have in my store cupboard. All you need is a food processor and your favourite nuts or seeds and dried fruit such as dates. Not only do they taste better than shop bought protein bars but they're packed with nutritious whole foods.




Another big opportunity to reduce waste is race signage, start/finish banners, advertising signs etc. The Royal Parks Half marathon chose to create signage that could be reused year on year by not including the date on their banners and signs. I heard this on an episode of The Cook, Eat, Run podcast about Sustainable Running and Races.




One of the primary sources of environmental impact at road races is the greenhouse gas emissions from participants travelling to and from the event venue (Council for Responsible Sport). Big global races might have as many as 40, 000 participants and many fly in from around the world.


The New York City Marathon hosts 50,000 people travelling in from 50 states and 150 countries around the world every year and is only one of 100s of marathons around the world.


On the other side of the coin, there are benefits to be had from things like closing roads during big events such as The London Marathon. Closed roads meant air pollution during the London Marathon falls by 89%.


I am not suggesting we avoid travel for races. I have a dream list of events outside the UK I've always wanted to run and I don't plan  to stop racing any time soon.


I will however consider other aspects of the events I participate in to minimise my environmental footprint. I'll always combine foreign races with a holiday we would otherwise take at another date. I'll take my own fuel where I can, decline T-shirts and medals where I won't use them and travel by less damaging means than flying where I can. 


If you are interested in supporting events that have been shown to take their environmental and social responsibilities more seriously, The Council for Responsible Sport has a certification list which you can find here.




I couldn't leave this post without discussing virtual races, which have been a mainstay for many of us runners in the past year. 


They've taken over from real life races, even in some of the major world marathons. I am sure it could be argued that running virtually has also helped the planet by avoiding the waste associated with running races in person.


Running solo in your own city or town is definitely not the same as travelling to New York or London to race with thousands of other runners from all over the world, BUT a virtual race may be something to consider for those who want to reduce their carbon footprint or to gain confidence in racing without the pressure.


Last year I took part in The Race to The Stones 100K Ultra running virtually. I was lucky to be able to buddy up with a friend for some of the runs.


For me this was a great introduction to Ultra running because it was 100k over the course of a week, rather than on one day. I found it a relaxed and enjoyed challenge without pressure, which gave me the confidence to go on and run a 50K Ultra for real in November. Taking part in Race to The Stones virtually also meant I skipped the travel from Aberdeen to Oxford that I would otherwise have done via plane or car.


This was my only experience of a virtual race and although I did enjoy it, I'd still prefer to have raced in person. There is nothing that compares to the buzz of a race, the anticipation, the build up and the camaraderie as well as a challenging new route. 


As things go back to normal post Covid it may be possible to link up with local groups of runners or friends, who also want to run virtually, and take part in a big event but run at home. Running with others is more appealing for me than running on my own BUT I still love races and for those I take part in, I can't imagine doing them ALL virtually.


I hope this post was of interest and sparked some ideas about how you can reduce your carbon footprint. I'd love to know your thoughts or if there are any races you've completed that had innovative ways of minimising waste and pollution?


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