How to run greener

It's easier than you might think to be kinder to the environment as a runner

run greener

by Paul Halford |

Saving the planet conjures up images of Will Smith in Independence Day. It sounds like too big a task for any of us to take on – probably why eco-warriors are sometimes given a bit of a hard time. However, when we start to think about small ways in which all of us can help the environment, it becomes a more realistic endeavour.

Rest assured, this article isn’t designed to get you to go vegan or stop you flying ever again. It’s aimed at people just like me who are, well, essentially selfish – people who care about the planet but want to enjoy life now and would rather not have to pay more to do so. After all, being green can be an inconvenience, or it can cost us.

Having said that, environmentally friendly methods can already be more efficient, and future technology will make this even truer. For example, electric cars will eventually become as affordable as conventional ones.

Further, the trend is towards a greener future. People like me will be in more of a minority. When the rest of the world’s outlook is changing, we will naturally adapt our thinking, too. There is no point fighting against this tide.

One of the future changes could be our attitude towards buying clothes. Fashion houses and brands want us to keep spending money on the latest gear and the consumer obliges to varying degrees for the sake of appearances. However, an increased awareness of old clothing becoming landfill is making it less ‘uncool’ to wear old clothes. Kinder on the pocket as well as on the planet.

Rerun Clothing was set up to to combat running clothing waste. Runners can donate unwanted garments, which are then either upcycled or sold on.

However, Dan Lawson, who founded the initiative with wife Charlotte, says the biggest problem is at the start of the chain: the amount of clothes we buy.

“When we’re asked the question ‘what should I buy?’, our answer is always that the most sustainable piece of running kit that you can get is the T-shirt or the running shirt that you already own,” says Dan, a GB 24-hour runner.

“We need to remember that sportswear is about functionality. It’s not about looking good. If you’ve got a jacket that keeps the rain off you, it’s about function, it shouldn’t be about fashion.

“Sometimes the thing that has the most impact is doing nothing at all. Not searching for the greenest bit of clothing, just making your clothes last.

“If you can make your clothes last nine months longer then the waste water and carbon footprint of those clothes drops by 20-30%.”

Maybe pandemic lockdowns have sped long-term changes. Many decided they had no need to buy new clothes as they weren’t going out. Will this lead to people more closely examining the necessity of new running kit?

One of the biggest running-related enemies of the planet is the free race T-shirt. For some reason, as a community we have grown to expect that, when we pay to enter a race, we don’t just get a race. We want some free stuff, too – a race T-shirt, a goodie bag, a medal. Look at reviews of races and you will note that these extras constitute an important consideration for runners when planning their race calendar. Why don’t we consider the race alone to be enough and then a buy a T-shirt separately if we really need one?

One company that has resolved to do something about that is Trees not Tees. Set up by elite trail runner Jim Mann, the initiative encourages race organisers to commit to paying for the planting of a tree instead of giving away a T-shirt. You can either ditch the tops all together or give each runner the option.

Chris Zair, a director at Trees not Tees, explained to us part of the reason for the free T-shirt mentality. He said: “It’s interesting when you speak to race organisers. The perceived value for a runner is that, because you pay £20 for a top in a shop, the T-shirt you get in a race is worth £20. They don’t realise these T-shirts are bought for £2-2.50 from the other side of the world and they’re not high-quality in a lot of cases. But we’re hoping bit by bit that we’ll start to change it.”

He added that another obstacle is sponsorship. “The sponsors play a big role in a lot of races and a big part of what they get back is that presence on the T-shirt. We do understand this is a big part of how races can go ahead,” he said. However, he pointed out that a T-shirt advertises nothing if it’s simply taking up room in a drawer for ages before it’s thrown out in a spring clean. When race organisers invite runners to tick a box to plant a tree instead of taking a T-shirt, an average of 20% of runners will do so. Chris points out that the 20% would be some of those who never wear the free tops they receive anyway, so the race sponsors aren’t losing out on advertising.

The 20% figure seems surprisingly low, although Chris says it rises to 50-60% for trail races. We at TR have long noted that trail runners are much more ecologically minded than average. These figures will surely rise further in future – it’s all about spreading the word to race organisers, says Chris, whose company aims to plant 50 million trees by 2030.

“As runners we can have a lot of influence on race organisers to say, ‘Look, we don’t need these race T-shirts’ or ‘I’ve seen these wooden medals for another race which don’t have the same environmental impact’. A lot of the time, race organisers do it because they think that’s what people want.”

One organiser already on board is North East-based company Greener Miles Running, noted for its environmentally friendly events.

For example, it encourages entrants to car share and has collection points at races for second-hand clothing. Its ‘bees not tees’ campaign involves replacing T-shirts with free wildflower seeds that racers can take home to encourage pollination.

However, founder Mark Marchant says: “The more environmentally friendly you are, the more it costs.”

The pandemic may have changed attitudes, though, when it comes to cost. Mark explains his thinking when trying to put on races during the uncertainty of last summer: “As a race organiser, you ask, ‘Where do the risks come from?’ They typically come from all the stuff you’ve got to buy before the race takes place – T-shirts, medals, plastic bottles. We thought let’s not give that stuff away so the risk is not there.”

Alternatives to plastic bottles in races are increasingly available. Using cups or having runners carry their own bottles are improvements although not ideal. Not everyone can drink out of cups on the move nor wants to carry a bottle.

That’s where companies like Notpla, who manufacture plant and seaweed-based packaging, have been leading a possible future revolution. Their edible and biodegradable Ooho capsules have replaced plastic bottles at races such as the Virgin Money London Marathon. Although the packaging can be safely eaten, if spat out for the organisers to collect it will degrade within about six weeks – the same as for a piece of fruit.

Many of the faster runners drink just a few sips of water or carb drink every two or three miles. What takes hundreds of years to degrade was used for seconds. Lise Honsinger, chief financial officer at Notpla, said: “Using it for the whole 30 seconds that you need to drink something in a race and the two hours before that the organiser needs to have it there, with something that lasts 700 years, seems completely crazy so for us.”

The extra cost of the packaging may be a consideration, given that each Ooho pod costs around 25p. Lisa concedes this is double what a plastic bottle may set back organisers. However, if each runner in a marathon needs around a dozen drinks, this would represent only about £1.50 extra out of a typical race entry fee of £30-40. Surely many runners would be happy to pay the extra if necessary.

“Sadly, we can’t make it cheaper because it’s fundamentally quite limited by the machinery at the moment,” said Lise. “We do hope that in two to three years we’ll have a better machine. But we’ve seen appetite in post-race surveys of a willingness to pay if we put another £1 on their registration.”

The drink pods can take some getting used to but potentially could be easier than drinking from bottles.

“Most have never experienced drinking from a bag so they’ll grab one and they’ll treat it a bit like an apple so they’ll bite into it and be surprised when it loses its structure,” said Lise. “We’re like, ‘No, this a bag of water; you’ve got to nip the corner.’ But once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. The upside in terms of functionality is, once you’ve understood how to do that, it can actually be easier to drink whilst running.”

South Australia has this year banned single-use plastic so race organisers there will have to switch to alternative packaging. Surely other areas of the world will follow suit gradually.

Several elite runners are helping to speed up the pace of the change. For example, the world’s most famous trail runner, Kilian Jornet, has urged events, runners, brands and federations to commit to the ‘Outdoor Friendly Pledge’ (outdoorfriendly.org). Meanwhile, Damian Hall’s Pennine Way fastest known time last year was carbon-neutral, he fuelled without any animal products and he picked up litter on the way. Although his 2020 racing season was decimated for obvious reasons, the UTMB top-five finisher had committed to cutting right back on his travel.

These individuals may be going further than most of us but their actions promote the cause and encourage more of us to make small changes.

As Damian told us last year: “Perfection may not be possible but progression is.”

Chris from Trees not Tees is similarly a believer in the piecemeal approach.

“Rather than make extreme changes, it’s the baby steps that everyone can do will see a better impact,” he said.

Easy ways to help the planet

■ Recycle shoes and kit

Companies such as ReRun clothing and individual sports shops can help. Plus, when your shoes are no longer good enough for running, you can wear them as everyday items. Also, sell or give away kit.

■ Buy eco-friendly kit

The newly released Salomon Index.01 is totally recyclable. Meanwhile, manufacturers such as Inov-8 produce only vegan shoes. Other kit is billed as being produced using environmentally friendly measures or using recycled materials.

■ Wear kit longer

Ask yourself if you really need new kit just because your existing gear is old.

■ Wash your kit less

Microfibres from certain clothes can end up in the water systems during the wash. To cut down on this and on overall clothing consumption, how about wearing your sports gear for a couple of general uses before you get it sweaty on another run?

■ Don’t accept free race T-shirts

That’s if you don’t need them. Encourage organisers to use treesnottees.com.

■ Consider planet-friendly races

For example, Greener Miles Running organise several events while trying to be as eco-friendly as possible. Many other events organisers advertise their green credentials on their website and you can check these out before entering.

■ Get ‘plogging’

The relatively new craze of picking up litter as you’re running can add an extra element of purpose to your run.

■ Buy powdered sports drinks

Using powdered content that you can make up yourself should cut down on the use of plastic bottles.

■ Travel wisely

Share a car when travelling to races or use public transport if possible.

Extend your shoe mileage

inov-8 footwear manager Bodil Oudshoorn offers some tips on how you can make your running shoes last longer.

■ Remove the footbed and, using cold water, hand-wash or rinse the shoes inside and out.

■ Always allow them to dry naturally with the footbed removed. Stuff them with newspaper to speed up the drying.

■ Never wash the shoes with warm water or in a washing machine.

■ Never leave shoes to dry on a radiator or expose them to other forms of heat.

■ Removing the footbed after a run allows the shoes to air properly. Ensure you tip out all the grit from inside the shoe, too.

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