AttentionIn a continuing collaboration with Scott over at Straight to the Bar, we will be writing about things that deserve more attention throughout the month of October. This week, I am also going to take part in and discuss the environmental impact of running.

Running is a good activity in which to engage. We learned how to do that well before we learned how to wreck our environment to any great degree. As with anything else, though, there is an impact that we have and it never hurts to be aware of just what that impact is.

Trash in a water stop during a race
Photo by Don Fulano
The biggest environmental impact that runners have, and a totally unnecessary impact that we can all avoid making, is leaving our trash behind while we run. There are some runners that will think nothing of dropping an empty gel packet or water bottle by the side of the road, especially during races. During a race, there may be people that will pick up the trash as long as you drop your items near an aid station, and in a city the trash left behind by runners may be minuscule compared to the litter left behind by everybody else. When we run out in the country or on trails, though, the trash that we leave behind does not have any designated people who volunteer or are paid to pick up after us. Unless you can find a trash can on your run, use a carry in/carry out policy with any waste that you create.

Speaking of waste that you create, urination and bowel movements can also have an impact on a local ecosystem. While your bodily waste will more gracefully biodegrade than a plastic water bottle, it can easily disrupt any local bodies of water. Whenever possible, try to hold it until you find a latrine somewhere, and if you can not then avoid going next to any rivers or ponds. I also recommend avoiding people’s front yards, as they tend to frown on that sort of gift.

I have been involved in discussions about the actual production of carbon dioxide by a runner, but this is not an environmental impact that I worry about. While it is true that you are contributing to the production of green house gases at a greater rate when you run than when you are walking or are sedentary, it is also true that your body becomes a much more efficient machine through exercise so that your overall production (including when you are not exercising) is far less than somebody that is not physically fit or healthy. If you use running (or cycling) as a means of transportation, then the small amount of greenhouse gases that you produce will be nowhere even close to what you are saving by not driving.

Traveling to races and workouts can make a pretty large impact in the environment. If you are traveling to the far side of the country so that you can run a race and then come home, you are having a much larger impact than somebody who runs a local 5k in the town that they live in. If you regularly drive for 30 minutes or an hour just to work out with other people, then you are probably contributing more to the problem than the person that travels only for races. Anybody that knows my goal of running a marathon in all 50 states will realize that I do not think that you should never travel for a race, but I do think that whenever possible you should try to carpool with other local runners and that you should begin your workouts from home or work as often as possible. If you can, walk, jog, or ride a bike to races in your area. I have brought myself to numerous races that way, including a marathon.

Rack of Running ShoesThe last impact on the environment that I would like you to think about has two sides to it. First, consider the energy required to manufacture, market, and transport your shoes and other gear. Your shoes, your clothing, bottled water, electronic devices such as watches and mp3 players, and even the foods that you eat all require that some manufacturing plant somewhere design, fabricate, and produce everything that you use and then ship them somewhere that you can purchase and obtain them. It is a hidden impact that most people do not consider because they never see how things are made or think about how much it takes to ship them.

On the flip side of the coin, think about how much energy it takes to dispose of the waste created by these items when you no longer need them. Shoes do not last forever, and need to be thrown out after 400 or 600 or 800 miles (depending upon how much you want to risk an injury.) Your clothes need to be constantly washed and will eventually need to be disposed of. No electronic device lasts forever, and even if it did you would still need to replace batteries or other power sources. Bottled water is often a one-time use, and there are not a lot of places that I have lived that grow bananas and other fruit locally that runners like to eat. We live in a culture of excesses, so it is difficult to live without waste.

Rather than throwing things out, we should strive to recycle as much as possible. Water bottles can be reused multiple times, and old clothes can be donated to local shelters or to a second hand shop. There are a number of programs across the planet that will recycle your old running shoes, which is great because they are then used to create surfaces for tracks or other athletic surfaces.

I only wanted to make these points as something to think about and to be aware of. In some cases I made a few suggestions about how we can lessen our impact on our planet, but just remember that by the very nature of our favorite activity we are generally doing more good than harm. It is not something that I obsess over, but it is something that deserves a little attention if only to make you think and to make you aware.