Beth Ward

Earlier this year when a colleague asked me to calculate my carbon footprint, I felt pretty confident—I don’t own a car; I take public transportation to work; I recycle. I scored pretty well, but it got me thinking. Almost no activity is carbon neutral—not even running.

Running seems like an environmentally-friendly sport: there are no power-hungry stadiums, minimal equipment, and you’re just using your two legs to get from point A to point B. I’m training for my first marathon in May, and every time I hit the pavement it seems harmless. But the marathon itself may be a different story. I had no idea when I first started training, but then I stumbled on an article that asked: Are marathons bad for the planet?

It turns out that the average runner is responsible for 19.2 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions during a 26.2 mile-marathon, The Washington Post reports. But this calculation was based solely on the CO2 used to meet a runner’s larger diet, which is pretty non-negotiable. What it didn’t consider was the other factors that add to a runner’s race-day carbon footprint, such as transportation to the race and the emissions from manufacturing running shoes. The Post reports a pair accounts for 16.6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent total, but a recent Runner’s World article puts the amount closer to 30 pounds of CO2 emissions, or the equivalent of “keeping a 100-watt light bulb on for a week.”

Add in the paper cups at water stations, gel packs, bottled water, Mylar blankets at the finish, race T-shirts, and even the finishers’ medals, and the environmental footprint keeps growing. And that’s just on race day! In 2008, Runner’s World tallied the annual carbon emissions for an average runner at 5,449 pounds of CO2.  The amount included gear (including washing clothes) and travel, but not diet.  The bottom line is that running, as a sport, has the potential to have a pretty sizeable carbon footprint.

This isn’t to say we should stop running, but rather that awareness can help the running community and race organizers take steps to reduce the sport’s environmental footprint. This includes the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon I will be participating in. Last year, the race reduced waste by distributing recyclable, reusable cups at the start and finish lines for water and used compostable cups at fluid stations along the race course. A donation of carbon offsets for an estimated 14,500 pounds of CO2 emissions also helped reduce the race’s environmental impact.  In Paris, they are actually trying to harness energy from runners during races by placing energy-harvesting tiles on the race course.

While races are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, runners can also do their part. Here are a few tips I found on being an eco-friendly marathoner:

  • Ditch single-use bottles in favor of reusable ones
  • Buy bulk packages of sports drinks or powdered mix to reduce plastic bottles
  • Seek out environmentally-friendly races to run in
  • Recycle used running shoes
  • Recycle or donate old running clothes
  • Buy gear that is recyclable or made with recycled materials
  • Don’t litter—find a container to throw out sports gel wrappers after the race

These seem like small steps, but when you think about the tens of thousands of people that can compete in a single race it can make a big difference. In a few weeks, I will be one of 30,000 participants in Pittsburgh marathon events. If we all take just a few of the steps listed above, it could definitely have a big impact.