9 Eco-Friendly Tips for Runners

Woman running on a road

Getty Images / Tony Anderson

Many runners and race organizers are making an effort to become more eco-friendly. Distance runners, especially, are becoming more aware of how environmental issues are impacting their sport. As a result, these athletes are making changes to their routines to nurture the planet.

Climate Change and Running

The most apparent environmental issue facing runners is climate change. Increasingly, race directors are calling out climate-related issues for race cancellations and other event adjustments. Additionally, finish times among elite competitors have reportedly been affected by increasing temperatures at some of the world's biggest races.

However, most of us aren't elite runners and small finish time increases are not likely to affect our careers. So what's an amateur runner to do? While it might seem like too big of an issue for a single runner to handle, there are small steps that anyone can take to make a difference to the enviroment.

Some runners are choosing longer races in northern states where temperatures have increased in fall and summer months, but still remain tolerable for long distance events. Running events in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and parts of Canada have experienced increased popularity.

But even if you're not interested in traveling, there are small steps you can take to make your sport more eco-friendly. By reducing trash at races, supporting recycling programs and making sure that you leave no trace when you run in wooded areas, you reduce your energy consumption and your environmental footprint when you run.

Consider any of these simple ways that you can love your sport and love the planet at the same.

9 Ways For Runners to Help the Environment

Most runners treasure their outdoor runs—either on city streets or mountain trails. Make your runs more eco-friendly with any of these thoughtful steps.

Recycle Shoes

Runners go through many pairs of running shoes during the course of training. Why not put those old shoes to good use? There are several ways to recycle athletic shoes (running shoes and other types of athletic shoes) for use in a variety of ways.

For example, Nike's Reuse-A-Shoe program accepts shoes at select Nike locations and then recycles them for use in the Grind program. Grind recycles different products for use in athletic surfaces and equipment.

Another great program in One World Running. The organization is located in Colorado but accepts shoes if they are mailed in from anywhere. Shoes are cleaned and sent to recipients living in third world countries.

Register for Eco-Friendly Races

Many races throughout the country are trying to become greener by doing things such as recycling paper and plastic, offering used shoe collection, giving out organic, locally-grown foods at the finish line and donating the leftovers (rather than throwing them away).

You may also find races going cupless. For example, Vacation Races organizes half marathons, ultra marathons, and trail races near national parks. They implement a cup-free racing policy in order to keep the environment free from waste.

At these events, runners are supplied with a small, lightweight hydrapouch that attaches to their running gear (such as shorts or a race belt). At aid stations, you fill up, drink, and go. The organization also encourages runners to bring their own hydration system if they prefer.

In addition to Vacation Races, there are other running events that celebrate the environment. Find one in your area and increase awareness with friends and family. Or travel and explore in another area to increase appreciation of the environment.

Use Refillable Bottles

It can be tempting to use disposable plastic water bottles during your long runs. Many runners either carry a bottle that they can toss, or buy one along the route and dispose of it after rehydrating. Many of us also use disposable bottles when we are running indoors on the treadmill.

An eco-friendly option is to use refillable water bottles instead of throwaway plastic bottles during indoor or outdoor runs and races. There are countless options to meet your needs.

For shorter runs indoors, many runners are opting for stainless steel water bottles that keep fluids cold. The mouth of these bottles is generally wider, making it easier to fill up fast.

For longer runs or workouts when you don't want to carry a bottle, consider a refillable backpack (by brands like Camelbak) or even a handheld plastic bottle. These options make it easy to rehydrate and respect the environment at the same time.

Don't Litter

Although most runners wouldn't normally throw their garbage on the ground, they change the rules when running or racing. While you might throw cups in the trash at an aid station, many runners use gels along the way and toss the gel wrappers on the ground. Sadly, these gel wrappers can be dangerous to animals.

Some ultramarathoners have begun carrying small mesh trash bags that they attach to a race belt. These bags are lightweight and small but big enough to carry the small gel packs that build up along the route.

If you only use one or two gels during your race, consider carrying the packet to the closest aid station where, even if you miss the trash can and throw the packet on the ground, it is likely to be picked up by a race day volunteer.

Recycle Electronics

Runners are known for loving their gadgets. Running watches, fitness trackers, and other tech devices help track pace and other metrics to guide training. But as any consumer knows, these devices are upgraded often and many of us like to have the latest and greatest training tool. The end result is that we end up replacing them and discarding the old devices.

An earth-friendly alternative is to recycle them. Some smart runners sell their used tech tools on sites like eBay or Facebook. You can also donate these devices to schools and other organizations in your area. If you're still stumped and can't find a good home for your used gear, check out Earth 911's website for information on how you can recycle electronic goods such as MP3 players and cell phones.

Buy Powdered Sports Drinks

While premixed sports beverages and recovery fuels are convenient, they are also expensive and not eco-friendly. Individual bottles of Gatorade or other sports drinks may get recycled in some areas, but a better alternative is to avoid them altogether.

Instead of buying plastic bottles, get bulk packages or containers of powdered sports drink mix and make your own. Use your favorite reusable container. It's much cheaper and better for the environment.

Care for Running Clothes

Try to get as much use out of your running clothes as you can. Don't put clothes made of technical fabrics in the dryer. If you air dry them, they'll last longer. Using a detergent designed for technical fabrics, such as Win detergent, also helps extend their life.

If you have piles of running clothes that no longer fit, you can sell your used running clothes at a local consignment shop or on sites like eBay or Craigslist. Or, if you have a stack of race T-shirts that you know you'll never wear, donate them to charities such as Goodwill or Salvation Army, or list them on Freecycle.org.

Run and Volunteer Locally

It's fun to travel to out-of-town races but staying local will not only save you money, it will limit your impact on the environment by using less gas. If you can carpool or take transportation to those local races, that's even better. And if you need a warm-up before a shorter race, take a bike. Many cities have bike-sharing programs that can provide with wheels to the starting line without the hassle of having to find a place to lock your bike.

And why not consider volunteering for a local event as well? Staffing the aid station may give you a better appreciation of the waste that accumulates during a typical 5K or longer event. You might also help out by becoming a course marshal or finish line volunteer.

Buy Eco-Friendly Shoes and Gear

Many companies are now making shoes and other gear out of recycled plastic and other reusable materials. Adidas and Allbirds are two brands that make performance and lifestyle shoes out of sustainable materials.

There are also companies who give back to their local communities. Brands like New Balance, Newton, Patagonia, and Ice Breaker are known for their commitment to the local environment.

Not sure if your favorite brand gives back? Check out their website. If you don't see what you're looking for, inquire. Send an email to the brand's headquarters and ask what they are doing to support a strong environment. As more runners and consumers inquire, brands will feel more motivated to design products and manufacturing methods that support a healthy planet.

By Christine Luff, ACE-CPT
Christine Many Luff is a personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and Road Runners Club of America Certified Coach.