What Running Can Teach Us About Sustainability

There are varying definitions of what sustainability means. What can we learn from running when it comes to our planet?

Photo: Getty Images

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An excerpt of this essay will appear in the Spring 2022 issue of Trail Runner.

The upcoming print edition of Trail Runner is focused on sustainability. But what does sustainability mean, exactly? The term is often not given a precise definition, and there is disagreement about the definitions that are proposed.

Some have argued that sustainability involves keeping particular (usually natural or ‘untouched’) places roughly as they are now, or even returning them to a past state. Others, especially environmental economists, think of sustainability in terms of human happiness or well-being: that we should not act in ways such that humans in the future are less happy than we are, due to environmental degradation. Still, others, such as proponents of the famous 1987 Brundtland report, think of sustainability in terms of satisfying our current needs in a way that doesn’t undermine the prospect of satisfying those same needs in the future.

It matters what notion of sustainability we use, because these different conceptions require different things from us. For instance, a vision of sustainability that merely requires sustainability of human wellbeing might allow us to replace present old growth forests with malls and casinos, so long as people in the future gain just as much enjoyment from casinos as we do from forests. On the other hand, a vision of sustainability that requires us to preserve certain places as they are now would condemn such development. Yet this latter conception might go wrong in other ways—why should we privilege the way things are now when we think about what should be sustained? 

I can’t fully settle the issue of the right account of sustainability here. But I do think that reflecting on running can give us a jumping-off point for formulating a plausible view, and that approaching running from a sustainability perspective can illuminate how to be a happier and healthier athlete.

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I want to start by asking: what does it mean to run sustainably? The first thing to notice is that running sustainably is distinct from running consistently. One can run sustainably without running consistently, prioritizing other important things in life and running when time allows. And one can certainly run consistently without running sustainably if they run through injury, illness, burnout or overtraining.

It seems to me that sustainable running requires a lot more than just, well, running; indeed, sometimes it requires not running. I am running sustainably when I am spending time with my friends, eating well and enough, and taking time off when I am injured. 

trail running and sustainability
(Photo: Getty Images)

The definition of sustainability at work here seems to be something like this: doing something sustainably means that it is possible to continue doing that thing over the long term without significant cost to more important interests. It might be physically possible for me to consistently run 100 miles per week. But on the definition of sustainability I’m suggesting, consistency does not necessarily translate to sustainability. For me (though this may not be true for you!), running 100 miles per week comes at a significant cost to things I care about more than running—time with friends and family, my studies and so on. 

This perspective illuminates something important about environmental sustainability as well. Sometimes we think of environmental sustainability in terms of a practice that we cannot continue over the long-term because of a physical constraint. For example, it’s natural to think that present  deforestation rates are unsustainable because eventually there will simply be no trees left. But unsustainable practices include far more than those practices that cannot physically continue forever.

Like me running 100 miles per week, continuing to emit greenhouse gasses is something that is physically possible to do for a very long time–virtually unlimited coal, oil, and natural gas reserves exist. But that doesn’t make the practice of extracting them any more sustainable. From the perspective we applied to running, emitting greenhouse gasses for luxury travel, clothing, beef production and so on is unsustainable not because we can’t do it for a long time, but because it threatens people’s (more important) interests in avoiding extreme heat waves, storms, wildfires, forced relocations and other impacts of rampant climate warming. Burning greenhouse gas-producing fuels to power our daily lives causes harm to interests that are far more important than many of the interests protected by burning them.

I’ve been speaking in terms of the sustainability of practices, not individual actions, because when it comes to the environment, the thing that makes sustainability is our collective practices. Most individual actions, even added up over a lifetime, are sustainable on their own; their impact is simply too small. The problem is when a critical mass of people act in the same resource-intensive ways. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t make sense to ask whether my action of buying a metal straw or a vegan burger or biking to work is in itself sustainable. Sustainability concerns what we repeatedly do together. 

trail running and sustainability
(Photo: Getty Images)

Does this idea apply to running, a largely individual sport? I think it does. For me, running sustainably requires people in my life—family, friends, teammates—to support and encourage me in the strange undertaking of moving my body for many hours a week. That support is part of what makes running enjoyable; it is the involvement of the people around me that keeps the sport from feeling individualistic and self-indulgent. In other words, it is that support that keeps running from coming at a cost to those other, more important, things. The sustainability of my own running depends in important ways on what other people in my life do.

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There’s much more to say and explore here. But where are we left with respect to the definitions of sustainability that we started with? My conception of sustainability is distinct from many ideas associated with the term: sustainability is not about just making sure that people in the future can be just as happy as we are, keeping specific natural places just as they are, or refraining from using up finite resources. Rather, sustainability concerns whether our collective practices can be continued on a long term scale without significant cost to more important interests, like the safety of our homes, the availability of healthy food and clean water, and the diversity of animal species around us 

This definition has important implications for what we as runners, and people, ought to be doing now. Practices that might look sustainable at first glance—buying eco-friendly products, driving to our favorite trails every day—may turn out to be harmful if all of us are doing them individually. We can address such unsustainable practices from two directions: first, by limiting our own participation in the collective practice, and second (and maybe more importantly), by working to change the rules, institutions and energy systems that make simple things like driving to our favorite trailhead harmful in the first place. What this work looks like will vary with our individual roles and skills, but across the board it requires educating ourselves and others about the environmental issues impacting our communities, and placing concerted and collective pressure on those in power to make the necessary changes. 

Britta Clark is trail/ultra runner and a PhD student in Philosophy at Harvard University, where she is writing a dissertation focused on climate change and intergenerational justice. She hails from Goshen, Vermont and grew up exploring the trails at the Blueberry Hill Outdoor Center, which her family still owns and operates. 

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