The Unseen Environmental Impact of Endurance Sport

  • Abigail Lister

I explored the possible impacts of endurance sport for Breca Swimrun, looking at examples of how the sport can endeavour to be more sustainable, and what Breca is doing in that sphere. Originally published at

“We are in a climate crisis,” the UN’s 2019 Climate Action Summit Report begins. “The years ahead will be critical for our future survival, wellbeing and prosperity…this will require renewed leadership at all levels and across all sectors of society.”

Now, more than ever before, companies across a wide range of industries are starting to evaluate their environmental impact, and make changes to be more sustainable. In this, the sports industry is no exception.

As part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the organisation has even published a ‘Sports for Climate Action Framework’, encouraging companies and events to become more sustainable. In it, the UN outlines the urgency of climate action, as well as the belief that ‘sports have a unique power to inspire a wider societal change.’

“Being sustainable is not just a trend,” sustainability expert Jemma Whiten remarks. “The need for change has been clear for decades but we are reaching a very serious tipping point.”

Jemma works in Sustainability Projects & Communications for one of New Zealand’s leading sustainability brands, ecostore, and knows exactly how businesses can step up.

“Companies are increasingly seeing it as both a responsibility and a business opportunity— consumers across markets are saying that they will actively look for brands and business that are more sustainable.”

In terms of the sports industry’s attitudes to sustainability, though, things are changing slowly. For starters, it can be difficult to accurately measure the industry’s impact on the environment, especially of individual endurance races.

As well as this, it can be disheartening to compare statistics—one report claims that the total greenhouse gas emissions per year from NFL games in the US still only clocks up at 2% the yearly emissions of a single coal power plant.

Still, when it is possible to measure, the results are startling. It’s no surprise that events like the Olympics or FIFA World Cup generate a huge amount of CO2, but still the data is shocking. A Carbon Footprint Report written after the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro concluded that the event generated a hefty 4.5 million tonnes of CO2, while the FIFA World Cups in 2010 and 2014 generated almost 2.8 million tonnes each.

It’s easy to image that an event on such a large, and global, scale could cause so much environmental destruction, but what about smaller-scale sports events? What about endurance racing?

Out of all sports, this one is perhaps the one most likely to see the effect of climate change firsthand. With rising temperatures, threats of flooding, and more dramatic weather conditions, endurance races are more likely to contend with cancellations and threats to life than other sports.

In just some examples from the world of marathons, organisers of the Missoula Marathon in the US moved the event from mid-July to the end of June due to a longer wildfire season, while in 2012, the New York City Marathon was cancelled entirely after Hurricane Sandy.

How sports events impact the environment
Everything from infrastructure to food and beverages at a sports event can cause an unseen environmental impact. If you’ve ever reeled from the sight of a wave of plastic cups at the end of a marathon, or bins overflowing with food waste at a competitors village, then you’ve seen firsthand the environmental impact of a sports event.

To begin with, events need energy. From the electricity used to provide lighting, to speakers and radio power, all of this comes with a price, which usually means the burning of fossil fuels. In addition to this, food and beverages can often be an unavoidable waste—the fact, is, athletes need fuel!

Aside from environmental damage from the event itself, sustainability challenges can also arise from competitor travel. In 2012, the Britain’s Carbon Trust estimated the carbon output of a single championship football game to be 5,160 tonnes of CO2, 5,000 of which came from participant and fan transportation.

Return to the shocking Rio Olympics data and you’ll also find that out of the 4.5 million tonnes of CO2 output, almost 2.3 million tonnes of this came from spectators.

Carbon offsetting can offer a way to relieve some of the environmental damage of travelling. Nowadays, the average carbon footprint of a journey can be calculated relatively easily, the result of which depends on factors like how you’ve travelled and how far. Carbon offset your result and you’ve essentially travelled with zero-impact.

Increasingly participants and athletes are looking at ways to become greener, elite ultra runner Damian Hall has set a fine example this year in his in efforts to become a low carbon athlete.

Though small-scale sports events can still have a drastic impact on the environment, the good news is that small companies can also easily impact their sustainability relatively easily.

Jemma notes that while “small businesses don’t have the scale, they do have speed.
”They are able to be more nimble, and often braver and more innovative in the changes that they take. They can lead the way, and try new, more responsible business models, which can then be scaled by larger businesses who follow.”

From banning plastic cups on courses to sourcing race snacks only from local companies,  encouraging competitors to travel sustainably to events and limiting energy use, there’s plenty of ways events and small companies in the endurance space can take the lead in sustainability.

“There are so many ways to be more sustainable!” Jemma continues. “The important thing is to work out where a company can have the greatest impact.”

The future of sustainable sports events
To really break through to events organisers, however, it might be pertinent to return to the question of not how sporting events can impact the environment, but how a drastically changing environment can impact sporting events.

New research last year in the Journal of Sports Economics found that polluted cities can actually affect marathon runners’ times—often in a dramatic way. Findings showed that, on average, runners needed an additional 20.7 minutes to finish the Beijing Marathon than a marathon in a less polluted area, and that if the measured air quality index (AQI) of a location doubled, marathon times became 4.08% longer.

Granted, the research was conducted in China, which boasts some of the world’s most polluted cities, but it’s worth considering next time you sign up to the London Marathon.

The United Nations’ ‘Sports for Climate Action Framework’ document also lists effects like warmer winters impacting lower-altitude ski resorts, and more potentially-harmful algal blooms limiting direct contact outdoor water sports—an ominous sign for an event like swimrun.

Things are changing, though. The upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games have made a pledge to use 58% of existing infrastructure in the city for venues, limiting energy use. Plus, this year the Paris Marathon will become the first to be carbon neutral. And, in 2017, Breca Swimrun pledged to make our entire race series cup-free, saving up to 2,800 plastic cups from landfill at every event.

Indeed, there might be no better sport for prompting a love for the environment than swimrun. Diving into the powerful waters around the Gower peninsula in Wales, or trekking across the world’s largest freshwater archipelago, Georgian Bay in Canada, will inevitably give a sense of the need to protect these environments, and the need for change.

“I love what Breca are doing,” Jemma says. “It’s about time a business in the sporting arena steps up and takes action around sustainability.”

Project Tags


  • B

    Breca Swimrun