CASE STUDY: keeping fit and living green

Eco Ironman
Jon Alexander is aiming to complete his first Ironman-distance event in under 12 hours.
On 4th October 'EnvIronman' Jon Alexander will attempt to prove that environmentalism and athleticism can go hand-in-hand at Challenge Barcelona. Kate Herbert meets the greenest ever Ironman to talk triathlons

Jon Alexander is preparing to swim the length of 76 Olympic pools, cycle the distance of a return trip from London to Canterbury, then run a full marathon. All in just twelve hours.

But that's only half the challenge he's set himself; the real test is to complete the contest and entire training regime while keeping his carbon footprint as close to zero as possible.

‘I believe all athletes are environmentalists at heart, if you define environmentalists as people who love the natural world,' says Alexander, 27. ‘But we fly all over the world, burn through a load of food and use a huge amount of specialist gear, all without really appreciating what we're doing to the places we love to train.'

So why are so few athletes adopting a sustainable approach to their lifestyle? Alexander blames myths about greener diets and equipment compromising performance. This is something he's adamant is not the case and is keen to clear up.

Well equipped

‘The interesting thing about the more eco-friendly kit is that some of it is actually better,' he explains to me across the table of a busy Soho café.

‘There's a guy in the States who does Ironman contests on a bamboo bike because he thinks that it is the best bike for that type of racing. The bamboo fibres are as light as carbon fibre and has the same kind of vibration damping. He found he got his quickest times when he was using it. He doesn't use it for environmental purposes but for performance and he competes all over the world.'

Alexander uses running shoes made with no chemical solvents and maximum recycled fibres. ‘These are 40 to 50 per cent lighter than the shoes I was running in before so that helps my performance too,' he says.

The other piece of eco-friendly equipment which he managed to source is his wetsuit, which is made from limestone - rather than petroleum-based rubber.

No meat, gyms or planes

Alexander turned vegetarian a year ago and uses an organic box scheme for most of his meals, topped up with sports nutrition products from Torq Fitness, who use fair-trade and organic ingredients. He claims his diet system not only saves on the negative environmental impact of numerous supermarket trips and high meat consumption, but also gives him a competitive advantage.

‘My athletic performance has improved dramatically because I am leaner, trimmer and don't feel so weighed down,' he insists, adding, ‘don't believe people who say you need to eat meat to be an athlete, it's not true.'

And he should know, given that his veggie diet of approximately 5,000 calories a day fuels a weekly 40-hour training regime of running, cycling and swimming. That's the equivalent of a full-time job, yet Alexander fits his sessions around his ‘proper' job as a Sustainability Strategist for the advertising agency Fallon London, where he works four days a week.

Part of his policy involves not using a gym for training; instead he swims in Hyde Park's Serpentine, cycles in Berkshire and the Surrey hills, and saves a packet by running the 14-mile round trip to work.

According to Alexander, the biggest difference setting his regime apart from others is transport. He chooses trains over planes to travel to all his sporting events and training camps, cutting his carbon footprint for travel by about 90 per cent. I quiz him on the impact this has on his time schedule and bank balance; surely there must be a catch?

‘You can get virtually anywhere by overnight train from Paris,' he says. ‘It's more expensive than the plane but saves on the costs of taxis and a hotel. It takes a few hours longer but gets you there feeling much better because flying dehydrates you which, for an athlete, is really bad.'

Nature lover

He wants to achieve two goals: firstly, to show athletes that they can adopt a green lifestyle without compromising their performance; secondly, to show people that no matter how busy they are, it's always possible to make time to find somewhere green and appreciate the beauty of the natural world. The outcome? Alexander believes that by encouraging more people to fall in love with nature, a larger number of us will be motivated to do something about saving it.

‘Being environmentally-friendly is not just about telling people what to do. If we're really going to make a change it's going to be about people realising how important the natural world is and having a better relationship with it,' he says.

Alexander is aiming to raise at least £2,000 for the Wilderness Foundation, a charity which takes groups of children out on wilderness treks and teaches them to appreciate nature. He strongly feels that this is the way forward in motivating future generations to care for our planet.

He wants other athletes to start thinking more carefully about their carbon footprint and making changes to their lifestyle, particularly in what they eat and how they travel to events.

Ask for green

Sports equipment suppliers and manufacturers, too, have a responsibility to provide greener alternatives. Alexander explains the difficulties he has had sourcing his equipment, partly because most of the companies that can provide what he wants are based in the states or are small outfits with uncertain timelines.

‘I've clearly been the first person ever to ask these wetsuit manufacturers what their environmental policies are and none of them are going to have them unless their customers start asking for it' says Alexander, who believes that nothing will change unless athletes make a nuisance of themselves by continually requesting greener products.

What's next after Challenge Barcelona? ‘I'm talking to various people about setting up a running event in 2010 which you have to reach using public transport and where we will champion some of the environmentally-friendly kit manufacturers, just so people realise it's possible. That's emerged for me as a bit of a personal goal,' he tells me. ‘Other than that I think I might have a bit of a rest.'


Follow Jon's blog at, or on Twitter @ecoironman.


Jon's tips for green athletes

To make your training regime more eco-friendly, try substituting the following suggestions:

Air travel Rail travel
Animal protein diet Vegetarian organic box scheme diet
Commercial energy bar Homemade organic flapjacks
Sports nutrition products Organic sports nutrition products from Torq Fitness
Going to the gym Running or cycling to work
Carbon fibre bike Bamboo bike from Calfee Design
Petroleum-based rubber wetsuit Geoprene wetsuit from Xterra or blueseventy
Standard running shoes Running shoes containing recycled fibres and no chemical solvents from END Footwear, or Vibram FiveFingers

Kate Herbert is a freelance journalist

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