Monday, June 7, 2010

Ultra Running – What is the right hydration system for you?

If you’re out exerting yourself for periods in excess of 60 minutes, it is a widely accepted fact that your performance will drop off without some form of rehydration be it water or another drink. In ultra marathon races and in training you will inevitably need to drink to avoid suffering the effects of dehydration. Unless you are running on a short circuit, have a helpful support crew alongside you, or there are regular drinking stations, you are going to have to carry some fluids with you.

There are a number of options available to you, which I will summarise into 4 main categories, and will discuss the pros and cons of each, to help you decide on what is the best system, or combination of systems, for you.

Before you can decide on what option to go for there are a number of things to consider.

The most important consideration is the volume of fluid you are going to need. This will be dictated by the sorts of events you are going to participate in. On unsupported multiday events you are going to need a large water carrying capacity. On a shorter ultra, or marathon with frequent drink stations you may not need any, but will need something to help you through training. Other external factors such as ambient temperature or humidity will have an impact on your fluid requirement.

You will also want to consider if you would like more than one type or flavour of drink. Personally I like to have a variety of flavours to avoid the nausea I get from drinking the same drink for many hours, as well as having access to plain water.

You should also be aware of any other gear that you need to carry. This can range from just your keys, to spare clothing, first aid equipment, food, torches, the list goes on.

Of course another important factor is that of cost. The range can go from a few dollars for a water bottle, to many hundreds of dollars for a hydration backpack or vest.

Hydration System Options

Water Bottle (such that you can buy ready filled in any supermarket, newsstand, pretty much everywhere these days.)
Pro – Cheap. Readily available. Variety of sizes. Standard bottles will fit into most bottle belts. Easily refilled whilst running.

Con – Needs to be held in hand (using extra energy). Limit to volume that you can carry as you would normally want to keep one hand free. Can be easily dropped. Fluid will warm as your hands warm up. Weight carried at end of arm, which can put strain on arms and shoulders, as well as effecting running style (especially over long distances). Doesn’t incorporate any other carrying capacity for keys, gels, phone, etc. Should not be reused too many times because of the plastic they are manufactured from can have negative health consequences.

Bottle with hand strap
Pro – Relatively cheap. Allows relaxation of grip. Can reuse the bottles many times. Easy to refill on the run.

Con – Same as for above.

Bottle belt
Pro – Weight carried on hips with minimal impact on the running performance. Carry more than one bottle keeping hands free. Usually provides pockets for keys, gels, mobile phone and so on.

Con – Typically limited to two bottles (about 1.2l) capacity. Can be uncomfortable over long distances, especially when bottles are full. Can cause chaffing.

Hydration Backpack
Pro – Carry large volumes of fluid whilst leaving hands free. Ability to carry many other items, with up to around 25litres of capacity. Easy access to drinking tube.

Con – Can be very expensive to buy and maintain. Can cause chaffing, especially when fully loaded (my 3litre pack weighed about 7kg when fully loaded with water and mandatory gear for a recent 100km race). Can be awkward and time consuming to refill the bladder during a run. Can only carry one type of fluid (unless you were to modify the pack). Not easy to access storage pouches whilst running.

As with everything Ultra running, it comes down to your personal preferences and requirements. For me, I am a heavy sweater, and often run over long distances where there is little or no access to clean water, so I use a 3 litre (100ounce) hydration backpack (The North Face Blacktail, replaced by the Enduro). This pack is really comfortable and has a large capacity for extra gear, which is usually mandatory for the races I enter. I do not like to put any sports drink in the hydration bladder as the taste can linger even after washing, so I have a bottle belt as well for these.

This combination works well for me, especially when there are 3+ hours between checkpoints. I can keep the sports drink at a higher concentration in the bottles, and take a gulp from the bottle and the water bladder to achieve the right mix. This really helps keep the sweet taste out of my mouth which has stopped me wanting to eat or drink anything in previous races.

Here is today’s session. Check out the satellite image option on the map to appreciate what a fantastic run this is. It’s just a shame I had to run about 8kms to get into the park, but well worth it.

Happy Running


“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it” – Pablo Picasso


  1. Andy, loving your blog, a good detailed read. Inspired me to start up. You beat me by 2mins at TNF100. Good stuff. Check out my blog when you get a chance:


  2. Thanks Ian. Have read yours and the next blog is for you - about ITBS. Will be doing Glasshouse 100 myself too, so hope to see you there.

  3. I'd like to get the Enduro for next year's NF100. Do you think it's suitable?

  4. Hi Oz
    I'm not too familair with the Enduro, but if it is anything like other North Face gear, it's going to be well designed for ultra running and well made.

    The trick is to try one in the shop and if it feels comfy then go for it. Yes you may get some rubbing issues when out for many hours, but that's why we train with the pack on before we race. You can always adjust the pack to mitigate any problems. Even though my pack is well worn in and adjusted to suit me I still tape my lower back for any races.

    I do like the velcro waist strap on this model, as I find the plastic clips can rub and be uncomfortable when you use a waist belt as well (which I do).

    It's also probably at the larger end of the scale as for it's capacity, which I find gives you more flexibility for other uses (such as running to work) so avoid the temptation to fill it with unnecessary kit just because you have the space! A larger capacity will make it easier to access your kit, so you don't have to empty it out completely to get that power bar that has slipped to the bottom.

    So my tips would be to establish what hyrdation capacity you are going to need, how much you are going to use it, what you need to carry (TNF100 has about the largest mandatory kit list I have seen) and then just choose the most comfortable model within your price range.

    Good luck

  5. Hey Andy, great tips. I love high quality gear but never know the pros and cons of all the products out there. What you said about having a drink with some taste is just a great idea. I never do that since i figured i needed only water. I will try it this weekend, and maybe go out and get me some new toys to go with it. Thank you.

  6. Even though it's supposed to be a minimalist sport when it comes to kit, it's still nice to get some new toys to help you on your way.

    After all this is a sport about delaying the onset of fatigue and preserving your "engine" so anything that can help can only be a good thing.