Bringing Your Own Water vs. Using Water Stops When Running a Race

Woman running while drinking water
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Getting the proper fluids during your running race can make the difference between a PR and a DNF. So how do you make sure that you get enough to drink during your event? You can drink carry your own fluids or use an aid station on the course. Each method has pros and cons and every runner has his own preferences and habits.

Race Day Hydration

Smart runners hydrate before, during, and after their event to keep their bodies strong and properly fueled.

Hydration Before the Race

Especially if you are running a longer race (such as a marathon, half marathon or ultra marathon) getting proper fluids in the days before your race will help your performance on race day. But even shorter events require proper hydration.

When you're properly hydrated, your urine should be a light yellow. Experts suggest that non-athletes should drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day, or roughly half a gallon. Athletes are advised to drink more.

The Institute of Medicine recommends that men drink 104 ounces (13 glasses) and women drink 72 ounces (9 glasses) per day. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, both of which can cause dehydration and interfere with your sleep.

An hour before you start your race, drink about 16 ounces of water or other non-caffeinated fluid. Try not to consume more than that to avoid taking bathroom breaks. Then, drink another 4 to 8 ounces right before you start if you prefer.

Hydration During the Race

A general rule of thumb is that you should consume 4 to 6 ounces of fluid every 20 minutes during your race. Runners running faster than 8-minutes per mile should drink 6 to 8 ounces every 20 minutes. If you are running in heat, you may also need more water.

During longer workouts lasting 90 minutes or more, some of your fluid intake should include a sports drink (like Gatorade) to replace lost sodium and other minerals (electrolytes). The carbohydrates and electrolytes in the sports drink also help you absorb the fluids faster.

Different race courses will provide a different number of water/fluid stops. As a very general rule, water stops usually start at mile two and are located every two miles after that. But you should check your course map to be sure.

Hydration After the Race

Rehydration after your race is important to keep your muscles from cramping. Once you cross the finish line, water is always available and it's important that you take advantage.

One way to make sure that you rehydrate properly is to weigh yourself after your run. You should drink 20 to 24 fluid ounces of water for every pound lost. If your urine is dark yellow after your run, you need to keep rehydrating. It should be a light yellow color.

Hydration before, during, and after your race is a key part of training for smart runners. It's also important to practice your preferred method of hydration during training runs so that your body gets the fluid it needs during your big event.

How to Carry Fluids During a Race

One way to make sure you get enough fluids during your running event is to carry your own water bottle. This works for some, but not for others.

Benefits

Some of the advantages of carrying your own fluids include:

  • You avoid crowds at water (as long as you don't have to refill your bottle/pack).
  • You're able to carry the brand/flavor of sports drink that you prefer.
  • You can drink when you're thirsty and not based on placement of water stops.
  • If you're eating on the run, you don't have to worry about coordinating your energy gels with the spacing of the water stops.
  • If you haven't quite mastered taking water from the hydration stops, you don't have to worry about spilling water all over yourself.

Different Methods

There are different ways to carry fluids during the race. You can wear a hydration belt that holds several small containers that you pre-fill with your desired beverage. There are also hand held bottles that are attached to a glove-style grip and backpack-style hydration options

Hydration Belt

There are pros and cons to using a hydration belts that is worn around the hips or waist. While they are generally considered an easier way to carry a larger amount of fluid, the fluid is also likely to get warm when you run and the fluid gets heavy.

Hydration Packs

Backpack style hydration packs (by brands such as Camelbak) are popular among distance runners and ultramarathoners. These larger packs allow you to carry more fluids and many are insulated so that the water doesn't get warm on long runs in the heat.

Hand Held Water Bottles

For shorter races, some runners prefer a small water bottle that is situated in a glove-style grip. These easy-to-carry devices weight less and can be refilled quickly and easily as needed.

Tips and Tricks

Whichever method you choose, make sure that you test it out during training runs. You don't want to try a brand-new hydration belt on the day of your marathon only to discover that it bounces too much, rubs, or feels uncomfortable.

Test your desired method during several long training runs and keep it on for the duration of your run. Sometimes what feels OK at the beginning of a run may not feel so great 10-15 miles into the workout.

Also practice refilling your water bottles if you are running a longer race. Figure out how many times you'll need to refill so that you can plan to refill at your event.

How to Hydrate at an Aid Station

Most runners choose to hydrate at aid stations that are placed along the race course. These stations are manned by volunteers that provide water and/or other fluids (Gatorade or something similar) usually in cups.

Some races are going cupless. These races require you to purchase a small plastic cup that attaches to your gear. Water is provided in large tanks along the course. As you run through each stop, you fill your cup, hydrate as needed, reattach your cup and keep running.

Benefits

But there are also some benefits to not carrying a water bottle or wearing ​a hydration belt or pack:

  • You don't have to worry about your arms getting tired from holding a bottle or feeling weighed down by wearing a belt or pack. The more you carry, the slower you will run.
  • You don't have to waste time stopping to refill your bottles.
  • You're more likely to get cold fluids during the race. Water in water bottles and hydration belts/packs tends to get warm quickly, due to body heat. Race directors usually try to make sure that the water and sports drinks at the hydration stops are generally cold, especially if the temperature is high.

Instructions and Pro Tips

Running through a water stop can be intimidating and tricky if you've never done it before. Follow these steps to make your hydration stop less stressful.

  1. Pay attention during the race, so you can see when there's a water stop coming up. Sometimes there will be a sign alerting you to an upcoming water stop.
    Pro-tip: Check the course map in advance to see where water stops will be located
  2. Don't go to the first table as it can get congested. Choose a table farther down. If there are tables on both sides of the course and the water station is crowded, go to a table on the left side.
    Pro-tip: Sometimes volunteers hand out the water cups and other times the cups of water will be left on tables.
  3. If volunteers are handing out the water, run toward them. Taking a cup from a volunteer will save you time and keep you more in the middle of the road, so you don't get caught in the congestion around the tables.
    Pro-tip: Try to make eye contact with the volunteer so he knows you're coming for his cup. Stick out your hand several feet before you reach him. Wrap your hand around the cup and pull it from the volunteer's hand. Don't forget to say "thanks" before you run off.
  1. Once you take the cup, squeeze the top of the cup, so it's pointed, like a V. If the cup is very full, this will allow some extra water to spill out. Then, put the pointed end of the cup in your mouth and drink the water slowly.
    Pro-tip: Hold the cup at the top so that you can drink slowly without getting any in your nose.
  2. Try to keep running and go with the flow of runners. If you feel like you need to stop or slow down to drink, pull off to the side.
    Pro-tip: Try to toss your cup in the trash bins that are located past the water but if you can't just make sure you don't hit a spectator or another runner with it.

Gels and Hydration

If you plan to use a gel during your race, you may need to time your hydration stops with your gel intake. However, some gels (called isotonic gels) do not require water. Be sure you check before race day so that you can time water stops if neccessary.

If your gel requires water, you'll need to consume the gel before you get to the water stop. It is nearly impossible to juggle gel and a cup of water at the same time. So you'll need to check the course map to know when and where to take your gels.

In general, you should consume water within a minute or two of gel consumption. Not only does it help with absorption of the glucose, amino acids and caffeine that may be in the gel, but it also helps you to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of having a sticky dry mouth full of sugary goop.

Also, keep in mind that if you use an isotonic gel, you still need water along the run. Gels provide glucose and other nutrients to your body but they do not provide substantial hydration. So even if you are consuming gels, you should still hydrate during your race.

A Word From Verywell

Staying properly hydrated during your race requires advanced planning. Try different methods of carrying your own fluids to see if one works for you. Before longer races, participate in a 5K or shorter distance event to practice running through water stops. Then choose the method that works best for you to optimize performance on race day.

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