Editor's note: If it is good enough for ultra runners it must be good enough for triathletes we figure. Right? Today we feature the writing of ultra runner Ray Churgovich (AKA Hawaiian Shirt Ray) who's an ultra runner and now contributing writer to EMT. Welcome aboard Ray.
For ultra trail running I have been asked many time what type of hydration system that I use. Over the trail running seasons I have gone through the gamut of different hydration systems and I will discuss how I came to my latest hydration system. Please note that the article below is specifically for running ultra races, not training runs or other short running races.
Hydration Systems, Three Basic Choices
There are many types of hydration systems available for ultra trail runners: fuel belts, single bottle fanny packs, waist packs with a bladder, etc. I will talk about three ultra trail running hydrations systems that I have experience running ultra trail races with: 1) backpack/bladder, 2) handheld bottles, and 3) fanny packs. The order that I have listed is the same order that I have progressed through my ultra trail running exploits. I will briefly go over the pros and cons as I have experienced.
This type of hydration system is a backpack style pouch that holds a water bladder of various sizes and has a hose that the runner can drink out of while on the move. This system is a no brainer for mountain biking since it elevates having to fumble for your water bottles while bombing downhill. However, for running it is a different story.
I like to drink a lot of liquids while I ultra trail run (about 20 ounces per hour) and the backpack hydration system offers a wide choices of bladder sizes. I can’t remember ever running out of fluid while running an ultra trail race (maybe because I was not drinking enough). I also like many of the features that the backpacks have to offer as far as storage space for extra gear.
What I find limiting to this hydration system is that I can’t gauge how much fluids that I have been taking in each hour. Yes, I know that there are now little gizmos that can attach to the hose, but I do not want to rely on a system that depends on batteries.
Refilling the bladder at an aid station during an ultra trail race is not a fun. Getting to an aid station you have to take the pack off, unzip the bladder compartment, take the bladder out, try to open it, and then finagle it under the drink station, and then put it all back together. This is even harder when it is cold outside and your fingers are of no use.
I also found that I did not like how the backpack hydration system made my back sweat. For me this is a very uncomfortable feeling especially when it starts to get cold out, and it is even more uncomfortable when the heat starts to crank up.
The last con I found is that I am delegated to drinking whatever is in the bladder; I have no choices on what to drink. So, if I get to a point in a race and whatever I have in my hydration system no longer tastes good, it leaves me no alternative. This might lead to me not drinking as much as I need to which could result in the slippery slope to dehydration.
Handheld Water Bottles
My next progression was to handheld water bottles. This system uses a water bottle that has a wrap around the bottle that the runner can fit their hand through. This method allows the runner to carry the water bottle but they do not have to use a “death grip” to hold on to the bottle. The handhelds that I had could be snitched tight around the hand so I did not even have to grip them at all.
This hydration system solved the issues that I was having wearing a backpack: 1) no more sweaty back, 2) I can easily gauge how much water I am drinking per hour, and 3) I fill one bottle up with a sports drink, and the other with plain water. I also like that each bottle had a little pocket that I could store my keys, ID, and a little bit of TP. All issues solved . . . well sort of.
Now I had to adjust to not having the use of my hands. This made it difficult to eat, get stuff out of my pockets, go pee, wipe the sweat from my face, etc. Although they worked better than the backpack hydration system, I still had my issues with them, and I found that I still needed to wear some sort of fanny pack to carry my extra gear. Plus, I was finding that after running an ultra trail race my shoulders were killing me.
The straw that broke the camels back for me was an article I read about the efficiencies of each system and runners using handheld water bottles use 8% more energy than the fanny packs or backpack hydration systems. So, I made my next switch to the fanny pack hydration system.
Fanny Pack with Two Water Bottle Holders
Although there are a variety of different hydration belts I did not try any of them since I like to have extra storage space for my gear, food, TP, etc. Therefore, I tried a range of different fanny pack hydration systems before I settled on my current fanny pack. Some of the issues that I had with the fanny pack systems were how they bruised my hips, or rub the small of my back raw. I never had an issue like I have heard from other ultra trail runners about the packs bouncing too much.
This was my first season of using a fanny pack hydration system and I have loved the results. I no longer have sore shoulders and I feel like I have more energy during the ultra trail runs since I am no lugging around 20 ounces in each hand. With my current pack I have had no bruising of my hips or any other “hot” spots from the pack rubbing.
A very important thing to look for when choosing a fanny pack hydration system is that your arms do not hit the water bottles while you are running.
The fanny pack that I finally decided on does not have enough pockets for my style of ultra trail running (I like to carry a lot of little crap with me). I did purchase two extra pockets that I have attached to the front which gives me easy access to my gear. The only other con is that if I need to take a rain jacket with me I need to tie it around my waist since there is not a storage pocket big enough for a jacket. Well, actually I have an extra poncho and my TP supply in the large pocket; my true ultra trail running necessities.
So, What Hydration System is Right for You?
It is all going to come down to personal preferences and running styles. I still use any one of the above hydration systems depending on the running I am doing that day. I have seen crews at aid stations that have two of everything and switch out complete backpack systems for their runners. It is whatever works best for you and I hope that my pros and cons of each helps you make the right choice.
Please click HERE to visit Hawaiian Shirt Ray's most excellent blog for more of his reviews, and to check out how he did at this year's Leadville Trial 100.