Water for marathons

Water bottle for marathon runner

Cures thirst, overheating and hangovers, in one bottle! (Photo: david.ian.roberts via photopin cc)

You may have heard of the Marathon du Medoc in France – the race that goes from vineyard to vineyard. At each stop the runners sample a glass of wine.

At mile 22 of the Paris Marathon each year, the Medoc race organisers have a stand to promote their race by handing out paper cups of red wine. Invariably, at mile 22.1 you would see runners who had drunk some wine, now pulled into the side of the course and bringing up whatever was still left in their stomachs.

I wouldn’t recommend you bring your silver-plated hip flask or goatskin gourd with you on a marathon. But you do need to drink water during the race, regardless of the weather or temperature. As well as relieving your thirst and cooling you down, water releases into your system the fuel you’ve stored by carb-loading in the days before the marathon.

Watering yourself for the marathon begins well ahead of race day. You should ensure you’re always well-hydrated: a few sips regularly during the day will do the trick, rather than gulping down a whole bottle. Caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, which means they make you literally flush out the water from your system, so enjoy your coffee and booze in moderation.

(Hangovers are caused by dehydration, and so the best hangover prevention and cure is water. After you stagger home from the pub try to have a drink of water before you go to sleep. Then in the morning, have some regular sips of water again to continue rehydrating.)

There may be the odd hard case who can boast of not touching a drop of water during a marathon, like Alberto Salazar is said to have done in a Boston Marathon in the 1980s. However, bear in mind Gabriela Andersen-Scheiss in the 1984 Olympic marathon, the most notorious case of dehydration in an elite race. Don’t let that be you.

As with most things in a marathon, you should use your long runs to practise your race drinking. You may need to work on your technique for drinking while you run, so that the water doesn’t go down the wrong way. Rather than pour the water straight down my throat, I have a two-step approach: first I put the water in my mouth, and then I swallow it.

You need to strike a balance between drinking too little and too much.  One small bottle from each water station should be enough for most runners.

Some runners like to ‘drink to thirst’ – that is, only when thirsty. However, in a marathon you should drink before you’re thirsty – because if you’re thirsty you’re already dehydrated. Don’t wait until you’re parched and tasting salt in your mouth before you drink – start sipping water in the first half of the race.

A more common marathon strategy is to plan to drink at regular intervals of time or distance in case the excitement or concentration of the race causes you to forget about water. (This is what happened to Andersen-Scheiss.) I take a bottle at each water station (around every three miles, or five kilometres, in the Dublin Marathon) and by taking small sips at every mile marker I make it last until the following station. This means I’m always running with a small bottle in my hand – which is how I do my long runs. It also means that I discard my empty bottle at a water station where it can be cleaned up easily, rather than dumping it on the side of the road.

Runners who are used to wearing a camel-pack water pouch on their backs will probably bring one on the marathon. But if you’ve never used one, you don’t really need one for a marathon where there are regular water stations, and certainly not if the weather isn’t excessively warm. Do you really need the extra weight and layer of what is effectively a backpack? A small water bottle in your hand weighs little and doesn’t affect your running posture. Again, experience and practice are your guides here.

Hydration is a small but crucial thing that makes a huge difference to your marathon performance and well-being. After all, rivers have water in them – and see how well they run!

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10 Responses to Water for marathons

  1. All good points. Here in the States we just get cups of water at water stops. If we are lucky they use paper cups and we can pinch the top which makes it easier to drink on the run w/ out spilling it all over yourself and into your shoes.
    Part of my pre-race routine is to drink freely until about an hour before the race. Then I may take an occasional sip, but nothing more. In this hour before the race I make sure I’m in line to use the facilities. I usually try to use the facilities as close to the race start as possible. I have never had to stop on the side of the road yet.

    • Run and Jump says:

      Plastic bottles of water on all the half and full marathons I’ve run here in Europe – the bottle is certainly easier to run with and drink from. But it means the race needs a bottled water supplier as one of its sponsors, to cover the cost.

      • Wow. Here in The States, even the Boston Marathon uses cups. They use rakes and snow shovels to scoop up the used cups.
        It would be easier to run w/ a bottle and you get more than 1 or 2 gulps out of it also. The pile of used bottles must be massive though.

      • Run and Jump says:

        Good to know if I ever run a Stateside marathon. Plastic cups were used at a 10-miler I did here in Dublin this summer, and many runners I saw were caught unexpected and didn’t manage too well.

      • Paper is best. The technique is to pinch the top of the cup closed to keep it from spilling. Impossible to do w/ plastic!

  2. Bottles sounds so much better! With paper cups I have to stop, drink as much as I can, and then throw it towards the side to be swept up.

  3. irishnomad says:

    Bottles sound great but in Asia paper cups are the norm. And with the temperatures here, dehydration is a massive issue for long races.

    • Run and Jump says:

      I can imagine the problems of long races in Asia: running marathons in the heat needs serious preparation and responsibility by runners and race organisers alike. I ran the 2007 Paris Marathon in 30 degree heat: some runners were taking two bottles at each water station and there were none left for those further down the field. A colleague of mine at the time, also running the race, had no water at the final station, got dehydrated, collapsed in the last mile and ended up on a dialysis machine in hospital for six weeks.

      • irishnomad says:

        That’s dreadful about your colleague! The thing is that racing here most people need electrolytes as well as water as you sweat so much. At races they tend to give out both water and 100Plus in paper cups. I’m still figuring out the best way of staying hydrated while racing. Before I got injured, it was my biggest performance limiting factor. Now I wish it was;) Love running when home in Ireland!

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