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!