Question MarkA common question that I have seen on a few forums is how to drink water during a race or during training runs. Knowing when you need water, and how often to drink it, can make or break your race whether you are in the race or still preparing for it. Especially if you do not have a lot of practice at it, you will need to train yourself how to drink on the run or else find a method that will work for you and allow you to stay hydrated.

Training Runs

During training runs, you don’t really need to worry about drinking anything while you are running if you are well hydrated at the start of the run and are running for less than an hour. Depending upon conditions, you might be able to go for 90 minutes or so without drinking anything extra. Alternatively, you might only be able to go 30 minutes safely. It all depends upon the environment you are running in that day and your own physiology. If you are not sure if you are well enough hydrated, then assume that you are not. Read my article, “How to Hydrate,” for tips and instructions about getting yourself well hydrated to begin with.

On training runs, I will have water when it is convenient but I do not go out of my way to make sure that there is water available unless I am running in the 20+ mile range (over 2 hours) or unless it is going to be a really hot day and I am running more than 75 minutes or so. Anything shorter than that and on cooler days, then I will just make sure that I have water waiting for me when I am done. I do drink it when it is available, of course, and if I am doing any kind of speed work then I will try to make it available for between repeats.


A water cupDuring a race, I will usually take water at most (if not all) of the aid stations. I tend to run through them. If you pinch the sides of the cup together, you can make a smaller hole to pour the water out of on one side, and a hole to allow air into the cup at the other. This lets you drink the water without spilling it all over yourself or doing your best impersonation of a drowning person. If you carry your own water, then a sports cap will make it a little easier for you to pour the water into your mouth and drink small amounts at a time.

Running through water stops and aid stations is an acquired skill; if possible, have somebody out with some water on a training run or run a small race where you can practice if you want to get really good at it. Slowing down or walking is a perfectly good option, especially in a long race.

The faster that you can keep moving during a race, though, the better that your time is theoretically going to be. Do not sacrifice your race by trying not to lose a few seconds if you have not yet gotten the knack for drinking on the run, but do practice during your training runs so that you can see how much or how little that you need to slow down when you get to the water stops.

Tips and Strategies

If there are trash barrels out, please try to throw your cup into the trash so that the volunteers don’t have to collect it and so that another runner doesn’t slip on it. This was a big problem when I ran the New York City Marathon. Be sure to watch out for flying appendages when you are going through a water stop, both from your own body and from those around you. While I love telling the story about how I was punched by an Olympic gold medalist, most people aren’t so lucky and it is certainly something that I hope to avoid in the future. Read my race etiquette tips for other ways to get safely through an aid station.

When you are racing, if you only have enough water in your cup to drink or to pour on your head, always opt to drink it. Drinking the water is more effective at cooling your body down than pouring it on your head. If it is really hot and you have enough water to do both, then go for it. When I get a full cup at an aid station (8 to 10 ounces+, say) then I will usually take a sip and then pour the rest on my head and face. Or, since it is full, I will just let myself spill the water on my face and chest as I drink it and call it good. That works too.

You should try not to drink too much water at once when you are running or right after you get done running; instead, aim at drinking a little water spread out over a short period of time. Drinking too much water at once can dilute your blood, which can lead to faster excretion of the water by your kidneys. Taking half of an hour after your run to drink that 30 ounces of water will probably do you better than drinking it all at once as soon as you are done.

Gel Packs and Food

If you are going to be consuming gel packs or any other kind of food during your race, then I recommend that you slow down a little. I never try to take a gel pack or eat while I am running at or near full speed because accidently inhaling your food and then coughing it out of your nose is not a very pleasant sensation.

I also recommend waiting until you are approaching an aid station if you do not carry your water with you so that you can drink some water after consuming the gel pack or food. Water will help you digest whatever you ate so that you can actually use it for fuel, and it will also help keep your stomach from getting too upset.

Practice makes perfect

I can not reiterate enough how important it is to practice. It is not a difficult skill to master, but it can take a little while to get the hang of drinking on the run. When you try to run too fast and drink water at the same time, you will choke yourself and wind up having to stop and heave until you can clear your windpipe.

Make an effort to have somebody holding water for you on a training run, or run a few short races before you get to your goal race. During these practice races, if there is enough water for everybody then double back and go through a water stop twice. I never would have thought of doing that until a man I met after the Boston Marathon this year told me that he ran through the Wellesley Tunnel twice. I wish that I’d been that brilliant!

Remember to pinch the cup, and slow down enough to keep from choking. As you get better, you will be able to stay closer to your race pace while drinking the water, until eventually the real trick will be grabbing the cup of water without spilling it on the volunteer handing it to you! And don’t forget to toss your empty cup into a trash barrel or off the side of the course to make it easier for the volunteers and safer for your fellow runners.