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How to be a (mostly) self-sufficient Ironman runner

For over 10 years, Karel and I have used hydration belts for every single outdoor run. It doesn't matter how short or long, a hydration belt is part of our running gear. And now that we are doing more XTRI and and off-road triathlon racing, it's been an easy transition to our self-supported events. 


It surprises me how many athletes undervalue the many benefits of a hydration belt/pack. We have been long-time supporters of hydration belts (and packs) because we feel they bring so many great benefits to athletes when running outside.

Sport usage of hydration packs, belts and bands
Interestingly, hydration belt/pack acceptance is sport dependent. For example, hydration belts are not very popular among stand-along-runners and most refuse to wear them in training and racing. Furthermore, some races prohibit the use of bringing nutrition (belt/pack) with you on race day for safety reasons. In the ultra and trail running community, hydration packs are popular and widely accepted and seen as a necessity. Ironically, stand-alone runners complain heavily of dehydration, bonking and other health/injury issues in training and on race day yet fail to realize that lack of accessible hydration/fueling could be to blame. In the triathlon community, triathlon belts/packs are sometimes worn, but are not extremely popular. And in cycling events, hydration packs are more common in gravel and mountain bike events but are rarely seen during road events. 

Reasons for not using packs, belts and bands
There are several reasons why athletes don't want to wear a hydration pack, belt or band. First off, it's rare for an athlete to complain about the cost of a hydration pack or belt as compared to a pair of running shoes or the cost of a triathlon bike, packs and belts are extremely affordable. In my opinion, the number one reason for not regularly wearing a hydration belt (or pack) is that "it's not comfortable." And I get it. It's absolutely more freeing to run without anything wrapped around your waist or on your back. But like any piece of clothing or gadget, it takes time to get to wearing something new. I've been wearing a hydration belt for so many years that if I were to run without one, it would feel strange - as if I forgot something. Similar to running without a watch or a hat/visor, certain items become part of you.

Sadly, with live in a time where many athletes feel that "less is best." It's almost a badge of honor for some athletes to brag about how little they consume during long workouts as if those who fuel (or hydrate) during workouts are weak, inefficient or too fuel/fluid dependent. The wonderful thing about sport nutrition is that, when used correctly, it can keep you healthy so that you can stay consistent with training and adapt, without compromising your health. 

Although many athletes prefer to use aid stations on race day (instead of being mostly self-sufficient by carrying their own fuel), there's a big problem to this strategy. The reliance and convenience of race day aid stations has caused many athletes to neglect learning about their individual carbohydrate, sodium and fluid needs. As a result, many athletes underfuel and underhydrate in training and go into races with a haphazard fueling "plan." This approach is performance limiting because it prevents the athlete from training their gut in training (thus increasing the risk for GI issues on race day) and does not allow the athlete to perfect their personalized fueling/hydration strategy in training to feel prepared for race day. 

Too much added weight. I hear this a lot from athletes who don't want to add extra weight from carrying more liquids (ex. water bottles) while cycling or by wearing a hydration pack. Being more self-sufficient on race day (and in training) is not necessarily a necessity but it does make training and racing much less stressful as it keeps you in control. Even if a strategy (like having 3 or 4 water bottles on your bike) may look to be a performance limiter (ex. extra weight, having to refill bottles, etc.) and you think it will slow you down, you need to think about how this strategy can be a performance enhancer. With so many variables affecting race day performance and so many factors affecting how you can gain and lose time during a race, a strategy that can help you perform well on race day is worth the added weight (or time). 

Athletes may prefer to use a handheld bottle, which is simple and makes it easy to drink while running. However, adding weight to one side of your body imbalances your entire body. This added force can bring on tension in the arm/neck/shoulder/upper back and increase the risk for injuries. When you hold a bottle, you are adding weight to a very important part of your running form - your arm. This increases the asymmetry of your gait and can add stress to the opposite side of your body. This is why a hydration pack/belt is encouraged as the center of your body is least impacted by added weight. 

Benefits of using a hydration pack, belt or band
In addition to the benefits that I mentioned as arguments for why athletes should wear a hydration pack, belt or pack, one of the less obvious reasons for wearing a hydration pack, belt or band is to reduce waste. Gel wrappers, chew wrappers, water bottles and paper cups add up, especially when you have 1500-3000 athletes on a race course. Individually, we can all do our part by reducing the massive amount of waste that is associated with aid stations. Now this isn't to say that you can't use aid stations as we do need the water (and ice) for health reasons but bringing your own nutrition (and a way to carry it throughout the race) does make a positive impact for our environment. 

As a coach, my first priority is protecting the health of my athletes, which means selecting and using gear that will keep the body functioning well, especially in stressful situations - like running in a fatigued or heat-stressed state. 

Here are a few more reasons for why you should be wearing a hydration pack, belt or band during training and on race day:
  • You are (mostly) self-sufficient - you can drink when you want to drink without needing to rely on others. This helps you drink on a schedule to prevent underdrinking and verdrinking (both of which can cause a sloshy stomach/GI issues). By understanding your individual nutritional needs and planning for them on race day (and in training), this can help delay fatigue and prevent a massive slow down. I say mostly because we do need to replenish water so this requires advance planning as to where and when you will refill your bottles with water (and bringing powder with you in baggies/sachets).
  • You can test out different sport nutrition products in training that you can use on race day - in every single training session. You can also train your gut to tolerate nutrition/fluids when running (it's a skill to be able to drink and digest nutrition while running).
  • You can utilize well-formulated sport drinks instead of gels, which provide you with the correct formulation of electrolytes, fluids and carbohydrates to optimize gastric emptying. Just because you are taking in calories, this doesn't mean it's actually emptying from your gut and being used by your working muscles. For a sport nutrition product to work, it must have the correct formulation to clear the digestive tract and to be absorbed by the small intestines - otherwise, it's just sitting in your gut, potentially causing distress. Most gels are extremely low in sodium relative to what you need to replenish what's lost in sweat and simply relying on sodium pills can bring on GI distress when not mixed properly with the right concentration of water. 
  • Research shows in spite of depleted muscle and liver glycogen stores, the consumption of sugar (ex. sport drink) acts as a source of "energy" for the central nervous system to delay fatigue. In the later stages of a long distance triathlon (ex. running), there's great benefit of being able to take a small sip of a sport drink to immediately give you a mental boost to help the brain communicate with the muscles to keep functioning or to prevent an unexpected drop in blood sugar. If you are only relying on the aid stations, you can't drink when you need it. 
  • Reduced risk of injury and health issues by never starting or finishing a workout in a dehydrated or depleted state. Thus, you can recover relatively quickly from your runs (regardless how short or long) to help you train consistently.
  • You build confidence in your race day fueling regime by practicing nutrition over and over again in training, with similar products for race day. Come race day, your run nutrition is not an unknown but instead, a performance-enhancer because you were able to fine-tune it in training.
  • It can become part of our running atire. When something is practical, necessary and functional, it makes sense to always wear it. 
  • You never know when blood sugar will suddenly drop or when fatigue will set in. Having a properly mixed concentration of sugar with water (and electrolytes) can help keep blood sugar levels stable - especially in the later part of long runs and when running off the bike. By keeping yourself hydrated and fueled, you can also keep better running form to help reduce the risk for niggles and injuries. 
There are so many belts/packs on the market. I personally like the Naked Running Band. Karel is currently wearing the Compress Sport Free Belt Pro. He also has the PYFK Running Belt Hydration Waist Pack. We both us USWE Outlander Pro for off-road cycling.

Find one that works for you so you can enjoy the many benefits of being a self-sufficient, well-fueled and hydrated runner. The biggest benefit we have found with our belts is being able to run with well-formulated nutrition (fuel, fluids and electrolytes) to keep the body functioning well so that it helps us adapt to training stress and so we can perform to our potential on race day. Running is very corrosive and brings the greatest risk for injury to athletes so we want to do everything we can to reduce the risk for a setback. Wearing a hydration belt can help you excel in triathlon so you can become and stay reslient, healthy and strong. 

Lastly, a lot of athletes think that you can't be competitive by wearing a hydration belt or that hydration belts are only for "slow" athletes. Karel and I have been very successful at the Ironman distance and one of the reasons for this is our ability to focus on what we can control. And nutrition is a big controllable. In this video of Karel racing 2023 Ironman Chattanooga, you can see Karel wearing his hydration belt throughout the entire run. Karel won his age group and placed 5th overall and also went 8:59.57 - his first time going under 9 hours in an Ironman (at the age of 47). Around 1:56 in the video you will see Karel approaching an aid station. Prior to this aid station, he took a baggy of sport nutrition powder (from this hydration belt) and poured it into his bottle. When he got to the aid station, he had a volunteer help him fill his bottle with water. This took 5 seconds. Karel could have started to run after this stop but he took advantage of the aid station and poured ice water on his body to help cool him down. This entire stop took 20 seconds. While it may look like he is losing time because of this stop, he is actually helping his performance by reducing the risk for a massive slowdown. Karel is taking care of his needs to help him perform throughout the entire run. Karel also stopped at special needs to grab 3 more bottles of sport nutrition for his bike and decided to get off his bike to stretch out his hips and back at that stop. The Ironman distance is all about decision making and being great at not slowing down. By taking care of yourself and not worrying about what other athletes are doing, you can improve the odds of putting together a strong and successful race.