Marathon racing: how to remain hydrated

How many drinks stations can you afford to miss in a marathon?

We’ve had a few letters from Peak Performance readers who feel that they could have performed better if they had used sports drinks more wisely. One particularly interesting query went as follows:

“A recent Marathon I ran in had sports drinks available every two miles. Should I have tried to ‘hit’ all of those stations, or would it have been okay to skip a few?”

drinking water

Skipping a sports-drink stop now and then is tempting, especially if you’ve lost time in the congested start of a big race or are trying to ‘save time’ early in the competition because of a fear of a late-race fall-off in running speed. Sometimes, especially if you’re feeling pretty good, you just don’t want to break your smooth flow and hassle with the sports-drink cups. At other times, the stations are so crowded that stopping to drink seems slightly risky – and very time-consuming.

So, is it okay to skip? Well, let’s analyze the situation. If someone were running the London (or some other) Marathon at 6:30 per mile pace, for example, he would normally reach a sports-drink stop every 13 minutes. That’s a total of 9 stops in the first two hours (1:57) of the race, which basically means that he could skip one stop.

We say that because if the runner took in five to six ounces (regular swallows) at the other eight stops, he would be getting enough fluid and carbohydrate per hour to sustain himself quite well. Eight stops times (5 to 6) ounces adds up to 40 to 48 ounces in two hours (the recommended intake of sports drink is 20 to 24 ounces per hour).

Which stop could the runner skip? The best station to pass by would be the ninth one. That’s because – as we mentioned last issue – the stops become less important (for purposes of promoting performance and avoiding dehydration) as the race proceeds. As we said, the most important drink is the one taken just before the race; the next most important is the first one during the race, the third most important is the second during the race, and so on.

If the first sports-drink station were at the two-mile mark, our competitor would sip at 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16 – and then skip at 18. He would then drink again at 20, 22, and 24 miles. However, bear in mind that he wouldn’t gain that much from omitting the 18-mile watering hole. True, he wouldn’t have to pause for a drink, but the drinking itself is a refreshing break from the rigours of holding goal speed, and it’s a reward for covering two miles at pace. It’s also good to think of the drinks as ‘fatigue-wipers’: as the sports drink washes down your throat, you should also let all feelings of mental fatigue swirl downward right along with the fluid – so that you can start the next two-mile stretch of the race with a fresh mind.

Breaking the marathon into two-mile pieces and rewarding yourself with a drink at the end of each two miles is a great way to cope with the gruelling marathon distance (you can think about just making it from one watering spot to the next, rather than letting the size of the whole enchilada prey on your mind).