The Dark Side of Distance Running: Drinking Problems

So, you’ve decided to run your first race.  Congratulations!  Distance running is an experience like no other and it can change your life for the better.  I bet you bought some nice running shoes.  You probably picked out some quality running shorts and maybe even shelled out some cash for a new iPod or GPS watch.  You’re ready.

But are you?  You may think you are prepared for this journey, but there is one challenge for which you may not be prepared.  It’s time to ask yourself one vitally important question:  Are you ready to join the thousands of us who have a serious drinking problem?



Not that kind of drinking.

One of the most basic skills we learn as children is to drink out of a cup.  Sure… up until the age of three or so, we have the occasional spill or choking incident, but quickly we become experts and somehow manage not to die of dehydration.  There is a very simple reason for this.  In early childhood, we are not distance runners.  If we were knocking out half-marathons during the formative years, very few of us would make it to adulthood because we would rarely get any fluids in our body.  You see, most runners have a drinking problem.  The problem being that, during a race, most of us can’t drink without nearly drowning ourselves.

In most distance races there is at least one fluid station where runners can slow down, grab a cup of cold water or Gatorade, and continue the race.  For a 5K race, there may only be one such station.  For a full marathon, there may possibly be a dozen or more.  Some races will have what are essentially self-serve tables lined with pre-filled paper cups and others will have smiling volunteers standing by the side of the road, hands held out holding drinks for runners to grab.  The stations may be well-marked, they may be subtle, they may be large, or may be a simple card table.  But, the one thing common with all of these stations is that they are usually surrounded by people like me who cannot manage to consume fluids without becoming a victim of waterboarding.

So what is it about drinking water during a race that makes it so challenging?  Obviously, drinking while bouncing up and down is going to cause some issues, but you would think if you slowed down you might be able to pull this off.  However, the issue is a bit more complicated.


First, runners are breathing hard when they reach a station.  This involuntary reaction to exertion causes our chests to heave and our heads to bob up and down.  Suddenly, the simple act of holding a cup up to one’s lips becomes a game of Operation and you just KNOW the stupid buzzer is going to go off and scare the bejesus out of you.

Second, the fluid stations often utilize run-of-the-mill paper cups.  These cups make perfect sense, but some of them have a wax coating which can be very slick in the hands of a sweating runner.   Instead of being able to confidently grasp the cup in on hand, you may find yourself trying to hold the equivalent of a snake covered in bacon grease.  Note: I don’t know this from actual experience, because I HATE snakes and rarely put bacon grease on them.

Third, sometimes the volunteers – who mean well – fill the cups to the top.  This means, the second you grab the cup, your running watch, and probably much of your arm, gets drenched.  Then, when you try to gently sip the water which is still near the rim of the cup, you end up inhaling it through your nostrils.  For those of you who don’t know, snorting water is counterproductive during a race.  Actually, like covering snakes in bacon grease, it’s not very productive in most aspects of life.  I wouldn’t recommend it for any occasion.

Now there is a technique that can help us “problem drinkers”.   There is the legendary “funnel technique”.  This is where one bends the cup just enough to turn a portion of the rim into a funnel and therefore you put less water on your pupils and down your shirt.  I highly recommend this technique, but I will give you a word of caution.  I have participated in at least one race where a fluid station was stocked with water in Styrofoam cups.  I watched as many runners grabbed cups and attempted to bend the cup in order to utilize the funnel technique.  The resulting explosions of water and Gatoradcupse created a pileup of shocked and soaked athletes who angrily tossed their shattered cups toward the trashcan that was provided.  Of course nobody actually made the shot into the trash can, because runners are the absolute WORST fluid station basketball players in the world, but that’s a topic for another day.


Now, some runners choose to carry their own water or sports drink on a hydration belt.  I’ve done this before and it’s not so bad.  Yes, you end up carrying a little extra weight throughout the course, but drinking from a plastic sports bottle is much easier than any open cup.  Not to mention, if it’s extremely hot outside you can squirt a little bit of water on your head instead of dumping an entire cup all over your body.  I guess it’s all in the watery eye of the beholder.

So if you are thinking about running a race for the first time and you are concerned you might look like a fool while simply trying to take a drink – have no fear.  You are not alone.  You are now one of us.  At times, we all have a drinking problem and there is no reason to be ashamed.  Welcome to the club.







Drinking and running:  What’s your solution?


J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, and other works of fiction.  He is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.

RESOLVE has been named a finalist for Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers organization.

RESOLVE was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine.
Twitter @JJHensleyauthor

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9 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Distance Running: Drinking Problems

  1. ChrstnaBergling

    Hydration pack for anything over 3 miles for me. I prefer the backpack to the belt because the belt tends to shift and bounce (annoyingly). It’s easier to sip out of the bite valve than wrangle an open cup will running as sloppily as I do.

  2. Mark DeNio

    On a more serious note, I learned about overfilling when helping at a water station. It is a big problem because it also uses up the water supplies more quickly than planned. Whenever I work water stops now I tell the volunteers to think of it as a shot of water. That helps them understand.

  3. JoeC

    Funny article! I generally don’t mind spilling water down my front or in my face, since it cools you off a bit. Gatorade is a completely different story, as you get sticky from it.

    I definitely agree that hydration belts rock. You can do a fairly well-directed shot of water that minimizes spillage.

    Now eating is a completely different story. I love Clif Shot Blocks, but have come close to sucking them into my lungs while running.


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