If you are new to the sport of ultrarunning, you will at some point be assaulted by the variety of hydration options out there. Regardless of the plethora of choices, there are some basic categories, and these categories tend to encompass a common set of positive and negative features. First, we could break things down by bottles vs bladders. Bottles have the advantage of being easily trackable throughout a race because you can visually see how much you’re drinking. They are also cheap and easy to clean. Many companies have tried to develop their own “ideal” bottle, but I find my favorite bottle is the Gatorade Sports bottle with the twist top. It’s large enough that I usually need only one, and I can wrap my headlamp around it. Also, due to the disposable nature I can just recycle it after the race instead of finding it months later stashed in a bag of gear covered in mildew.
The obvious advantage of a bladder is the convenience of being able to sip through a straw. This is also a disadvantage though since you may tend to over or under consume fluids this way. I like to be anal about tracking my fluid consumption and matching sodium intake. You can buy an inline meter for a bladder to tell you how much fluid you have consumed, like the one below.
However, there are numerous other reasons I personally dislike bladders. First would be the price. These are just some samples of replacement bladders, which generally cost ~20 dollars.
For that same price I could get 10 bottles and have my imaginary crew keep a stock of filled bottles. Another major disadvantage is the durability. When I used bladders, I generally had to buy a new bladder every month due to either mold or tears that would develop around the closure, or on the bladder itself. If you are a poor PhD student like me, this becomes unsustainable. I would say though that certain races may provide few opportunities to refill your fluid and a bladder does allow you to carry more fluid usually.
The other way we could break things down by is belts, packs/vests or handhelds. A lot of people love handhelds, but personally, I really don’t want to have anything heavy in my hand because it would fatigue my shoulder muscles. This is especially important for my as I have shoulder problems. That said, some people swear by them and love the shock absorption from falling on the bottle instead of their hands. I personally use belts, but they also have a drawback in that they either flop around or you cinch them so tight they press on your GI tract which can be uncomfortable. I own several running belts and I can tell you the double bottle belts are terrible unless you just need a lot of fluid. The double bottle belts become uneven after a couple sips and flop badly. Not to mention the extra weight is uncomfortable on the GI tract. I should also say, if you’re running 50 or 100 miles, you probably need some storage space on whichever option you choose. For this reason I use nathan single bottle belt with storage shown below.
Despite all the drawbacks of belts, I still prefer them for two reasons: they are cheap, and they absorb less heat than the vests. I’ve used vests, and they are convenient, but since I prefer hot races, I don’t want something sitting against my back holding in heat. Also, nearly all the options have a bladder. Despite this, if I were to run a long race without support I would prefer a vest since they usually have the most storage space. Although I might ditch the bladder or use it to refill bottles. And if I had the money this is the vest I would buy.
I hope this helps you in your endeavor to find the right hydration system for you.