It’s Time. We Need to Have “The Fuel Belt Talk”

Wasabi

Wasabi

Ellen has written 24 posts on Salty Running.

Mid-pack racer and social running enthusiast. Full-time fitness specialist and part-time running store employee extraordinaire. Certified running gear fashionista and lover of laughing, lattes, and color coordination.

Where do you stand in this important debate?

Where do you stand in this important debate?

Fall marathon season is quickly approaching. Soon our thoughts will switch from our training to tapering and then our race day plan.  We will need to make decisions about all the important stuff: what our goal pace is; what to eat for breakfast on the big day; what outfit to wear; etc. Those are all important, but today I want to discuss something near and dear to my heart. Fuel belts.

Right now, some of you are scoffing. “HA! As if I would ever consider using a fuel belt. LAME!” But there are some very serious runners who are very attached to their fuel belts. I should know. I used to be one of them. 

That's me rocking the fuel belt in marathons gone by, and making it look damn sexy if I do say so myself!

That’s me rocking the fuel belt in marathons gone by, and making it look damn sexy if I do say so myself!

There  was a time, not so long ago, when I subscribed to the fuel belt doctrine. As a well established  part-time running store employee I am accustomed to having every possible running accessory under the sun at my disposal, and I honestly thought the fuel belt was just another legitimate essential of marathon training. I trained and raced with it regularly without giving it  a second thought.  I never considered my fuel belt to be particularly comfortable or stylish, but I did fancy it to be a means of liberation from utter dehydration, the dreaded “wall”, and congested race course water stations.

After completing two marathons with what I felt to be two decently mediocre times, my fuel belt and I decided to take on qualifying for Boston. When I missed the qualifier in two consecutive attempts my amazing, much-faster-than-me running friends from near and far joined forces and cooked up a large-scale marathon intervention to make sure I got the BQ once and for all.  Their master plan involved pacing me, which meant being seen running with me in public. And that is when they set me down and lovingly gave me what will forever be known as “The Fuel Belt Talk”.

My goal for race day was not just to hit the BQ, but to beat it by 5 minutes in order to increase my odds of actually securing a spot at Boston with the 5 minute priority registration cushion. For me this meant running 3:30. On the eve of my third-time’s-the-charm BQ attempt, my dear friend and esteemed running mentor (who also just so happens to be a total running bad-ass and 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon finisher) pulled me aside for the little pre-race debriefing.

This is “The Fuel Belt Talk.” She put her hand on my shoulder, looked me square in the eye, and said to me in a gentle, yet firm voice “People who run 3:30 marathons DO NOT wear fuel belts. And NO ONE was wearing a fuel belt in the Olympic Trials Marathon.” I recall looking at her wide-eyed  and thinking to myself “How the eff did the entire field of the Olympic Trials Marathon make it through 26.2 miles without withering into dehydration despair if they weren’t wearing fuel belts?” Until this moment I had honestly assumed that hydration belts were a universal truth of marathon training for everyone from the 6 hour marathoner all the way up to Kara and Shalene.

I know that in marathon training and in life it is above all important to know thy self, and to avoid comparing yourself to others (especially when you run 3:30 marathons and “others” are people who competed in the Olympic Trials), but I am here to tell you that the moment those fateful words rolled off my wise and speedy running idol’s tongue I swore off racing with the fuel belt forever and never looked back. To think that I had been running around for all this time looking like a total marathoning newb! I still cringe a little when I think about it. Ouch.

My running bestie and fellow Salty, Saffron pacing me to a BQ and a big new PR in my first ever sans fuel belt marathon!

My running bestie and fellow Salty, Saffron pacing me to a BQ and a big new PR in my first ever sans fuel belt marathon!

Since “The Fuel Belt Talk” I have belted up on a few particularly hot, humid, extra-long long runs here and there, but over time my former trusty hydration sidekick has faded into near obscurity in my training as well. This leads me to wonder how the general running public perceives and embraces the fuel belt, and what is thought to be the least lame/ most socially acceptable  long run hydration accessory these days.

And so I took it upon myself to poll my trusted running community. With help of a Survey Monkey savvy friend, I whipped up a fun little “Feelings About Fuel Belts” survey below and mercilessly pestered my Facebook and Twitter followers and my local running group email distribution list to complete it. You are invited to read my entire in-depth (but most un-scientific) analysis of the results here on my personal blog), but in the meantime, here is a brief Salty summary of my findings.

I’m not gonna lie, I thought that most everyone who took my survey would be all like “Hell to the no, dogg! Fuel belts are Bush League!” And this was the stance taken by 32.20% of my 61 respondents. However, to my great surprise, 35.59% of survey participants agreed that the fuel belt is clutch for any and all long runs. An additional 25.42% of survey takers agreed that fuel belts are kind of drag, but also a necessary evil in the hottest and/ or longest of running scenarios.

When asked “What distance, temperature, or combination of the 2 warrants a fuel belt?” participants were divided into 2 nearly evenly split camps. The very marginally larger one being “I wear my fuel belt on ALL RUNS 15 miles and longer regardless of the temperature.” And the other being “No distance is too long, and temperature too hot. I would sooner die of dehydration and shame than be caught wearing a fuel belt.”

Those who were strongly morally opposed to fuel belts confessed to avoiding dehydration on their longest, sweatiest runs by carrying handheld water bottles, wearing hydration packs (Shocking! I always thought those were only for mountain biking), or planning routes with water available or dropping water on along the route prior to their run. The fuel belt haters solved the conundrum of packing gels and keys by wearing shorts with plenty of pockets, utilizing sports bra storage space, pinning gels inside the waistbands of their shorts. (Salty elaborates on these and other strategies for staying footloose and fuel belt free here.)

I took the liberty of showcasing a few popular fuel belt alternatives just for you!

I took the liberty of showcasing a few popular fuel belt alternatives just for you!

65% of survey participants agreed that wearing fuel belts in races is for newbies only, and something they would never do, while the remaining 35% stated that they are down with racing in the belt because it liberates them from congested water stops at crowded races.

In the end, I suppose it all comes down to this: If you are doing any sort of long distance training you will eventually encounter some runs that warrant hydration. If you are down with the fit, feel, and fashion of the fuel belt, well then, get out there and rock that shit! The little cross-section of runners that I surveyed finds fuels belts to be marginally social acceptable! On the other hand, if you think fuel belts are hideous, uncomfortable, and just all around sucky, you are most certainly not alone in this opinion either.

So, how do you feel about fuel belts? Do you have any running gear that you just can’t quit?

34 Responses to “It’s Time. We Need to Have “The Fuel Belt Talk””

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  1. Salty Salty says:

    If a couple of extra ounces of shoes adds time to your race, what does a fuel belt do? How many minutes could a runner who wears a fuel belt in her marathon shave off, just by getting rid of it? The weight and the bounce must interfere with a runner’s ability to really race!

  2. Hilarious and thoughtful and interesting. I love the folks who are all geared up in fuel belts for 5 and 10ks. But, better to be in the starting line of a race rather than at the bar fueling up at 7 in the morning. I say who cares what you look to others, as long as it works, but I can never imagine running with those clunky things. (fuel belts or hand/helds make perfect sense on the trail, but when out and about, I just put money in my pocket and pop into a gas station here and there for long runs)

    Of course, anything that makes one more like Bat-man is good for you.

  3. Crystal G says:

    This hit near and dear to my heart lol. I thought long and hard before deciding to ditch my fuel belt for my first marathon. I had worn it for every long run and half marathon until that point, but I knew I didn’t want to carry it the whole 26 miles. What would I do when I drank it all? Carry an empty belt? refill them somehow? lol I chose to carry a cheapo bottled water for the first few miles to get through the first water stops and tossed it once congestion cleared. It worked for me :-).

  4. Amanda says:

    I used to be a fuel belt devotee. And then I thought- why am I losing that 5 extra pounds to get faster if I’m carrying it in a fuel belt around my waist? No more fuel belt for me! They may be necessary for some training runs (even though I haven’t used mine in a couple years) but I will never race in one again.

  5. Eucalyptus Eucalyptus says:

    Hah, whenever I see fuel belts I just can’t help but laugh. Yes, I can see the purposes, but during organized races, there are also more than enough water stops. And if I’m running in that kind of heat, I want to be wearing as little as possible — not adding another layer!

  6. Pepper Pepper says:

    I suffered through my first marathon training season getting the talk every run. I believe my running partners words were “Oh Hell No!” but at mile 10 of a 20 miler on a 85 degree day, I was still kind enough to share my stash despite the shaming I was given ;) I wore it for my first and managed to BQ ever so slightly, granted the last mile a friend grabbed the belt from me because she said I did not need any extra weight at that point :) I moved to handhelds for ultra training after that and have since mostly gone sans water and relied on water stops or fountains. Great post! Welcome to Salty Running!

  7. MG says:

    I don’t know. After having two kids, I can’t wear my Fuel Belt anymore (it sits weirdly on my hips), so I run with a handheld bottle for my long runs. I decided not to carry it during a half-marathon last month, figuring that there would be plenty of water stops. That was a huge mistake and dehydration ruined my day. The water stops were *not* plentiful, and it was a humid day. A friend took pictures at about 9 miles, and everyone just looked soaked. I really regret not carrying my own water for that race.

    I’ve always relied on the water stops in marathons, and that’s worked out okay for me. I am surprised when I see people belted up for 5k and 10ks. If it’s super hot, I might grab water during a 10k, but I usually skip those water stops. I don’t know if I’ve ever used a water stop in a 5k. We ran 5k for cross country during high school, so I think it’s ingrained in me that you don’t need water for that distance.

  8. Jojo says:

    I am still deciding whether to race with one or not. Personally, I dehydrate easily, so it’s nice to know that I have water at hand. Also, in large races, such as Rock n Roll, the water stops get pretty congested and slow you down as well. I’m also not a super fast runner, and no where near BQing, but I can see how some people who are will be slowed down significantly by a fuel belt. Haha I just want to finish (around 4 hours would be nice, though).

  9. Mint says:

    Haha – my husband affectionately calls my fuel belt my “goober belt.” I don’t feel ashamed wearing it during training at all though. It is very helpful – particularly if I have a long run on the trail where there are very few (if any) places to stop and get water. So I think it is silly to diss the fuel belt outright. It serves an good purpose during training and there are many a hot summer day I’ve been so thankful to have it.

    That said, I would never wear it during a race. That is what water stops are for.

  10. Salty Salty says:

    Mint – Goober belt! Haha. I never ever ever took water with me ever, until my last pregnancy when I was getting really nasty BH contractions on my summer runs. I took a handheld and that was fine. BTW Pepper, I still have it if you ever need it back ;) I don’t think a fuel belt is for me, or a camel back, or anything like that, but then again, it’s rare that I’m running anywhere were there is no water somewhere along my route. I’d change my tune if I was running in the mountains or whatever! And I’m not exactly training for ultras over here or anything like that.

    I really think if you’re racing-racing that you gotta leave the belt at home. The time you save (if any) by skipping water stops will more than be eaten up by the weight and bulk of that thing!

  11. misszippy says:

    Put me in the “hell to the no” category! Nope, won’t do it. For one, we overrate how much liquid we need to take in as a running community. No one needs all that water/sports drink for a 3-hr. run. For two, you can always find water on a run, whether from a park fountain or a local 7-11 (or on my club’s Saturday runs where we all take turns putting out water at 3 spots). And finally–the whole fanny pack looking thing…nope!

    • Salty Salty says:

      Agreed!! Although I’m sure there are rural, mountainy areas where there is no water, those places are rare. For the vast majority of rune you don’t even need it anyway and if you do get thirsty, you’ll be done before anything “dangerous” happens.

  12. Jesse says:

    In the winter, sure – I’ll skip the fuel belt for a training run. But in the summer, at least around here, packing water is necessary. I hate the fuel belt, but it’s a necessary evil for long runs in the heat.

    But never for a race. Nope!

  13. Salty Salty says:

    On facebook ChocolaterunsJudy made this point:

    “I wear my fuel belt for any run over an hour – which for me are runs over 5 miles! Maybe when you’re faster you can get away with it. Sure, it’s easier to run without it; but are looks really more important than proper hydration?”

    • Salty Salty says:

      I agree that when considering your hydration, etc. needs for a run, it’s more important to think about time out there rather than miles. I also agree in function over form – if you need it, who cares what it looks like! However, I think you think you need to drink more than you actually need to drink. I’d love a discussion on what constitutes “proper hydration.” Do we really need to bring water with us on most runs? Are we maybe a little irrationally paranoid about dehydration?

  14. martini mike says:

    train with it for the extra weight. race without it for the advantage. we do this constantly. speedwork is another example. why run a minute faster than goal marathon pace for short distances? to make slower longer distances easier. why cut out caffeine during the tail end of training and tapering? to make the effects more appreciable.

    the same can be said about the extra weight of the belt. i have a 70oz camelbak that i wear when i want to make life hard on myself during middle and long distances on the trails, but the improvement in pace when i take it off to race is incredible.

    that aspect noted, the faster you get, the more jiggling and jostling around that water is going to do and the more friction and rash you’ll be experiencing. for LSD, this is okay. for tempo runs and speedwork, you’ll probably be better off parting with the belt.

    • Salty Salty says:

      That’s what ankle weights are for, duh!

      Seriously, though. Interesting. But you are also an ultra dude and are running long long long runs out on the desolate trails. When I run on the towpath, for instance, at most I’m doing 22 miles and there is water every 3-6 miles if I need it. I also think if you’re trying to get tough it’s best to do without as long as you can and if it’s sitting in front of you, you will drink it and it will remind you that you feel like crap. If it’s not there, you will abstain much longer I would think.

  15. Molasses Molasses says:

    There’s typically no publicly available water in the neighborhoods where I run; granted my so called “long runs” are only about 12 miles, but with temps in the 80s and low 90s on summer mornings, I like to pack a belt. Besides, if I get bored at least I can gnosh on some fruit snacks :-)

    In all seriousness though, I can’t fathom doing a solo trail run of anything over three miles without a belt. If I get hurt and have to either hobble the miles back to my car or wait for help, I want to have some water and some sugar available. I feel differently about road running, where help is typically never too far away.

  16. martini mike says:

    i agree but that’s part of the willpower. ;^) it’s right there but you don’t drink it. push on! i do this with two hand-helds all the time. and hey, it’s great for toning up arms and upper body while testing your willpower!

  17. Denny says:

    I’ll admit to owning a fuel belt, but I have never used one in a race. And I haven’t used it at all in at least a couple of years. Basically once I became “serious” about running, I ditched the belt.

    IMO, by the time you pay for a race, they had better have some water available on course, eh? And as far as the crowded water stations go, if you’re that worried about a few seconds here or there, you should be able to be far enough in front of the masses where the water stations aren’t overly crowded! I mean, skip the first station or two, which are usually both inside of 4 miles anyway, and by then the race will be spread out and there won’t be a logjam for the H2O!

  18. Matt says:

    I’ve never been into carrying water on runs, even though I’m a pretty heavy sweater. In the cooler months, I will go on a two hour run sometimes without water. I’m thirsty when I get done, but it’s not usually a big deal. Now that I’m trying ultras though, I’ve been carrying my hydration pack and/or handheld on all of my longer runs so that I’m used to it for races, even if there’s a place I could stop for water along the way if I wanted to.

  19. Sassafras says:

    I own a fuel belt. I think I’ve only raced with it once, during a super small half where I wasn’t certain of the aid station situation. But I do wear it on very hot runs or long ones where I haven’t dropped water ahead of time. My running routes tend to have very few water options, and I feel like it’s better to be prepared.

    Oh, and no one in the Olympic Trials Marathon had a fuel belt because they all had elite support-style aid stations, with their bottles/hydration specially marked for them. Just sayin!

  20. Jamie says:

    Love this post. I never use to be a belt kinda gal until I got pregnant. I find that I over heat quicker being pregnant so I just want a safety belt just in case. That being said, I use the loo more so I try to avoid over consuming water and crossing my legs when crossing the finish line. I’ve been trying the tactic of building up hydration the weeks prior to the event, but during hot days its hard to not bring your belt!

    • Salty Salty says:

      I found I had to bring water on hot runs during my last pregnancy, too. I never ever did before then. I also noticed I really needed to drink WAY more than I normally do too.

      Haha! Crossing your legs at the finish line :)

  21. Kristi says:

    Wow, I didn’t know my fuel belt was giving me away as a newbie! My problem is I just like to drink small sips. I don’t want to hit a water station and have to gulp water. As much as I would love to ditch the belt, I have to admit I think I will be keeping it for my first marathon next month. I’m guessing my slow finish time will give away my newbie status far more than my belt!!!

  22. Rachel says:

    Hilarious pictures, super interesting discussion! For my part, I don’t give two shits what faster/cooler/more experienced runners do… I have been running since high school, have never been fast, and as a professional scientist I am pretty comfortable with the fact that I’m a huge nerd :)

    I think a couple things play a role… climate, and trail vs. road racing. I had never run a road race longer than 10k until this year, so of course I brought water for all my long races… water stations are usually few and far between at smaller trail races. I also never owned a fuel belt until my boyfriend bought me one last Christmas, though–I always used a Camelbak (that he also bought me–he’s a keeper!).

    On the climate front, about a month into my first Oklahoma summer (having lived in the northern US my whole life), I caved and bought a handheld water bottle. EVERYONE in the local running group had one, and now I know why!! I seriously use it for all runs longer than 3-4 miles in the summer… it is hot as balls here and I don’t know how you couldn’t. We do have a trail system with decent water fountains, but when I run from my house the closest one is 2 miles away and then there isn’t another one for 2.5 miles, which doesn’t sound too bad but for me, when it is 95+ degrees out, I’d rather just have it! I actually almost never use my fuel belt unless I need LOTS of water (i.e. long hot run with few drinking fountains) and then I use it in addition the handheld… my handheld actually holds more and I just find it more comfortable.

    I guess I also don’t get what the difference is between handheld/Camelbak/vest/fuel belt in terms of dorkiness/newb status… can anyone fill me in? It seems like they can all be used for transporting water (necessarily or in an “overkill” way), and I’m not sure I agree that a vest is any less dorky looking than a fuel belt… is it just that fuel belts tend to be “pushed” more by running stores so that is what all the newbies toting water at a 10k have?

  23. Mackenzie says:

    A little bit late to this but I am running my first marathon, the Miami Marathon, Feb 2nd. I live in Miami and just got into the double digit mile runs in my training program. I’ll also note that it is November 5th and it has not gotten below 70*F even at 5AM. I had never carried water with me before on any runs (been running since high school) but I drink over a gallon of water each day and have noticed that after about 7 miles I start to feel pretty shaky and can’t stop coughing and clearing my throat and this is immediately fixed as soon as I get some water. There are no places to stop on the routes that I am running (causeways/unfriendly gas station managers) and I detest having anything in my hands when I’m running (have the clip ipod and everything).

    That being said I have just bought my first belt and am pretty excited. I think I’m going to train with it but ditch it for the actual marathon because the stations start at mile 2.8 and are every mile after that. The only thing I’m worried about is wanting some water between the miles or if I decide to skip any stations to save time and regret it and not having somewhere to put my gels. Luckily I’ve got plenty of time to train with it and make some decisions!

  24. Katie says:

    This is interesting. I hate my fuel belt, but it’s difficult for me to get enough at water stops without slowing down. I’ve worn my fuel belt for every marathon and my last I ran in 3:07:12…I don’t think I’m a newbie, but I do hate it…I’m trying to decide if I should beltless at Boston this year.

    • Salty Salty says:

      That’s a great PR, Kaite! But go beltless! You can do it!!!!

      • Kristi says:

        It was interesting to see the new comments on this topic pop up in my mailbox today. When I read it back in the fall I was surprised some people felt so strongly that belts shouldn’t be used or are unnecessary. Having now run my first marathon, and only a week away from running a 30k race I have decided, without a doubt, that you have to do what is right for your own body and no one should judge. Personally, I like drinking small sips of water, that keeps me from cramping (or worse) from dehydration, but also stops me from getting nauseous from drinking too quickly. I don’t find the extra weight a big deal and I would rather be a few seconds slower than having a DNF due to stomach/intestinal issues. So perhaps instead of thinking anyone with a belt is a newbie, they could simply be looked at as runners who know what they need for a successful race day.

  25. Katie says:

    Oh it’s also worth noting that while elite athletes would never run with a hydration belt, they also have special water stops where they have bottles of their choosing with liquid of their choosing waiting for them.

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