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Running Gear Essentials: The Water Bottle

By Alex da Roza

The beauty of running is its simplicity. It’s the one sport that all of us naturally know how to do and can do. It doesn’t require any special gear – arguably, all you need is a top, shorts, a pair of socks and running shoes.

But the fun thing about running is that the gear you need doesn’t have to end there. By putting a little more thought into it, gear on top of what is generally thought to be ‘all you need’ can be essential to your run. It doesn’t take away from the simplicity of running. To me, these things are good for our performance and health which ultimately helps us enjoy the sport we love for longer. One of these things is – in the spirit of simplicity – the humble water bottle. Most people wouldn’t think twice about a water bottle, but in my opinion it is an essential piece of gear that no matter the distance or weather, deserves a second thought.

Why? I grew up playing sports, but in my early days of running in my 20s, I was remarkably unskilled at keeping on top of my hydration. I paid for it dearly during a multi-stage 100km race in Mongolia where even with access to my own water, I became so dehydrated that I ended the first day lying in a bed hooked up to an IV hanging from the rafters of a yurt.

Now, I’ll even run 5km with water to sip now and again – even here in London where the weather is cooler and the climate far less humid than in my home city of Hong Kong. Some might think this is overkill, and maybe I do it out of habit. But I’d rather that than at some point during a run, think – either because of a dry mouth or waning energy – if only I had some water. For me, there is no question over the importance of water for your body and health on any run.

Which brings me to the question of the best way to carry it. Naturally, a standard Evian or Vita water bottle just isn’t going to cut it. You want to avoid hindering the natural movement of your arms and anything that could affect your comfort as much as possible. Even for the most coordinated of us (of which I am not), a twist cap isn’t going to be worth the extra effort of untwisting the cap, taking a drink and twisting it back on again all whilst running. So what types of water bottles are suitable for running?

I was previously the owner of a couple of water bladders, the ones that would clip into a little hydration pack with the tube snaking out over my shoulder. I had no issues with the pack itself: it stayed nicely in place and it was relatively effortless to sip from the tube. But the issue I found was in refilling. For long distances, by contrast it would require a lot of effort to refill the 1.5 litre bladder. It involved taking off the pack that I was so neatly strapped into, opening it up, taking the bladder out, unscrewing its large lid (positioned at the front), manoeuvring the bladder so I could fill it without spilling, and then finally, reversing the entire process so that I was neatly strapped into my pack once again. Even a water bladder that folded over the top and sealed with a plastic slider was too finicky for me. The problem was that I couldn’t fill either type of bladder while they sat empty in the pack, so taking the time to remove them and then stuff them back in again was far too cumbersome for me.

The other issue I found with my water bladders was in cleaning. Admittedly, I didn’t have the specially designed cleaning paraphernalia for the long tube, so in my case it was impossible to clean properly. Try as I might to avoid it, eventually mould would spawn. No one would be happy drinking from that.

For a short period, I was running with a sports bottle with the type of top you could pull open with your teeth. Gifted to me by a thoughtful friend for my birthday, the particular brand I had was fantastically insulated to keep water ice cold on hot days. If that wasn’t enough, it also had a handy spray function for cooling down. But at 750ml, it was too clunky a bottle to run around with in my hand. It was a total hindrance to the natural movement of whichever arm and hand I was using to hold it. I decided it was better used for other things.

I’ve since moved on to two smaller 500ml soft flasks that each fit into front pockets on the straps of my small and large running packs. The bottles are easy to access so refilling doesn’t require removing my packs. They slip easily back into their pockets even when they’re full. These bottles are from Ultimate Direction. I have an older model that, unless I readjust the bungee cord to hold it in place, tends to slip down into the pocket as water is gradually consumed (see: Ultimate Direction Body Bottle 500). I’m not too bothered by this, but now that I also have a newer model, I can appreciate the thought that’s gone into its redesign (see: Ultimate Direction Body Bottle II 500 Soft Flask). Whilst still soft, the new bottles are sturdy even when empty so that they don’t slip down. The tops of the flasks are even angled so that they can be positioned towards your mouth instead of pointing straight up. The material is even more durable than the older version, which is saying something since to date the old ones have lasted years – assuming of course, that your better half doesn’t use a knife to cut off the packaging. Sadly, we’ve discovered a slit in one of our newly purchased soft flasks, which I don’t think was a manufacturing problem – rather, a problem of living with a man/boy.

For my shorter runs, one 500ml soft flask fits handily into a soft handheld carrier strapped to my hand. Because of its shape and size, it’s far less of an imposition on my hand and arm than a 750ml hard bottle and my hand can stay relaxed. These are bottles that can truly work for any distance.

I should mention that my small and large packs and handheld carrier are all Ultimate Direction. Generally, if you buy the same brand soft flasks as your packs, you can expect them to fit. They may fit into different brand packs but note that this won’t always be the case. Some soft flasks will be stockier with a wider mouth, and some will be longer with a narrow mouth. There’s no standard shape, even where they’re equal in volume.

In terms of cleaning, in addition to the usual water and detergent, from time to time I’ll sterilise the soft flasks using a baby bottle sterilising solution. I’ll fill a bottle with water, add a few drops of Milton and let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes before rinsing it out.

Who knew there would be so much to talk about when it came to water bottles? But when you really think about it, just as various manufacturers clearly have, something as simple as the humble water bottle can take on many shapes and forms to suit different activities. It’s up to us to decide which works best for our purposes to keep healthy, hydrated and performing well.

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