Running techniques No. 1: the art of grabbing a drink in a race

Hydration is important. If you’re doing a long race, you’re going to need to drink at some point during it (even if it can be annoying…).

That shouldn’t be news to any  runner. A quick Google search for ‘running hydration’ will bring up thousands of articles telling you how much, when and what to drink. Mostly they’re written by running experts, doctors, nutritionists and various other boffins far more qualified than me. But almost all of those articles miss out perhaps the toughest bit of all: actually getting a drink in the first place.

Virtually every race will feature water or drink stations, where you can grab some refreshment. If you’re lucky, the drinks will come in bottles featuring those ever-so-useful sport caps. But, in all likelihood, your hydration will come in plastic or paper cups, which will be offered to you by nervous-looking volunteers holding them at arm’s length.

Fact: plastic and paper cups really aren’t very well suited to being grabbed when you’re running. It’s easy to mess up the entire process – and given the consequences of doing so mean a lack of hydration and/or ending up soaked with water, that’s not a good thing.

So how do you do it? Well, since you asked, let’s break this down in an excessive amount detail.


The objectives

First, we need to understand the whole aim of the exercise. So here are the objectives, presented in decreasing order of importance:

  • To successfully collect a cup containing as much drink as possible
  • To lose as little time as possible while undertaking this process
  • To spill as little liquid as possible onto both yourself and the volunteer holding the drink

Sounds simple. It’s really not. So let’s break down the approach into phases.

Phase one: the approach

First off: you need to know you’re approaching a drinks station. This sounds obvious, but when you’re focused during a race it’s surprisingly easy to miss those bright yellow ‘DRINKS AHEAD’ signs. Well, that’s my excuse.

Top tip: most race guides will tell you where the drinks stations are located, or how far apart they are. It’s worth studying and trying to remember. That way, you’ll know roughly where to start looking for the signs.

Once you’ve spot a drinks station you need to move over to the side of the road it’s on, which sounds easy until you try doing it when you’re in the middle of a pack of runners. For optimum drinks-grabbing possibilities, try to create a bit of space from any runners ahead of you. This makes it far less likely you’ll plough into the back of a runner whose drink-grabbing technique is to essentially stop. It also helps prevent what I call the ‘swoop and snatch’, when another runner swerves in ahead of you at the last second and inadvertently grabs the exact cup you’d been aiming for.

Phase two: the spot

Right, drinks station sighted, and you’re getting close. Look ahead and you’ll see lots of volunteers holding out cups containing lovely, refreshing liquid.

The first step is to make sure you know what you’re aiming for. Some runs offer both water and energy drinks at the same drinks station. If you’re a fussy drinker, pay attention to which is offered first, unless you want a surprise (such as the time my brother, tackling a triathlon in Texan summer heat, decided to pick up a water and pour it over his head – only to discover the cup contained Gatorade…).

Then you need to target a volunteer to grab a cup from. Some tips:

  • If possible, be wary of the young kids. They’re often the most enthusiastic and keen to push water in your direction, but in my experience are prone to panicking and recoiling when you try to make the grab.
  • Try and make eye contact with someone, or at least find someone who is actually watching you approach. If someone doesn’t spot you grabbing a cup they’re unlikely to release it easily, increasing the possibilities of spillage.
  • Try and pick someone who is actually holding a cup. I’m not saying I’ve ever looked daft by trying to grab a cup from someone who wasn’t actually holding one but, well, erm… ahem.

Phase three: the grab

It all comes down to this. This is the moment that will decide whether you get a drink, or just spill water everywhere and look stupid.

Grabbing a cup without slowing down too much is an art form. And there are plenty of techniques that you can be employed. Here are ones I’ve tried and/or seen:

The top-down snatch

When you raise your arm up high, then reach down and grab the cup around the top rim.

Pros: You grab the cup at one of the strongest parts, and your momentum is driving the cup down, reducing the risk of massively splashing water anywhere.

Cons: Lots of volunteer how the cup at the top rim, creating the possibility of awkward contact with strangers. The top of the cup is also the widest part, so if your grab isn’t precise it’s easy to only grab one side and tip drink everywhere or, worse, to accidentally stick your hand straight in the water.

The up-and-under

Drop your arm down low, and grab the cup from the base while you’re swinging it up.

Pros: The base of the cup is usually the absolute strongest part, so this has the least likelihood of drinking vessel crumpling. And because you’re swinging your arm up, your momentum is going away from your body, so if you knock the cup you’ll send the water flying away from you…

Cons: …but probably straight into the volunteer. Oops. Also, because of the base of the cup is usually the narrowest part, it’s easy to lose control and spill liquid when you actually try to drink. Oh, and some volunteers balance the cup in their palms, which renders this technique pretty useless.

The mid-cup clasp

Hold out your hand, open it wide and aim for the middle of the cup, grasping it as soon as you make contact.

Pros: By aiming for the middle of the cup, you maximise your margin for error, and you also grab the cup in the same fashion you’d normally pick up a cup, reducing the need for juggling and adjustment before you can actually drink from the thing.

Cons: The middle of paper and plastic cups are often the weakest part, so squeezing too hard can be disastrous. Remember how spinach went flying everywhere when Popeye burst open a can of the stuff? Squeeze a paper or plastic cup too hard and that will happen to your water. And, unlike Popeye, you won’t be able to perform any cartoon-based contortions to gobble it up.

The stop-and-stip

Slow down, stop, pick up the up and drink it, while making small talk with the volunteer.

Pros: Spillage chances extremely low. Ease of drinking extremely high. Pleasant small-talk.

Cons: It’s not exactly compatible with a PB…

On the whole, I’m a mid-cup clasping man. While it makes some level of spillage hard to avoid (especially if the cup is filled close to full) it offers the best balance of ensuring you can safely grab a cup with a reasonable amount of water in.

Right, you have a drink. Next challenge…

Phase four: drinking

Now this is the really difficult bit: getting the water from the cup into your mouth, preferably without breaking stride. Drinking while running is hard. And, frankly, I’ve yet to really refine a decent technique for this.

The potential for missing is high. The potential for splashing water all over your face is high (and particularly problematic if, like me, you wear glasses).

How to do it? The two approaches seem to be:

The big gulp

Open wide, aim for mouth, pour liquid in.

Pros: This is the quickest way, and involves holding the cup for the least amount of time.

Cons: You’re running, so you’re going to be breathing heavily. It’s quite hard to take a huge volume of water in at one time without coughing and splutter. Plus, if you miss, this technique will result in you pouring large quantities of liquid all over yourself.

Small sips

Taking multiple small sips of water. Duh.

Pros: Much easier to copy with while you’re running, especially if you can time your sips to match your breathing.

Cons: The more times you lift the cup up near your mouth, the more times you run the risk of it all going wrong…

On balance, it’s probably small sips. Yeah, I think it’s small sips. But you really shouldn’t take my word for this. On the Houston Half Marathon recently, I reckon I probably consumed no more than 50 per cent of the volume of drink I actually tried to pick up.

Is that a good success rate? It doesn’t seem like it… but I think it’s actually pretty decent, all things considered.

And that leads to my penultimate top tip when it comes to grabbing a drink on a marathon: you’re better off drinking a tiny amount and spilling loads than not drinking anything at all. You can always drink another tiny amount at the next drink station… well, you can try.

So what’s the final tip? It’s this: when you’re in the process of grabbing a drink from a volunteer, try to thank them while doing so. For a start, it’s polite, and it’s always good to thank volunteers who have given up their time to enable your running. But, mostly, it will make you feel slightly better if it all goes wrong and you accidentally cover them with water…



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