To Fuel Belt or Not to Fuel Belt? That is the Question.

Howdy y’all! It’s that time of year again… Fall marathon training is in full swing, but the summer heat and humidity haven’t let up and (at least where I live) they most likely won’t for another month or so.  As your mileage creeps up, how are you going to stay hydrated? I think it’s high time we addressed the general fastness and fabulousness (or lack there of) the fuel belt in order keep you not only well-hydrated, but looking as cool as possible in those final long running of your fall training cycle.

My Personal Fuel Belt Story:

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.  Needless to say, 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”.

That's me rocking the fuel belt in marathons gone by, and making it look damn good 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.

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 just so happens to be a total running bad-ass and 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon finisher) pulled me aside for a little pre-race debriefing. She put her hand on my shoulder, looked me square in the eye, and said to me in a gentle, yet firm voice “Ellen, 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 with surprise 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?”  Up 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 marathon newb! I still cringe a little when I think about it…

Bring home the BQ and a big, shiny new PR in my first marathon sans fuel belt!

Bring home the BQ and a big, shiny new PR in my first marathon sans fuel belt!

Since “The Fuel Belt Talk” I have belted up on a few particularly hot, humid, extra-long long runs here and there, but with time my once faithful 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 social acceptable means of long run hydration these days.

Survey Says…

And so I took it upon myself to poll my trusted running community. With help of a Survey Monkey savvy friend, I whipped up the  fun little “Feelings About Fuel Belts” survey below and mercilessly pestered the runners of my social media feeds and local run club email distribution list to complete it. As you review the results below, keep the following things in mind…

A Few Disclaimers First… 

  • This was an anonymous survey that did not define participants’ gender, running abilities or the duration of their long runs.
  • As I write this post, a whopping 61  people have completed this survey. (That might not sound like a lot to you, but I was actually pretty pumped about this response. I figured I might get 12 responses if I was lucky.)
  • I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty dang confident that the results below reflect the views of a cross-section of runners that includes 2 hour + half marathoners, sub-3 hour marathoners, ultra-marathoners, and plenty of paces and abilities in between.
  • In all likelihood, the majority of people who completed this survey live and run in the hot, humid Southeastern US.

The Findings:

Question 1:  Which of the statements below best describes your general feelings about fuel belts…
  •  6.78 of survey participants  answered (A) My fuel belt is my favorite training BFF! I almost never run without it!
  •   35.59% of survey participants answered (B) I appreciate my fuel belt’s functionality and the hydration liberation that it offers. I don’t take it on every run, but it is clutch for any and all of my longer distance stuff!
  • 25.42% of survey participants answered (C) My fuel belt is kind of drag, but every now and then I have to swallow my pride and bust it out for really super-long and/ or super-hot running activities.
  • 32.20% of survey participants answered  (D) Fuel belts are effing lame and I would sooner die of dehydration and shame than be caught wearing one.
 Question 2: If you do believe in fuel belts, what distance, temperature, or combination of the two warrants using one?
  • 38.71% of participants who answered this question would wear a fuel belt on runs as short as 5 miles IF the temperature was 90 degrees or greater.
  • 38.10% of participants who answered this question would rock their fuel belts on 10 + mile runs, regardless of the temperature.
  • 51.43% of participants agreed that the fuel belt is a must for runs longer 15 miles, no matter the temperature.
  • 66.67 % of participants who answered this question indicated that no distance was long enough to warrant the shame of the fuel belt.
  • 50% of participants who answered this question selected “I don’t care if I am running on the surface of the sun. I am NOT WEARING a damn fuel belt.”

*I got a little crazy with the Survey Monkey and made this question a multiple choice matrix something-or-other. It allowed people to choose more than one answer, which they clearly did and/or I got all confused in interpreting the results (understanding numbers has never be my strong suit), as all the percentages listed here obviously add up to something greater than 100%.

Question 3:  Would you wear a fuel belt in a race or only for training?
  • 33.90% of participants who answered this question chose (A) Both! Ain’t nobody got time for those crazy congested water stops at crowded races!
  • 42.37% chose (B) Only training! Racing in a fuel belt is so Busch League!
  • 23.73% chose (C) Neither! I already told you that fuel belts are lame!
Question 4: For all you hardcore fuel belt haters out there, how do you avoid utter dehydration sans belt and where do you stash all your other crap? (i.e. car keys, gels, etc.)
  • 63.16%  of participants use a handheld water bottle in lieu of the fuel belt.
  • 31.58% use a hydration pack. (Shocking! I always thought those were only for mountain biking and adventure racing!)
  • 47.37% plan routes with water stops/ water fountains so they can leave the fuel belt at home.
  • 10.53% stash gels and small personal items in their sports bras. (I think this percentage may be a little skewed because some people who completed this survey were most likely dudes.)
  • 5.26% pin gels to the inside waistband of their shorts for long runs and races.
I took the liberty of showcasing a few socially acceptable fuel belt alternative options just for you!

I took the liberty of showcasing a few socially acceptable fuel belt alternative options just for you!

In Conclusion…
I’m not gonna lie, I thought that most everyone who filled out the survey would be all like “Hell to the no, I don’t use a fuel belt! Those are for losers!”  And don’t get me wrong, this sentiment was certainly present in my findings, but as it turns out, despite the fact the fuel belts are shunned by elites per my Olympic Trials friend, the majority of my surveyed population agrees that they do have a place in one’s training program.
Furthermore, it seems safe to assume that fuel belts are generally considered to be more socially acceptable for training  as opposed to racing use, although use in races is not out of the question for particularly crowded races, particularly hot races, and/or runners with specific nutrition sensitivities.
The handheld water bottle seems to be embraced as a less dorky, more fashion forward, and less annoying hydration alternative to the fuel belt for longer, hotter runs and races. The hydration pack was also a surprisingly socially acceptable fuel belt alternative.
Also, Survey Monkey is the bomb, and surveying your friends is a great reminder of how smart, witty, thoughtful, and hilarious they are. I highly recommend it!
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 the require carrying some means of 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! Not to mention the fact that hydration belts are becoming more fashionable all the time! Just look at this veritable cornucopia of styles and colors available at Bull City Running Co.!
Just look at all these fast, fabulous hydration belt options!

Just look at all these fast, fabulous hydration belt options!

  (However, you will most certainly face judgement  should you dare to wear a fuel belt in the Olympic Trials Marathon, and I personally recommend avoiding them for all distances shorter than the 1/2 marathon as well.)   On the other hand, if you think fuel belts are hideous, uncomfortable, and just all around sucky, you most certainly are not alone in this opinion either, and thanks to this little post, you are now privy to some great, simple fuel belt alternatives that are sure to keep you hydrated AND looking and feeling fast and fabulous!

As it turns out, my running community has plenty of room for both lovers and haters of fuel belts. After all, it takes all kinds!

As it turns out, my running community has plenty of room for both lovers and haters of fuel belts. After all, it takes all kinds!

A Few Words of Gratitude…
First and foremost, major thanks to all of you kind souls who filled out my little survey! You guys all rock, your comments were fantastic, and I loved hearing from you! I am sending out some serious love to my favorite blogging consultant and Survey Monkey mentor, Mixmaster J, and also to my lovely friend Sarah who saved me from a life of eternal newb-dom by giving me The Fuel Belt Talk. And kudos to my BFFs at Bull City Running Co. for permitting my use of the store’s entire hydration inventory in a large-scale iPhone photo shoot, even though they will probably never stopping making fun of me for doing this. Thanks to Bigs for being my loyal official iPhone photographer, and most importantly, thanks to all of you for reading!
Click here to take the “Feelings About Fuel Belts” survey for yourself!
What is your favorite hydration accessory and at what distance and/or temperature is it non-negotiable?