The Racer’s Dilemma: Water Bottles or a Hydration Pack?

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2021 Pikes Peak APEX

When you coach and crew for a lot of endurance athletes, you spend a lot of time discussing the choice between bottles and a hydration pack. The reason is because both are perfect; they’re just not perfect for every situation.

Sometimes, the choice between bottles and hydration packs can even mean the difference between winning and losing. At the recent SBT GRVL race, Pikes Peak APEX Champions Keegan Swenson (winner in 2021) and Russell Finsterwald (winner in 2020) chose to ride with hydration packs. SBT features neutral aid stations, meaning personal crews cannot feed individual riders. Wearing hydration packs allowed Swenson, Finsterwald, and others to continue riding while others needed to stop to refill bottles. As a result, Swenson caught up to the leading group late in the race and went on to win.  

For most people, though, the bottles vs. hydration pack decision is more about comfort and security. Comfort, in that you must decide how and where to carry the weight and bulk of fluids, food, tools, etc. And security, in that you want to make sure you have enough fluids to stay hydrated between aid stations that may be far apart. As you ponder your options, consider the following factors.

WHEN TO USE BOTTLES

When fluids are readily available:
At Pikes Peak APEX, aid stations and water stops are located about 8-15 miles apart during Stages 2, 3, and 4. (View support details) They are spaced about an hour apart based on anticipated speeds for mid-pack riders. There is no water stop on the 11.5-mile Stage 1 time trial in Palmer Park. Depending on the weather during race weekend and your fitness level, we’ve made it possible to complete all 4 stages of the Pikes Peak APEX using bottles only. Of course, the safer plan would be to use 1-2 bottles for Stage 1 and then use a combination of bottles and a small hydration pack for Stages 2, 3, and 4.  

When you want to carry two different drinks:
Using bottles allows greater control of what you’re drinking. Two bottles of sports drink? One water and one sports drink? One water and one with electrolyte drink but no carbohydrate? Orange in one and Lime in the other? Having choices is more important than you think, especially during long endurance events. Choices allow you to increase or decrease your fluid/electrolyte/carbohydrate intake independently so you perform at your best and don’t get an upset stomach. Choices – particularly flavor and electrolyte content – also increase an athlete’s drive to drink, which reduces the likelihood of dehydration by increasing the amount of fluid you consume.

When it’s hot outside and refills or new bottles can be cool or cold:
Fluids that are cool or cold help with core temperature management on hot days. This is important because a high core temperature reduces performance. And cold fluids are more palatable, so you’re more likely to consume more fluid and reduce the likelihood of dehydration. If using bottles provides the opportunity to get cold fluids throughout an endurance event, take advantage of that opportunity.

When you normally come home with a full reservoir:
Athletes get very focused during races, and sometimes distracted during training rides, and they forget to drink. If you consistently return from rides with a mostly full hydration pack, try putting a flowmeter on the hose to give yourself a gauge.  Switching to bottles sometimes makes riders more aware of the amount they’re consuming. You feel the weight in your hand and can see the fluid level in the bottle.

When you can pack light:
The amount of “stuff” you’re carrying (clothing, tools, inflation device, food, fluids) can vary greatly based on the weather, the distance to the next aid station, or the level of support on the course. In shorter events on days with bluebird skies and neutral support, you won’t need to weigh down your jersey with a ton of stuff. So put a few gels in your pocket, tools under the saddle, bottles on the bike, and ride light.

WHEN TO USE A HYDRATION PACK

When fluids are few and far between:
The typical recommendation for fluid intake is 1-2 bottles per hour, perhaps more in hot weather. You have to do the math and figure out whether you can realistically make it to the next-available water source while sticking to your hydration plan. If it’s too far or too unpredictable to make it on bottles, go with a hydration pack. Be sure to factor in the possibility of strong headwinds, a technical trail that slows you down, or a mechanical problem that stops you for a while.

When you have a lot to carry anyway:
It’s only prudent to carry plenty of gear for self-supported endurance races, backcountry mountain bike epics, and long rides in unpredictable weather. Stuffing your jersey pockets until their ready to burst isn’t comfortable. Carry a pack, and then use the guidelines above to see if you’re going to fill the reservoir or use bottles.

When you’re nervous about reaching for bottles:
Bottles do you no good if they’re always out of reach. Whether it’s because you’re new to mountain bike racing or nervous when riding around other racers, some riders don’t feel comfortable or confident reaching for them. The long-term solution is to learn to be more confident with your skills, but in the short term riders can reduce their stress level and stay hydrated by using a hydration pack.

WHEN TO USE BOTH

One of the best solutions is to combine a small, lightweight hydration pack with one or two bottles on the bike. Pikes Peak APEX, for instance, features relatively long stages for days 2-4, with neutral aid stations. A small hydration pack provides space for tools, spare parts, and layers like a rain jacket or arm warmers, along with a bladder for 1-2 liters of fluid. With 1-2 bottles on the bike you can carry a combination of sports drink and plain water, typically with sports drink in bottles and plain water in the hydration pack. As mentioned earlier, this allows you to adjust your fluid intake independently of your caloric consumption.

What to Expect at Pikes Peak APEX Aid Stations and The Recovery Zone
Nutrition and hydration for The APEX will be provided by Colorado-based Enduro Bites and Flow Formulas.

Participants will find their products located near the start/finish in The APEX Recovery Zone and out on course at all hydration and aid stations. Both water and Flow Formulas Endurance Drink Mix will be available in 5 gallon coolers at every water station and aid station on the course.

Aid stations will also be stocked with Enduro Bites , some Honey Stinger product and other items like crackers, cookies, bananas, etc.

Complete support details for the MTB event can be found here.

After each stage, be sure to visit The APEX Recovery Zone presented by Twisted Spoke, where you’ll find hydration and nutrition products as well as recovery shakes from Flow Formulas and Enduro Bites. There will also be opportunities to wash your bike, check in with a mechanic from Canyon, grab a massage, or spend time relaxing in pneumatic compression boots!