Training Advice: Is running with a hand-held bottle slowing you down?

One of the aspects you’ll notice about the Western States 100 just gone and indeed running in the US in general compared to say Australia and Europe is that those guys seem to use hand-helds far more than we do, given our preference for wearing backpacks. Now, there are a number of reasons for this (namely at the WSER100, the aid stations are pretty close together), but also because when us Aussies tend to head out into the bush you could be gone 3-5 hours without getting to any water. But could running with a handheld be slowing you down at all? Well it didn’t appear to slow down Tim Olsen from the US who went on to win at the weekend for the second year running.

Andy DuBois
Andy DuBois

It’s also something I’ve contemplated of late, given that I’ll be having a crack at the Glasshouse 100kms in a few months and I’m likely to not use a backpack, just a handheld or fuel belt to save on weight. Our resident ultra advisor and coach Andy DuBois offers us his thoughts and insights around why using a handheld could potentially be holding you back…

On my run once, I noticed another runner carrying a water bottle in one hand and an ipod in the other. What struck me about this runner was the total lack of upper body movement as he ran, no arm movement, no upper body rotation, nothing.

Once the runner had disappeared from sight I imitated how he ran to see what effect it would have on my running. I found it quite difficult and unnatural to completely immobilise my upper body and the effect on my lower body was dramatic. Immediately my stride length shortened significantly and my pace slowed to a shuffle, I had no push-off, no knee lift, all feeling of fluidity disappeared. I felt like a poorly constructed robot.

It seems such a small thing, but are these things preventing you from moving along in the most efficient manner possible?
It seems such a small thing, but are these things preventing you from moving along in the most efficient manner possible? (photo credit, Jason Robillard)

Try it yourself and see the effect it has. If you run holding a water bottle notice if the arm you hold the water bottle in moves less than your other arm, if it does then it is affecting the way you run making you less efficient and setting up possible biomechanical asymmetries leading to injuries. Get a hip holder for your water bottle or a camel back.

Studies have shown the energy cost of running with a camel back is far less than running with a hand-held water bottle.

For those of you who want to know why read on….

Keeping your upper body completely still you effectively turn off your core muscles and significantly reduce the load on your hip flexors and glutes.

Let me explain – as your leading leg travels forward (say right leg) and your left leg goes behind you your arms go the opposite direction – ie right arm goes backwards , left arm goes forward.

So now you have a diagonal stretch from your left hip to your right shoulder. This places a tension on your hip flexors and abdominals. This tension places a load on the muscles, tendons and fascia which when released acts like a rubber band pulling your left leg forward and right arm forward. As you drive the left leg and right arm forward your left arm and right leg travel backwards which loads the opposite diagonal (right hip to left shoulder) and the cycle continues.

Your gluteal muscles are loaded by the rotation of your pelvis. As your right foot lands your pelvis rotates to the right placing a stretch or load on your right gluteals which when released helps you drive off the right leg.

So the rotation and arm movement of your upper body effectively loads the muscles in your lower body.

Bottles come in all shapes and sizes now to fit the contours of your hands. But do they really help?
Bottles come in all shapes and sizes now to fit the contours of your hands. But do they really help?

Notice that the faster you go the more arm swing you have – sprinters swing their arms a lot more than marathon runners. Sprinters use more force so the greater arm swing place a bigger stretch or tension on their muscles allowing them to generate more force.

Muscles work most effectively when they are placed under a tension first, if you don’t do this then the amount of force the muscle can generate is greatly diminished. Take an extreme example – say you want to jump vertically as high as possible. To load or place the muscles of the hip and leg under tension the first thing you do is squat down which is quickly followed by your vertical jump. Now imagine how high you could jump if you weren’t allowed to squat down at all – you’d be lucky to make it off the ground.

This is what happens if you don’t move your arms when you run – you greatly reduce the force the glutes, hip flexors , core , hamstrings and quads can generate.

*(Feature image thanks to Tim Olsen’s blog)

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

28 thoughts on “Training Advice: Is running with a hand-held bottle slowing you down?

  1. I agree with Andy’s comments based on personal experience. If you are going really slow it doesn’t matter so much. I would pull out a handheld on the long uphills at WS100 and other races when I was walking up the big climbs- but aside from that, the bottle was back in the pack. The arms get increasingly important the more fatigued you get in an ultra and you don’t want that extra weight on the arm/elbow pendulum. It certainly seems a bit silly if you have tried to lose the pendulum weight on your legs by wearing light, minimalist trail shoes. Same principle- range of movement and energy cost.

  2. Totally agree with Andy on this. Whilst I do run with a handheld at times I have to be very conscious about changing hands regularly as I was getting issues down one side of my back. I really felt this was being caused by the bottle in my hand. In summer I nearly always run with a backpack but had taken to a handheld over the last 6 months as it was easier to clean etc. Definitely something to watch out for.

  3. Pulled a quad a few days ago and I think it was whilst running downhill and eating a bar at the same time. Losing the use of my hands put a whole lot more pressure on my speedwork compromised legs.

  4. The trade off of using a pack is the additional heat that pack adds. Using handhelds allows your body to cool more efficiently.

  5. 24 hours after running Western States in crazy temps – I must say that 2 handhelds was a minimum and the speed at which they were refilled by the aid stations was phenomenal. Those who ran with a backpack quickly regretted it as the heat build up was so rapid and the efforts by the medical teams to lower your core temperature was critical. Those who ran with waist belts were a little slower in an out of aid stations as they had to remove their belts in order to dunk their bodies in the creeks or buckets of ice water. As for the effort on the arms ? Well I woke up with very little soreness today an didnt notice any stress on my biceps, deltoids and traps.

  6. these bottles also make an awful noise. Not much at first but after hours… and the swinging of the liquid tends to push me to drink faster to get it over with.
    However one good innovation on this was the soft flask, where the liquid movements are 1) minimal and 2) almost silent. I think it’s salomon who added a kind of glove setting which frees your hands as well. but the soft flask bottles are smaller, like you’d need 2 for a 500mL drink.

  7. For me the reason I’m considering switching to handhelds is the heat issue. My backpack just gets so hot throughout the warmer humid months. But your post is great food for thought. Perhaps there’ll be a place for both (esp because I’m an incredibly slow runner – think 7 hours for a 50km)

  8. Jim P has beaten me to it – report on study here

    Fairly conclusive that carrying 2 litres of water, pack,head torch, jacket, hat, gels in the pack was still more efficient than carrying 1 or 2 bottles in the hand

    Interesting comment re heat generated by the pack and probably a valid one –

    The alternative to handhelds and backpacks are waistbelts – you can still use bottles- refill quickly at aid stations, less energy used than handhelds – surely a better option.

  9. I find that running with a hand held allows me to better manage / monitor my fluid in-take. With a Camelbak I tend to drink too much and hence run out of fluid quicker than planned. This then leads to cramps and other over-hydration problems.

    Since using hand-helds I find that quicker fills at aid stations (or taps) plus the quick and easy ability to plonk in a Hammer Enduro Fizz (perfect concentration) works really well. I often carry a spare bottle in my (much lighter) back-pack, but still cary pretty much the same weight over-all, just distributed differently.

    As far as speed is concerned, I have to agree, I run faster and more freely with no hand-held, but most of my training has been for the TNF100, so slow and easy was just fine. As it was on the TNF100 I stashed my drink bottles in the sides of my back-pack keeping my arms mostly free.

    For arm fatigue lugging 800grams up and down 5 x per 10m x 100 per km x 100 km works out to a lot of kilos your arm(s) have to carry. But my arms never got sore or tired during training.

    One thing to watch though is if / when you trip over: If you land on the bottle it will aborb the impact nicely, but it will bend your thumb back. This will hurt a lot(!) after a day or two. Then you will encounter RSI in your thumb joint if you persist in trying to use a hand-held. Swapping hands works, takes some getting use to it, just don’t trip twice.

  10. This topic seems to have generated quite a bit of debate – great to see! Just to add to my own personal experience… I haven’t found running with handhelds to be too much of an issue on anything up to 40kms… going beyond that would be interesting. Additionally I went for a run a few weeks back with some boys in the Blue Mountains here in Australia and we went down a steep-ish decent, and I found myself going considerably slower than normal because I literally felt off balance holding a handheld with water in… it was like I couldn’t keep upright… along more undulating, easier running terrain I think they’re fine – as mentioned in the article, Timmy Olsen seems to do OK with it.

  11. The negative aspect of using a backpack is the effects on posture. Over long distances, the subtle change can lead to more inefficiency than carrying a handheld. It really comes down to self-experimentation.

    Also, thanks for using my copyrighted Gel-Bot picture without properly crediting it or at least linking back to the original source. Nothing like building good blogger karma…


    1. My apologies Jason, in my haste to get the article out I completely forgot to credit this image and the other one. Thanks for contributing to the debate, hope to hear more from you. Dan

    2. Wearing a pack will have an affect on your posture and I havent seen any studies looking at that but in terms of energy cost backpacks are far better than hand helds and you would think that if the pack affected the posture enough energy cost would be higher.
      However what happens after running 50 miles or more may be a different story.
      But if the race is such that you only need to carry a handheld then the far better option is waist belt – very little affect on posture and wont affect running biomechanics.

      1. The Problem with waist belts today is that all the brands seem to only allow for 2 small bottles whereas fuel belt used to make a 4 bottle waist belt. They also don’t always work well for females.

        I love handheld for shorter runs but not great in technical trails where you need your hands to climb. I regularly swap hands when I use it but actually it gets lighter as time goes on so its not that much of an issue.

        One thing about this blog that bothers me is using the example of watching one other runner’s form once & putting it all down to the handheld. I watch runners all the time & there are many people who have stiff upper bodies, otherwise interesting discussion & it’s a big issue to me as I really used to like my 4 bottle fuel belt before it died, backpacks can be too hot but the handheld only carries 1.5hrs water. Frustrating problem for sure.

        If anyone can recommend a brand of 4 bottle fuel belt, please do!!

  12. I use one in short run in the trailrunning, for longer runs I choose my backpack. For what I see my runs aren’t slowers if I choose run without the handheld than with it.

  13. I love running with handhelds. It is a different act and art. It has to be mastered on the same way as simple running. Handhelds shouldn’t change biomechanics at all. The same arms-wings and the same torso and leg movements have to be done in order work effectively with handhelds.

    Are handhelds slowing you down comparing a camel-bak ? Not at all. There is nothing on your upper body, neither on your lower abdominal area. Your core is not compromised by a hipbelt, neither your functional abdominal/diaphragm breathing. There is no chest strap and shoulder strap, so the expanding ribcage has free way to move. The better you breathe, the more efficiently you sweat. Our back is one of the best part of the human body to cool us down. Putting a pack on it, will compromise this.

    In a handheld you carry 300 – 650ml liquid, in different size bottles. That is basically max 720gram. Having a bladder of 1.5 -2L will be more. 1.7 – 2.2kg + 100-700grams backpack. The more you carry the more you drink and eat.

    Running with handhelds, let’s you easy access to streams for extra water, or just to splash your face, and neck with some cool lube. Also it works as a cup; at the aid stations just ask for some juice, gulp it down, then fill it up with water and off you go. Paper cups can be neglected what is good on the environment.

    I think if one learns how to use it, great benefits can be obtained over a bladdered pack. Think about it.

  14. Only 4 years late here. Technically I’m still a novice runner, but when I run with small handhelds (<300ml) I can feel as though they aid the biomechanics of my arm swing – almost as though they propel me forward a little. My upper body and arms are certainly not still but swinging just as much or more than ever. If someone with the physics or biology knowledge passes through here I would be interested if you could provide your opinion.

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