How to Survive a Water Station

Great Advice from The Oatmeal

Great Advice from The Oatmeal

Autumn will soon be here (despite what the weather feels like) and it’ll be fall racing season. This is time of year when many of us have our big goal half marathon or marathon. I’ll be using the Newport Liberty Half Marathon on Sept 20 as a tune-up race in preparation for my first marathon at Wineglass Marathon on Oct 4th.

When I first started racing, one of the hardest things for me to master was the art of going through a water station and drinking from a cup. In fact if you saw me, you might even say that I still haven’t quite mastered it. When I saw that The Oatmeal likened the experience of drinking from a cup while running to waterboarding, I knew I finally found someone who understood my woes. For a new racer, trying to get through a crowded water station can be an intimidating experience.

Newport Liberty Course Map

Newport Liberty Half Marathon Course Map

Here are some tips and advice that I’ve learned from other runners and my own personal experience of running well over 50 races.

  • Study the course map and see where the aid stations will be. At the Newport Liberty Half, the water stations will be roughly two miles apart. Gatorade will be provided at only three of  the stations (Mile 6, around Mile 7.5, and around Mile 9.5).
  • Use the info on where the aid stations are and what is available to plan your fuel and hydration for the race.
  • Try to find out on which side of the road the aid stations will be at. The ideal situation is that the aid stations are always on ONE side of the road and located where runners can get to them easily and intuitively. One of my pet peeves at the Brooklyn Half Marathon is that one of the water stations on Ocean Parkway is on the right hand side of the road out in the sun. All of the runners are on the LEFT hand side because that’s where it’s shady. Ocean Parkway is a large boulevard, so if you want water, you suddenly need to make a sharp turn because that particular water station comes out of nowhere and it’s located in a non-intuitive place. Ask the race director before the race which side of the street the water stations will be placed. I love it when the water stations are correctly marked on the map AND the race director announced the side the water stations will be found before the race begins.

    Taken by James McCauley from Courier Press

    Taken by James McCauley from Courier Press

  • Try to look for the water station before you get to it. Once you find it, gradually begin to move toward the side where the station is. Avoid making sudden 90 degree turns if you can do so.
  • If you must turn and go across the lane, be careful of other runners. They have the right of way.
  • You do not need to grab the first available cup of water. Many runners do and this is where most of the congestion is at a water station. I avoid this by grabbing a cup from the middle of an aid station. This way if I miss or need another cup, there are plenty more opportunities.
  • If the water station consists of tables with cups of water/Gatorade laid out for you to grab, grab a cup (or two) but DO NOT STOP. Keep on moving past the water station.

    Don't worry is you missed on the first try. There will be other cups of water waiting for you. Taken by Tyler Tjomsland in Spokesman Review

    Don’t worry is you missed on the first try. There will be other cups of water waiting for you. Taken by Tyler Tjomsland in Spokesman Review

  • If the aid station has a line of volunteers holding out cups of water, POINT to a volunteer to let him/her know that you want that cup of water (or you can make eye contact, anything to let the volunteer know that you mean him/her). This way no other runner will grab that cup of water and the volunteer will angle the cup to make it easier for you to grab. One of the best water station experience I had was when I pointed to a particularly tall volunteer. He had the cup a bit too high for me, but as soon as he saw me pointing to him, he immediately lowered his hand and held it out just for me. It was a smooth hand off!
  • DO NOT STOP at a water station. Always keep moving. You want the flow of runners go on.
  • If you need to walk through a water station, I recommend that you don’t actually walk through the water station itself but rather just after it. Water stations get congested because runners slow down or stop for water. Get your water while running. As soon as you clear the water station, move over so you don’t get in the way of other runners, and walk and drink then. This will help minimize the congestion at the aid stations.
  • DRINKING WHILE RUNNING without choking requires technique and finesse. Pinch the sides of the cup to create a spout/funnel. The smaller narrower opening makes it easier to drink.
    • I haven’t mastered this technique, I still choke a bit, so I use a Simple Hydration bottle (email me at to get a promo code) to drink while racing. I do use the aid stations to get cups of water to dump on my head when it’s hot out.
  • Throw away the cup in a nearby trash can or if one is not available, on an already existing pile of discarded cups. Be careful not to chuck your cup onto a racer. I once saw a careless runner throw a half full bottle of water at the legs of another runner because he wasn’t looking. Several times I’ve seen runners suddenly get doused with water by a cup a runner flung out.
  • Thank the volunteers for being there. The aid stations would not exist without them. If you cannot speak because you’re too exhausted, try to smile and nod.

Disclosure: I am an official blog partner for the Newport Liberty Half Marathon. In return for writing some sponsored posts for the race, I received a free entry. All opinions are my own.

16 thoughts on “How to Survive a Water Station

  1. Great tips. Carey Pinkowski is the director of the Chicago Marathon and he strongly encourages everyone to not go to the front of the table to get water. Definitely move down and you will find far less congestion.

    • When I first started racing, I made a mad grab for the first cup of water I saw because I was scared that I wouldn’t get any water otherwise. Then I realized that water stations stretch out, especially for large crowded races, and I had many chances to get water and I was able to relax.

  2. All of this should be essential reading for new racers, but especially the part about not coming to an abrupt stop at a water stop. I have actually crashed into people before that way. Not fun.

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