While there’s no question each runner has unique needs, the vast majority of advice and tips can apply to just about everyone.

We’re all striving to get faster, run further, and feel stronger. And we all want to optimize our training.

So last week, instead of answering individual questions privately, I asked Next Level Runner members to submit questions for a new video series I’m calling Ask Doug.

For this first episode, I chose four, which (1) were fun to answer, and (2) apply to almost all runners.

Watch the video here:

Back in 2015, during the Black Mountain Monster 24 hour race, I ran the Thomas Jefferson 100K in Virginia. It was a relatively straightforward course, consisting of seven, nine-mile singletrack loops.

Piece of cake, right?

Everything went as planned for the first three loops. Runners enjoyed a deceptively cool light rain, and I gracefully moved down the trail as the sun rose over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

About fifteen minutes in to loop four, I pull off the side of the trail to quickly relieve myself for the first time.



Blood?! What the…

I panic. I’d heard horror stories of ultrarunners peeing blood, and know that it can be an early sign of kidney issues. Immediately, I think my day is over.

Not knowing what to do, I start to walk. I walk forward, then turn around and walk backwards toward the Start. Then I turn around and walk forward again. AHHH!

I’m literally walking in circles instead of towards the finish of a loop.

Finally, after about thirty minutes of no real progress, I decide I should jog out the rest of the loop and then call it quits.

I’m devastated.

It would be my first DNF, and a tough mental blow just a few weeks out from the Monster. After miles of sulking to the point of tears, I approach the medic at the end of the loop.

“I’m peeing blood and think I should drop,” I say.

“Yikes,” he responds, and goes on to ask me a series of questions while poking at my kidneys. “Well, that can’t be comfortable, but I think you’re fine. Drink a lot of water and get back out there.”

“What?!” I exclaim. “You’re not pulling me form the race?!”

“Nah, you’re just dehydrated and maybe have a UTI.”



“But I thought…”

“You’re fine.”

“Oh. Well then.” I walk off with a flood of emotions.

On one hand I’m thrilled I can keep running. On the other hand I had just spent the last 90 minutes convinced my day was over aannnnd… I was kind of looking forward to that shower and burrito.

Crap. No burrito.

I was cleared by the medic with no excuse to drop. I had to keep running. So I did.

Now I have no idea if that was good medical protocol. Since then I’ve read varying advice on what to do if you start peeing blood, from start hydrating to head straight to the ER. But that isn’t the point of this story.

The point of this story is that running an ultramarathon never goes as planned.


I was well trained, had all the right gear, and felt great for the first half of the race. Then the unexpected happened and everything flipped upside down.

It happens.

Earlier this week I read that Michael Wardian, one of the most well-raced elites out there, had to stop FOURTEEN times for diarrhea issues during Saturday’s Leadville 100. Something I’m sure he wasn’t expecting.

(BTW, Mike went on to finish 10th, and just six hours later, raced the Pikes Peak Marathon with 7,800 feet of vert. Beast.)

During that same race, eventual winner Ian Sharman got lost.

And just a few days ago, while debriefing a recent 100 miler with a coaching client, he told me it was the downhills that caused the toughest mental challenge.

“They were so steep you couldn’t run them! I couldn’t believe it.”

In ultra running, we train for the things we can expect:

But what sets a successful race apart from a failure isn’t what we train for. It’s our ability to adapt to what we couldn’t.

It took a long time for me to bounce back mentally during that 100K, and I never really got into the groove I had in the beginning. But I did learn an important lesson:

Expect the unexpected, and deal with it when it comes.

That’s how you succeed in an ultramarathon running.

Most training plans for endurance events include training or practice races of a shorter distance ahead of your main goal race.

In my opinion, these are the most important runs on your schedule.

But how do you attack a race… that isn’t a goal race? That’s what we cover in today’s episode of Trail Talk.

Listen to the episode here:

Click here to download the file.

Or subscribe and download on:

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Support for Today’s Episode

This episode of Trail Talk was brought to you by Discover Your Ultramarathon, the eBook system with training plans, audio interviews, and a 129-page guide to get you through your first 50K or 50 mile ultra.

Pick yours up now at rockcreekrunner.com/ultramarathon.



Most runners, at some point or another, come face to face with the seemingly monstrous task of rebuilding their base after a break.

Whether that break was planned, unintended, or forced by a nagging injury, the uphill struggle to regain fitness can feel both daunting and discouraging.

I’ve kept it no secret that for the past several months I’ve personally been struggling with my running routine. And while the past few weeks have been better, I’m still only averaging about 15-20 miles per week — significantly lower than what I’m used to.

That ends this week. And here’s how I’m going to do it.

Rebuilding Running Fitness Starts With a Plan

As with most things in running, rebuilding your fitness after a break should start with building a plan. Without some sort of roadmap for how to move forward, staying on track becomes it’s own unnecessary obstacle.

Throughout this post I’ll share my strategy for creating a six week plan to get back on track, and each week moving froward I’ll keep you updated with how things are going and the next week’s objective.

First, we start with a goal.

Step 1. Set a Goal

At the “comeback” phase for any runner, it’s best to start with two goals: a goal for my base-building period (1), and a long-term running goal to keep me motivated and on schedule (2). Here are mine:

  1. Short-term 6-week goal: Rebuild base fitness, consistency, and speed.
  2. Long-term goal: Prepare for and complete the 67 mile Pitchell run in October and Hellbender Hundo 100 miler in April.

I’ll use the short-term goal to position myself for successful long-term training.

Step 2. Set a Base-Building Timeline

A timeline gives a start and end date to your base-building period, which helps to focus and structure your plan. It’s also important mentally, because (I’ll just come out and say it…) coming back after a break is hard. It’s discouraging not to hit splits or distances with the same ease as before, and can often feel too big a task to keep going. A timeline helps keep you motivated, knowing that you’ll be back to your old self soon.

I’ve chosen six weeks for my base-building period because that is generally the amount of time I believe runners need to both regain fitness and resolidify a routine. It also happens to work pretty well with my long-term goals, allowing about five weeks for more focused, dedicated training before the Pitchell attempt.

Depending on how long you’ve been out, you may need more time — eight, ten, twelve weeks — or if you haven’t lost that much time, maybe four weeks will do the trick. What’s important is to be honest with yourself about where you are and how far you need to go.

Step 3. Write a Plan

Once I settled on six weeks, I started putting together a plan. For a base-building training block, keep in mind that you:

  • May not need a strict training plan detailing each run. That could be useful if you’re someone who needs structure, or it could get in the way. I fall somewhere in the middle and have a rough plan for certain key workouts, but am leaving some days open to what feels right.
  • Don’t have to go all-in on day one. Build gradually over the course of the training block.
  • Don’t want to start too hard or you’ll get discouraged and struggle to keep up.
  • Should allow for some flexibility. Distance, speed, endurance, they may all take longer to regain than you envisioned. Allow for some leeway when making your plan.

With those rules in mind, I assigned a focus to each week:

Week 1: Consistency — Distance/time take a back seat to getting out and running 5-6 times this week.

Week 2: Elevation — Each run will focus on vertical gain over distance.

Week 3: Distance — It’s not until this week that I really focus on rebuilding mileage.

Week 4: Distance — Continuing to build off last week’s progress.

Week 5: Speed — Reintroducing speed-focused workouts.

Week 6: Well Rounded — Put it all together with a well-rounded training week to transition into focused training.

My 6-Week Base-Building Plan

This may or may not look impressive, but I’ve got nothing to hide. Below I share my actual training plan for the next six weeks.

Note: Info in black are actuals, while numbers in blue are my planned runs. I’ve only schedule runs through the first three weeks so I can check in and adjust as needed. At the end of each week I plan to write another week’s plan, so I’m always two weeks ahead. 

Week 1: Consistency

This week my only objective is consistency, or getting back into the habit of running 5-6 times per week. I set no expectations of distance, time, routes, or elevation gain. If I go for a run, it counts.

As you can see, some of these runs are nothing to brag about, but they’re logged nonetheless.

And with that, I give you my plan:

It’s Time to Rebuild… Let’s do This

Over the next six weeks I’ll update this tracking chart in real time — both so you can see how I’m structuring my comeback and to help hold myself accountable. Each week I’ll check back in to discuss that week’s focus, and share what I’ve learned.

In the same boat as me, ready to finally start training again?

Join me. I’d love the company.

When it comes to running nutrition, I’m slow to try anything new. If it works, it works… and I typically stick to what works.

But there’s a lot going on in the endurance nutrition world. New and old companies are re-inventing (and redefining) what that nutrition looks like.

So when I was sent samples of Muir Energy, a new company with a unique approach, I thought it was worth a shot.

How do they compare to the leaders in the space like GU Energy, CLIF, and (my go-to) Huma? Let’s find out.

Ed Note: While the gels were supplied for free to review, the opinions below are completely those of Rock Creek Runner. Muir Energy had no influence over this post and did not pay for its publication.

The Muir Energy Philosophy

Energy gel companies spend years formulating ingredients to find what they believe to be the ideal endurance product. The result — for most companies — is a long list of ingredients you’d never find on their own.

Ian McNally, the founder of Muir Energy, wanted something different. As he puts it, “something that tasted really good and was made with real organic ingredients – derived from nature, not in a lab.”

The result really is something unique.

Each gel contains only 4-6 ingredients (about 1/4th of a product like GU), and each of those ingredients will be familiar — fruits, salt, black molasses, nut butter, or cacao, for example. Plus they’re all 100% organic, vegan, paleo, gluten-free, and non-GMO.

Using just a handful of natural plant-based ingredients to create an effective energy gel?

Sounds right up my ally. But the real question is, how does it stack up, and how will it impact my training and racing?

Let’s find out.

First Impressions

I’ll get to taste in a minute, but let’s start with my initial thoughts after opening the box.


When it comes to size, my first thought was big. They’re taller than most gel packets, which seemed like it would be a problem. Compared side-by-side to others, however, they’re a lot thinner. Muir has opted for a tall skinny package over a short, compact package.

Which is better? It would depend on your setup, but after stuffing several in the pocket of a handheld, the smaller gels fit a little better.

(I feel like this section is primed for a ‘package’ joke, but I’ll resist the urge.)


The packaging itself is pretty standard, with a wide-mouth rip-top. I did notice it’s the only gel I had that’s sealed at the bottom, limiting it’s ability to expand. Maybe that would help with the height.

The one flaw I experienced was that the packaging is stiffer when compared to other brands, making it difficult to roll the bottom up to clear out the gel inside. One of my biggest pet-peeves is when residual gel squirts into your pocket, so it’s important for me to completely clear a packet before stuffing it away.


Muir Energy is an expensive gel. There’s just no way to put it any other way. At $2.50 per gel, they fall in line with premium brands or lines like HUMA and GU Roctane, a full dollar more than your standard gels.

Personally, I’m okay with that. They’re aiming for a premium product and charging premium prices. But it could get rather expensive if you’re fueling a 100-miler and throwing back a few dozen in a single race.

What’s Inside

It’s not until you tear into a Muir Energy gel that you really see the difference.

The first thing you immediately notice is that the consistency is unlike any gel I’ve tasted. It’s thick — more like a paste than a traditional gel. You can see what I mean in the image above.

If fact, they even package most flavors as both a gel and a spread, so you could smear it on a piece of toast or mix it into a bowl of oatmeal before your run.

I’m not going to lie, this caught me off guard at first. It wasn’t the gel consistency I learned to stomach while training for my first marathon many years ago, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. But the more I tried the different varieties, the more I grew to love that texture. It actually feels like you’re eating real food rather than a lab creation.

Something to keep in mind, however, is that I would not recommend eating one without water. They’re so thick that they require water to wash it down, or you’ll be tonguing your teeth until the next aid station.

Slow Burning vs. Fast Burning

Another unique aspect of Muir Energy is the two types of gels the offer:

Slow burning and fast burning.

What they’ve done is create a set of gels with quick burning ingredients, and another set with ingredients that take longer to metabolize and produce more sustained energy. Comparing the nutrition facts between the two, the big differences I see are that slow burning gels contain:

  1. More protein, and
  2. More calories from fat.

In my opinion it’s pretty brilliant, and actually doesn’t feel like a gimmick. Runners need gels for a variety of activities, and having the choice between the two could come in handy.

But does it work?

All signs point to yes.

For the past several weeks I’ve tested Muir Energy gels on a variety of runs, including early sunrise runs where I only had a gel before hitting the trail, long runs where I fueled with multiple gels, and evening runs when I need a quick snack.

For best results, I’ve landed on spreading the slow burning on a piece of toast about an hour before a long run, and relying on fast burning gels mid-run to give me the mid-run boost I’m looking for.

But I’m just one guy with unscientific opinions. So let’s look at the numbers.

Energy Gel Comparison Chart

To help make comparisons as easy as possible, I’ve put together what I’m calling, “The Great Rock Creek Runner Energy Gel Comparison Chart.” I pulled the top brands from the recent RCR Pack poll and added them to the chart below.

Important Note

Due to variety between flavors, some of these numbers are not exact. For each brand I looked at several different flavors and pulled the most common number, or an average if they varied greatly between flavors. If a certain metric (calories, for example) is really important to you, always check the specific flavor before purchasing.

I selected the metrics that I believe to be the most useful, but note that caffeine is missing. For many brands, certain flavors are caffeinated while others aren’t, so it seemed more relevant to leave it off completely.

Links to REI and Amazon are affiliate links, so any purchase helps support RCR at no charge to you. Thank you.

BrandPrice (per gel)CaloriesSodiumPotassiumCarbs.ProteinFiber
Muir Energy (Fast)$2.50120100mg250mg25g1g1g
Muir Energy (Slow)$2.50150 (60 from fat)100mg300mg20g5g1g
Accel Gel$1.50100115mgN/A20g5g0g
CLIF Shot$1.5010090mg50mg24g0g0g
GU Energy$1.50100100mg40mg22g0g0g
GU Roctane$2.50100150mg55mg21g0g0g
Hammer Gel$1.509035mg35mg20g1g0g
Honey Stinger$1.5010050mg85mg27g0g0g
Huma Gel$2.25100110mg50mg22g1g2g
Huma Plus$2.50100250mg65mg23g1g1g
Vega Sport$2.0010060mg400mg22g0.5g2g

How They Taste

Now for the part you’ve been waiting for… how do they taste?

I saved this for last because while it feels important at first, taste is much less important than effectiveness. I can force down just about anything if it helps me perform better. Plus, this is completely subjective. To know for sure, you’ll have to try them yourself.

But my opinion?

They taste great.

They’re fruity, or nutty, or chocolaty. They go down easy and feel almost like a treat.

(Yesterday, while photographing for this post, I found myself cleaning the Muir Energy off the plate with my finger. Something I most certainly didn’t do for the other gels…).

As long as I have something to wash it down, I could eat these all day.

Why I’ll Continue Using Muir Energy Gels

I pay a lot of attention to what I put in my body while not running, but tend to ignore those standards when it comes to mid-run nutrition. Now I don’t have to.

Muir Energy uses real, simple ingredients, and still packs the energy punch I look for in endurance nutrition. I will definitely continue to incorporate these gels into my fueling strategy — mixing them in with the other gels I’ve come to rely on, real foods, and liquids, and I believe they’ll sit well in my stomach for hours on the trail.

If you’re looking for a more natural energy gel, Muir Energy is definitely worth a taste.


I have no time to run.

Or at least that’s the excuse I tried to pull on my wife the other day. In today’s episode I share her response, and what a never-ending busy schedule means for us runners.

Plus, results from the RCR Pack survey.

Listen to the episode here:

Click here to download the file.

Or subscribe and download on:

PodcastiTunesButton copystitcher

Support for Today’s Episode

This episode of Trail Talk was brought to you by Discover Your Ultramarathon, the eBook system with training plans, audio interviews, and a 129-page guide to get you through your first 50K or 50 mile ultra.

Pick yours up now at rockcreekrunner.com/ultramarathon.



Let me guess, you’re a,

  • Male,
  • From the United States,
  • In your 30s,
  • Who’s been running for the past 4-7 years,
  • Roughly 25% on trail, and
  • Are currently focusing on half or full marathon training.

Am I right? No?

Well, chances are you at least fall into a few of those categories.

Last week I sent out a survey to the the Rock Creek Runner Pack, and asked a few simple questions. The goal was to get to know you as a runner a little better, and to take a wide-angle look at the Pack’s fueling, training, and gear preferences.

With over 500 submissions, the results are in. And they’re are a few interesting takeaways. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Ed Note: Huge thanks to those Pack members who shared photos for this post. In order, Vince, Mallory, Ian, Laura, Jeff, Andrew, Gina, Bruno, Paul, Jeff, and Melissa. Thanks guys!

General Biographical Information

The vast majority of you are from the United States, but there were 28 countries represented, which is awesome. The trail and ultra-running community is vast, and people from around the globe are coming together for love of the challenge and adventure. Think about that.

Gender was pretty evenly split, with a few percentage points going towards the males. This actually came as a surprise to me, since I get the most responses to posts and questions from women.

About 35% of respondents were between the ages of 31 and 40, and I was excited to see that 41-50 was not far behind with 29%. Just over 20% of you are over the age of 50.

Alright, now that we know the type of people we’re looking at, let’s dive into your running.

Running History and Preferences

How long have you been running?

Of those surveyed, nearly 75% have been running for at least four years. Not bad, everyone — let’s keep that streak going!

What percentage of your mileage is run on trails?

This one took me by surprise, considering this is a trail running focused blog, but the more I thought about it the more it makes sense. The trail and ultra running communities are growing by the day, but that doesn’t mean that each new trail runner has access to or is interested in running all their miles on the dirt. Whether it’s 10% or 80%, I’m just glad you’re taking advantage of the trail.

On average, how many miles to you run per week?

This one is important to note because it influences many of the nutrition and hydration preferences below. Over 50% of runners surveyed run less than 25 miles each week, which means they have different fueling and gear needs than runners logging more then 25 miles per week.

What is your primary running focus?

The graph didn’t really work with this one, so let me paint a simple picture:

  • Roughly 50% of those polled are primarily focused on half or full marathon training.
  • Next came 50Ks with over 30%.
  • Followed by running just for fun with 27%.
  • Most everyone else focusing on 50 miles or more.

That seems about as I would have expected, and is probably a descent representation of people who are generally interested in trail running.

Shoes and Gear

Now for the good stuff. What are people actually using?

I wanted to ask these questions because I’m just one guy. I have my opinions and preferences and I’m happy to share them, but my views are mine alone.

Here we have over 500 runners chiming in with their own opinions, and collectively we can take that information and either apply it to what we’re doing now, or keep it in mind when trying on our next pair of shoes or loading up on fuel.

How many pairs of running shoes do you rotate through at any given time?

Good. Always rotate through at least two pairs of running shoes. I have four that I’m using at any given time.

What’s your go-to trail shoe company?

Altra is the big winner here, with Brooks in second and Salomon in third.

If you’re curious about all the other small answers, many of them came from the “other” option. You’ll see that throughout the graphs below.

What’s your go-to road shoe company?

Interestingly, Brooks and Altra swap here, with Hoka One One and Saucony still going strong. Other big winners are Asics, New Balance, and Nike.

Salomon drops off almost entirely, not a surprise considering they don’t offer much in the way of road specific shoes.


What type of GPS watch do you wear?

Whoa! People love their Garmins.

Nutrition and Hydration

Hydration: How do you carry your water? (Most often)

When I started training for my first marathon 8 years ago, hydration belts were the thing. Belt technology has improved a lot since then, but packs are clearly the preference. Just look around at a trail race these days and nearly everyone has something on their backs or in their hands, and not around their waist.

What’s your go-to brand for hydration needs?

Nathan takes the lead here, with Ultimate Direction, CamelBak, and Salomon coming up next. All of these companies are known more for their packs than handhelds or belts.

Nathan has a sweet new line of packs, which you can check out here.

What’s your energy drink of choice?

Out of those surveyed who do regularly drink energy drink, Tailwind dominated the space. Not surprising, considering Tailwind seems to be the only powder people are talking about in the trail and ultra community these days.

Side note: Tailwind has excellent customer service.

How do you like to fuel your runs?

I was caught off-guard with how many people responded they only fuel with real food. I know there are many people who take that approach during long runs and races, but I think this is more of a reflection of the weekly mileage and goals of those surveyed. My guess is that of those who run more than 25 miles per week, a larger chunk is moving into the energy gel camp.

What’s your favorite energy fuel company?

CLIF and Gu, two companies that have been in the energy fuel space the longest (PowerBar/Gel probably taking the win), still represent a massive portion of the market. Honey Stinger and Huma also have a good showing here.

Interestingly, Tailwind ties with Gu in second. I see more and more runners switch away from energy gels and towards high-calories sports drink like Tailwind for mid-run fuel. For some, the drink is easier to stomach and digest than an energy gel — something to test for yourself if you haven’t already.

Fast or Slow, Beginner or Expert — We Welcome All Runners

My main goal for Rock Creek Runner is to make it — and trail and ultra running — accessible to anyone, regardless of skill, running history, age, or location.

I love seeing both the variety and trends in these responses. It’s a good reminder that we’re all in this together, and that we can learn from the experience and preferences from those across the internet.

Keep running. Keep chasing those goals and embracing adventure. The rest of the Pack is here to cheer you along.

See you on the trails.


Here at Rock Creek Runner, 2017 has been all about building community — and the Rock Creek Runner Pack has grown bigger and stronger by the day.

We’re supporting each other in programs like Next Level Runner, sharing our stories on the podcast, and meeting up at races across the States (world, some day soon?).

And today, I want to get to know you — yes you — a little better. I talk a lot about myself and my preferences on the site, but I’m only only voice.

The Pack is many.

So I put together a short survey (seriously, it will only take about a minute to complete) asking questions about your gear and nutrition preferences, and the type of running you like most.

Why? Because I believe there’s a lot we can learn from each other. That, and I think it’s going to be awesome to crowdsource preferences and see what real runners are actually using.

Will you tell us a little about yourself (it’s anonymous, if you don’t want to share your info)? I’ll share the results next week.


Have you ever found yourself in a deep running funk?

Not the kind where you skip a speed workout for an easy run, but the kind where day after day, week after week, you can’t get yourself out the door.

These unmotivated, discouraging, pitiful funks can happen to anyone, and I’ve spent that past few months fighting back the downward spiral.

In today’s episode of Real Talk with Doug Hay, aka Trail Talk, I share why I’ve only run a handful of miles the past several weeks, and what I plan to do about it moving forward.

It may be just what you need to hear to break out of your current (or future) running funk.

Listen to the episode here:

Click here to download the file.

Or subscribe and download on:

PodcastiTunesButton copystitcher

Support for Today’s Episode

This episode of Trail Talk was brought to you by Discover Your Ultramarathon, the eBook system with training plans, audio interviews, and a 129-page guide to get you through your first 50K or 50 mile ultra.

Pick yours up now at rockcreekrunner.com/ultramarathon.

And by the Next Level Runner program, a monthly membership site devoted to taking your training to the next level. Learn more: rockcreekrunner.com/next-level.



It’s getting hot out there. (And no, I’m not going to ask you to take off all your clothes.)

Summertime mountain trail runs mean breaking through unavoidable spider webs, poison ivy, and overwhelming heat.
They also mean beautiful sunrises, lush green leaves, and epic cool-off sessions in the creek.

A post shared by Doug H (@rockcreekrunner) on

Summer is one of my favorite times to run. The long days bring long miles and warm temps. Today, we’re going to focus on those temps.

Or more specifically, one of the best ways to carry water to combat the heat (and dehydration).

The big three water carrying options we runners have are (1) hydration packs, (2) hydration belts, or (3) handheld bottles. Each has their own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Packs, for example are great for carrying not just water, but extra gear, nutrition, maps, and anything else you might need or want on a big run. Plus they keep your hands free.

But a pack is often overkill for your average run or race, when all you really need is a little water.

Enter the handheld — my preferred hydration tool for most runs.

When to Use a Handheld

The handheld bottle is a water bottle with a connecting strap to secure it to your hand. They’re small, simple, and keep water at the ready.

Handhelds are most practical when you want to carry fluids, but don’t need the carrying capacity of a hydration belt or pack — think shorter runs, routes that pass by a water source, and races with regular aid stations.

Plus there’s the added bonus of feeling less weighed down than the alternatives.

The Big Complaint

But … you have to carry it. In your hands.

And who likes running with something in their hands?

If it’s new to you, carrying a bottle can sound miserable, and honestly, there’s little I can say that will convince you otherwise. Except that it gets easier. During your first few runs with a handheld it may tire out your arm, but with a little time that will subside and you’ll hardly notice it’s there.

What to Consider When Selecting Your Bottle

Handhelds come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s up to you to decide which will best fit your needs. Consider these:

1. Size of Bottle

The first, and most obvious place to start when selecting a handheld is to determine how much water you wish to carry. Handheld bottles range in size from a small 10 oz. — like the Nathan QuickShot — to the large 21 oz. CamelBak Grip Chill.

If your needs are limited to an hour long jaunt around the neighborhood, the smaller bottle might work. For most race or long run situations, I turn to at least 18 ounces.

2. Comfort

How does the bottle feel in your hand?

Different companies have tried different bottle shapes. Amphipod, for example, relies on a more rectangular shape; UltrAspire, a traditionally shaped bottle with a unique top; Salomon, the soft flask (more on that later).

On top of bottle shape, companies use different strapping methods, and one may work better for your  hand than another.

3. Storage

Most, but not all, handhelds are designed with a pocket or two on the strap. They’re usually rather small — big enough for a gel or two — but some have larger carrying capacities designed for multiple gels or even your phone.

More storage means more weight, so I recommend sticking to a bottle with just enough storage for what you need.

4. Ease of Use

How easy is it to open and refill? Are you able to switch hands while running? If you need to pop a squat mid-race, can you easily become hands free?

These are all important (some more than others …) factors to consider when selecting your bottle.

5. Soft vs. Hard (aka Slosh vs. Squish)

Companies are trending away from traditional harder bottles to what they call a soft flask, or a soft bottle that shrinks in size as you drink. We’ve seen it in packs, and now we’re seeing it in handhelds. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the soft flask for most situations:

  • They prevent water from sloshing.
  • They get smaller, so you can easily pack them away when empty.
  • They’re lighter.

But, they definitely have their disadvantages:

  • Without the structure, they often have trouble staying in a carrier.
  • When held, it feels like this squishy Jello blob in your hand.
  • They’re harder to clean.

I’m all for a soft flask handheld, but it has to meet my other expectations in a bottle.

A Look at Some of the Top Brands and Bottles

The Major Handheld Players

Any number of companies are producing their own handhelds, but in my opinion there are five that stand out as leading the charge:

Each has their own set of strengths, like bottle design (Amphipod), minimalist straps (Ultimate Direction), soft flask holders (Salomon), variety (Nathan), and comfort (UltrAspire). Personally I’m not brand loyal when it comes to bottles, so I have a variety of options to fit my needs for each run.

Now, let’s take a look at a few of the newer bottles on the market from these brands.

Note: HUGE shout out to my favorite running store, Black Mountain Vertical Runner, for hooking me up with these bottles. If you’re ever in Western North Carolina, this is the place to get your trail running gear.

Amphipod Jett-Lite Thermal

This bottle has been my go-to handheld for a number of years. The bottle shape fits well in my hand, and the pocket is large enough to store four gels and a car key, and I can stuff it in the front of my SJ Ultra Vest if I’m also wearing a pack.

My favorite feature of the Jett-Lite, however, is the removable sleeve. Having that layer of isolation is clutch throughout the winter, as there’s nothing worse than a cold bottle strapped to cold hands. During the summer I just pull it off.

More pros: A large mouth for quick and easy filling at aid stations, and the shape works well for tucking in a waist strap when you want to go hands free up a hill.

My only real complaint is that the strap that attaches to the bottom of the bottle doesn’t always stay secure. I fix that by taping it down.

Loaded with 4 gels.

The specs:

  • Liquid Capacity — 20 oz.
  • Comfort — Bottle shape makes for easy grip, but the strap gets a bit hot during the summer.
  • Storage — 4+ gels … about as much as you’d ever want to carry in a handheld.
  • Easy of Use — Large mouth and simple auto seal nipple eliminate any fuss.
  • Soft vs. Hard — Hard
  • Price — $25.95

Where to Buy:

Nathan ExoShot

The ExoShot by Nathan is one of the leading examples of a company trying out the soft flask handheld with some — but not total — success.

The soft bottle fits snugly in your hand, and virtually eliminates the sloshing you get from a hard bottle. And between the bottle itself and the unique way the strap runs between your thumb and pointer finger, it almost feels like an extension of your hand — which is great.

Storage is just enough for a few gels, and because it’s soft, you can easily stash it in your short’s waist strap or a pack.

But … there are a few major faults with the design. The snug compression which keeps the bottle in place prevents you from actually filling it to capacity without removing the bottle first. Not a big deal if you’re at your kitchen sink, but it’s not practical in a race setting. The lid is also difficult to secure, especially on the move.

Nathan, these are easy fixes, make it happen.

The specs:

  • Liquid Capacity — 12 oz.
  • Comfort — Very comfortable in the hand. Rides great.
  • Storage — 2-3 gels.
  • Easy of Use — Compression from the sleeve make it very difficult to fill, and the cap is hard to attach properly.
  • Soft vs. Hard — Soft
  • Price — $35.00

Where to Buy:

UltrAspire Iso Versa

I just recently got my hands on the Iso Versa (thanks Vertical Runner!), and I already think it will become my new race bottle. I love the unique top shape, and the way it locks in your hand. Similar to the Nathan bottle above, the strap wraps around your wrist and weaves in between your pointer finger and thumb.

One thing of note, there are no storage pockets. In a race situation, that’s no big deal since I store gels and other nutrition in my shorts, but it could be a problem for a longer run when I need the extra carrying capacity.

This handheld is light, large, and simple to use and fill.

The specs:

  • Liquid Capacity — 20 oz.
  • Comfort — Very comfortable on the hand.
  • Storage — None
  • Easy of Use — Large mouth and standard nipple make for very easy use.
  • Soft vs. Hard — Hard
  • Price — $24.95

Where to Buy:

What’s Your Favorite Bottle?

With the summer heat already weighing down the trail, there’s no better time to pull out a handheld.

Share your favorite bottle in the comments below.