It is an interesting question in the running community, and typically the answer is one of personal preference. However, in pictures and at podiums, it is more common to see long distance runners use handheld bottles. Are handhelds better? Subjectively, the answer usually is YES. Many feel rewarded with the feeling of 'free' running.
This question was put to the test at the High Altitude Performance Lab at Western State College in Gunnison, CO. Their findings concluded that handhelds actually decrease performance. Their study took place in a controlled environment on a treadmill and did not use variables many runners battle with when using a pack, such as overheating and chafing. Basically, the study found because handheld bottles are held away from the body there is an increase of effort from torque and arm momentum as opposed to a pack being right next to the body. Drinking from a handheld requires more oxygen consumption, and raises your heart and respiratory rate. Over the course of a long distance run, holding two full handheld bottles, will speed-up the feeling of fatigue while unnecessarily increasing the heart rate and breathing rate. For more information on the study, click Running TImes .
On the flip side, I recently came across a post from www.vanessaruns.com on 12 Reasons Handheld Bottles Are Better Than Hydration Packs. From Vanessa's perspective, handhelds are far better and she has 12 convincing reasons.
Vanessa's 12 reasons to use handhelds are:
1. More Fluid Choices
2. More Visual Reminder to Hydrate
3. More Minimal
4. More Dog-Friendly
5. Less Injury From Falls
6. Less Overheating
7. Less Chafing
8. Less Weight
9. Keeps Your Form in Check
10. Keeps You Moving
11. Keeps Your Upper Body Strong
12. Keeps You Looking Like a Runner
** I'll add a few more reasons why a mountain runner might prefer handhelds:
13. It's much easier to refill bottles than a bladder in a mountain stream. In the High Sierra, I rarely treat the water, so I don't have to wait around while waiting for water to purify.
14. Mountain water is cold! Holding handhelds will cool you down. Sometimes holding that cool bottle next to your wrist will help cool down your entire body. Obviously, this is a total negative when mountain running in cold weather - - nothing is worse than cold temperatures, freezing hands, while holding a chilled water bottle.
15. You can carry a smaller pack. I've done 40 mile mountain days while wearing the Nathan Intensity without the bladder. The pack was large enough for my essentials and my empty water bottle. Then I was able to run 'hands free.'
Although the High Altitude Performance Lab conducted a very convincing study it is obvious that hydration packs are the optimal choice when on a treadmill inside a controlled environment. However, when in the mountains or on the race course, in the sun and heat, the mountain runner must evaluate all of the variables they might encounter and then decide what is the best option.