Aid stations in trail and ultramarathons are more than just a physical checkpoint in a race, but also a mental one. They can be a huge boost to our race day from seeing cheerful volunteers and crews, hearing a festive atmosphere, and getting the nutrition needed to keep having a solid race. They also can be a place where you might stare into oblivion and have no clue what to do, especially after a tough section or many hours on your feet. Knowing what to do at an aid station can keep you moving strong and minimize down-time.
Aid stations serve a few basic purposes: food and drink, a place to pick up gear, and a place to pick up/interact with crew. If you are new to the trail and ultrarunning scene, you’ll probably be amazed at the sight of your first aid station, and maybe overwhelmed with the choices of food (which can be simple snacks or gourmet, grilled entrees) and drink. Aid stations offer a place to sit, and perhaps even sleep. You can usually get cozy by a fire at the night stations. The atmosphere is usually supportive but chill and relaxed.
Common Aid Station Foods
Pros: carbs, fat, sugar, and a bit of salt.
Cons: Messy to try to eat and run with.
Pros: carbs, salt, can absorb a bit of stomach sloshiness
Cons: Low calorie to weight ratio. Can be tough to chew due to lack of saliva on a hot day.
Pros: This water-dense food needs less chewing time than other foods, making it quick to take down. Easy to dip in salt for an extra electrolyte boost.
Pros: It is bacon. It’s a good way to mix up the flavor palette.
Cons: Other things aren’t bacon.
Pros: Fast source of calories and electrolytes, no chewing required, highly portable.
Cons: Can get really gross after miles and miles. If it is a hot day and you aren’t making much saliva, you’ll get a filmy gel feeling in your mouth. Aid stations typically have a variety, but it doesn’t mean they’ll have the one you train with.
Pros: Portable, lots of carbs, and a good source of potassium, a critical electrolyte.
Cons: Another one of those foods that can leave a sugary filmy feeling in your mouth on a dry/hot day.
Pros: An alternate way to hydrate, lots of potassium. Dip in salt for an added boost.
Minimal calories and fills your stomach fast. Beware of sloshiness!
Pros: Quick sugar, easily portable, and you can eat a bunch at once.
Cons: The taste of sugar can get negatively intense as a race goes on. Might not be appetizing after many hours of running.
Pros: Easy to slurp down, lots of salt, warmth can be a mental boost in the night.
Cons: Not easy to eat and run with. Sometimes is too hot to consume
Hack: mix with mashed potatoes.
Pros: Portable, fast carbs.
Cons: Can be tough to chew due to lack of saliva on a hot day.
Pros: Great source of salt. Warmth can be a mental boost at night.
Cons: Hard to run with
Salt Tabs [S-caps, Endurolytes, Salt Sticks, etc.]
Pros: Portable source of electrolytes great for those hot days
Cons: You can over-do it easily and wind up bloated or worse. Always take with water.
Pros: Calorie dense, variety of flavor, variety of fast and slow burning energy.
Cons: Nuts are harder to digest. Practice with this one before you try on race day!
Pros: Portable, a good mix of carbs, fat, and protein, and a change of flavor.
Cons: Lots of chewing required.
Pros: Portable, minimal chewing, has some electrolytes, and has water.
Cons: Not many calories, and the fiber could cause issues down the trail.
Pros: Portable, calorie dense, fast energy.
Cons: Dry food can be hard to chew.
Hacks: keep a sandwich sized zip bag in your vest to load up with foods and carry with you. This will save time versus eating at the station.
Some aid stations will have a grill or a griddle, which allows for a variety of other items, and some creativity. Consult with the race FAQ page to see what they might offer differently at some stations.
Common Aid Station Drinks
Pros: Sugar and caffeine. This can be a magical bring-you-back-from-the-dead drink.
Cons: Caffeine is a diuretic, which means you’ll be going pee more and could face dehydration.
Pros: All kinds of electrolytes, real foods.
Cons: It tastes gross. Has a ton of salt, so you might over-do it.
Pros: Can soothe a sore stomach.
Hack: Try 50/50 ginger ale/water with a bit of ice on a hot day and carry with you for a slow drip of calories and a more stable stomach.
Pros: Tons of salt
Cons: Tons of salt, weird taste.
Pros: Good mix of electrolytes.
Cons: Sugary. The consistency is rarely the same from aid station to aid station. Sometimes it is syrup, sometimes it is water with a hint of color.
Pros: Caffeine, tastes like home.
Cons: It is a diuretic, which means you’ll have to pee more, and coffee can be an inflammatory to the digestive system = potential stomach problems or dehydration.
Arriving to an Aid Station
Knowing what you’ll want/need and when can be one of life’s great questions while running an ultra. Aid stations are usually 4-10 miles apart. Depending on terrain and elevation, this can be between 1-4 hours. Things can change with your stomach! Generally speaking, sugars taste better earlier in the race, while salts and neutral foods taste better later in a race.
Before coming in to an aid station, have a mental list of what you’ll need. Similarly, have a backup-list of staples that you find to be tolerable. Aid stations run out of things from time to time, so this will save you time and might make you more receptive to suggestions from the volunteers if you wind up being a bit mentally foggy. Perhaps that list looks something like this:
Refill one bottle with water, one with 50/50 sports drink
Get two gels for on-the-go
Eat some PBJ
Are there drop bags here? Change socks and get headlamp.
If time is of the essence, drink whatever you have left in your bottles and loosen the lids before coming in to the aid station. There are so many hydration systems out there, and you’d be surprised how confusing it can be for a volunteer to unscrew a lid.
Announce you bib number when coming in to an aid station. This is to keep track of runners for safety reasons, and is typically reported to HQ.
It is okay to politely shout or announce your needs while coming in to an aid station. “Water! PBJ!” Volunteers are happy to point you to them, and sometimes better, get them for you. It is okay to hand volunteers your bottles and request them to fill them up. Make sure you always say thank you!
Leaving an Aid Station
Before leaving, make sure you have everything you came in with. Do a quick pat-down: vest, hat, glasses, headlamp, poles. If you had a drop bag, take the initiative to put your gear back in and deliver it to a volunteer before leaving. Often, a volunteer will be there with you and offer to pick things up, but, just in case, either politely ask a volunteer to pick it up or do it yourself.
Announce your number before leaving to let the volunteers know you are out. There is often somebody with a checklist or a radio at the trail who reports this back to HQ to keep track of runners.
Always say thank you!
Crew Vs. Solo
If you have a crew, have them prep your drop bag area for you before you arrive. Have them spread everything out on a towel or blanket so that you can see your gear and packed foods. Make one side of the towel foods, and the other side clothing/gear. This will also help them ensure you aren’t forgetting anything critical, i.e. headlamp.
If you don’t have a crew, use clear ziplock drop bags. Usually a pack of a dozen 5-gallon bags is just a few bucks, and they let you see everything you’ve packed plus keep it water-tight. You can even re-use them by relabeling them with some duct tape. You may find it helpful to tape an index card to the inside of the bag (with the writing facing outward to read) of the gear in that bag and your anticipated needs. Highlight the things you cannot leave without.
Know Before Ya’ Go
The more you can know about a race before you race, the better. Know roughly how far apart aid stations will be, and if there are any one-offs. For example, it isn’t uncommon in 100 mile races to have a full aid station, then a water-only station after 9 miles, and then a full aid station 8 miles after that. In this situation, it is really 17 miles between full aid stations, as those water-only stations are typically strictly water. (Just for kicks, Devil on the Divide 50k in Colorado has a water-only station that uses hand-filtered water from a seasonal above-treeline stream. It can get remote out there!)
When planning your race, beware of temperature, elevation gain per segment, and time of day for each aid station. This can help you make more accurate assumptions about what to put in drop bags.
Assume you will not have cell phone service while on the course. You might get lucky from time to time, but it is pretty rare to have full coverage, especially on trail ultra races.
Aid stations can honestly be a blast. Smile, joke, dance, eat, share stories and be merry. Think of a race not as one long set of miles, but many checkpoints where you can interact with other runners along the way.
Keep on putting one foot in front of the other and you will find yourself at the finish!
What is your favorite aid station food? Or your favorite aid station in general? What are your aid station hacks? Leave a comment below!