Decisions, Decisions…What to carry during a marathon?

When making the decision to run a marathon, you know the first thing you need to do is get running. Months and months of training are required. But even though the actual running part is the most important, there are many other factors to consider in order to be strong for your race and make the day go as smoothly as possible. Part of this includes having the essential items you need to complete the race to the best of your ability.

As the day draws closer, runners start to question even the most minute details. This is totally valid and it’s normal to be wondering about transportation, hotel locations, where the aid stations will be, etc, etc, etc. This is also around the time runners start to really question what they’ve gotten themselves into. But don’t fret! Deep breath. You’ve trained and you’re ready. Now it’s just time to get prepping so you have everything covered.

This includes what to carry during a marathon, which is what we’ll cover here.

The items marathon runners carry are generally the same, but there can be some differences depending on factors specific to you and your race. I’ll start by going over the absolute necessities to carry during your race, as well as what I also personally carry that I recommend.

Although you won’t likely end up using all of these items, in a marathon I prefer to go with the “better safe than sorry” approach. You never know when you might need something to get you through. Especially if the marathon distance is pretty new to you.

I am carrying a phone, headphones, 2 watches, sunglasses, carb/endurance drink, CamelBak, ID, salt tablets, and 1 Tylenol during this marathon.

Must Carry During a Marathon

These are the items you should have on your person at all times during a marathon. Whether it’s for safety purposes, or to ensure that you won’t hit the wall (you can read a lot more about that in my article “What is the hardest mile of a marathon?“, do not leave your house (or the hotel) without these items on race day.

These are just as important as your race day outfit. 

  • Race Bib – I know, a no brainer. But you’d be amazed how easy it is to forget this when you’re nervous and you have many other items to gather…and they won’t let you race without it. Get this pinned to your shirt (or shorts) the night before so it’s ready to go. And don’t forget to fill out the back of your race bib with emergency contact info – don’t ever skip this thinking it won’t happen to you.
  • Identification – This is right there with writing your emergency info on your race bib. It’s easy to think you don’t need your ID, especially if you have family or friends along the race course or meeting you afterwards. But you cannot predict when something might go wrong. My husband was unable to finish one of his marathons at the 24-mile mark – he was delirious and dehydrated. Luckily he was able to speak with people at the medical tent, but not everyone is this lucky. Everyone can find a place to put their ID. Uh and you might need it if you want that free beer after your race. Just sayin’.
  • GPS watch – Others could argue that this is an optional item to carry, but I don’t know anyone who runs a marathon without a watch. If you don’t care about your time, you could skip this step, otherwise I never race without my Garmin watch. (This is the closest current model to the one I have.) Not only does it help me stay on track with my splits – giving me both my average overall pace and lap pace – but I can also use a feature called LiveTrack. In smaller marathons this allows my family and friends to still “watch” me run the course. This is also how my husband was able to know where to find me at certain points along the course to cheer me on.

  • Race Fuel – Even though every person’s fuel and fueling strategy in a marathon is different, everyone needs to take in calories to complete a marathon to the best of their abilities. Though marathons do often provide gels at 2-3 aid stations, I don’t recommend depending on that. For one, you likely need more than they’ll offer. For two, it’s very likely that the gels you’ve used to train won’t be the ones they’re handing out. You do NOT want to be taking in gels you’ve never had before.
  • Car Key – Did you drive yourself to the race? Then obviously you’ll need to carry your car key with you.
  • Prescription Medication – This one doesn’t apply to me personally, but I do usually throw a couple of Tylenol in my CamelBak just in case. I’ve never had to take them in a marathon, but I have taken them a couple times before long runs when I’ve had a headache, etc. I just like having them available in a worst-case scenario. Even if you don’t think you’ll need your medication for the next several hours, I would stash a dose just in case.
There are lots of essentials to carry in a marathon.
Image by: Billie Grace Ward (Creative Commons)

A Good Idea to Carry During a Marathon

  • Phone – For every long run and marathon race, I carry my phone. My husband, on the other hand, doesn’t have a great way to carry it so he doesn’t bring his. For me it’s a must carry, but if you really had to call someone and didn’t have your phone I’m sure someone would be nice enough to let you use their phone. I just don’t like the feeling of being disconnected. I guess the best option would be to have a Smartwatch with cellular calling capabilities, but I’m not that cool yet.
  • Headphones/Music – This one is entirely up to you. No one NEEDS music to run a marathon. And some people don’t like running with music at all. My last three marathons had very little crowd support, so I wore my headphones the whole time and I felt like it helped me stay in a zone and use the words of the music to push me. When I ran the Twin Cities Marathon, I didn’t listen to music because the spectators are amazing there! If you do decide to invest in a pair of headphones for running, bone-conducting ones are a great choice because they keep your ears open and more alert to your surroundings.
  • Cash or Credit Card – I actually never bring either of these, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. If you won’t have anyone to meet you after the race, having some back-up money is a smart choice.
  • Your own water/endurance drink – Races will have aid stations every 2-3 miles offering water and an electrolyte drink, so that’s why I didn’t include this on the “must carry” list. But like gels, the electrolyte drink they offer is likely different from what you’ve trained with and you should never eat or drink anything new on race day. I recently wrote this article, “Carrying Your Own Water in a Marathon: The Good and the Bad” and talked about why I always carry my own.
  • Salt Tablets/packets – When my husband ran the Las Vegas Marathon, there were medics out on the course keeping an eye on runners. When one of them saw that my husband looked like he was cramping up around mile 20, she insisted that she take the salt packet she had. He said he felt better within minutes. After that, he started training with these SaltStick Fastchews.

Weather Dependent Items to Carry or Wear During a Marathon

Depending on the weather, you may want to consider carrying or wearing these items. Running for 3-5 hours means the weather can change quite a bit in that timeframe. It’s always best to go into your marathon prepared.

  • Gloves or Mittens – Often races will start before the sun comes up and it will be much colder at the start. I like to wear a pair of cheap gloves and then I’ll usually ditch them at the first or second aid station. (You can get 12 pairs from Amazon for about $1 per pair so you won’t feel guilty about getting rid of them.) Ear warmers and/or  are other good options in cold weather.
  • Hat or Visor – It was a rainy day a few years ago for the Twin Cities Marathon. Wearing a hat kept a lot of the drizzle off my face. Really sunny days are another great time to wear a hat or visor.
  • Sunscreen – You should really be putting sunscreen on every time you go for a run…even on cloudy days. There’s really no need to bring extra, but since you’ll be in the sun for hours, be sure to slather up beforehand.
  • Sunglasses – Unless there’s no chance of sun, I bring my sunglasses for every run. For my most recent marathon, it ended up being sunny about half the time and cloudy about half the time. I have great Native brand sunglasses that I just push up on my head if I’m not wearing them. They stay put and they are always right there when I need them.

Ways to Carry Your Items During a Marathon

I feel like I can probably read your mind right now…are you thinking that sure seems like a lot of stuff to carry? As I was writing it all out, it does really seem like a lot! Especially when you probably go out on plenty of short training runs with just a few staple items. But I carry ALL of those items on the “must carry” list as well as almost everything on the “good idea to carry” list. The truth is I would love to be able to run a marathon without my hydration vest, but I really don’t even notice I’m wearing it once I get started. And it easily carries everything I could possibly need.

The key is finding a way to comfortably carry all of these items without getting weighed down. Here are my top suggestions!

  • Hydration Pack or Vest – I personally use a Nathan Hydration vest I recently got for Christmas. The vests are great if you want to carry two separate types of drinks. Wearing one of these makes everything I listed a breeze to carry, and you can find my top picks in this article in addition to other ways to carry water.
  • Flip Belt – These are very popular and I know lots of runners who wear them. I personally don’t like anything around my hips or waist, so it’s not my preference.
  • Hydration Belt – Another way to carry multiple types of liquid. There is also a pocket to stash small items.
  • Armband for Phone – This is something that I don’t personally like but my husband doesn’t mind wearing one. (And they’re inexpensive.) I have found much better options for carrying my phone.
  • Hand-Held Water bottle with Pocket – I see lots of people carrying these during marathons as well as shorter races. They’re contoured and can be tightened to your hand, making them easier to carry.
  • Women’s Pocket Shorts (my favorite way to carry my phone and so happy I discovered these last year!) and Men’s Pocket Shorts – these could easily be worn under a pair of running shorts.
  • Pocket Sports Bra I don’t have one of these yet, but I hope to get one soon!

At my last marathon, I even saw a man with his gels zip tied to his visor. Very creative!

Hopefully you now have a better idea of what makes sense for you to carry during a marathon. Even though it kind of sounds like a lot of items to hold onto while racing, it’s a lot less weight than you’d think. I recommend training in the same way which will make racing this way a breeze.

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