As a nearly 30-year veteran of Ironman racing (including seven Ironman Hawaii finishes) and founder of FuelBelt, Rhode Island’s Vinu Malik is one of the biggest innovators in the sport’s history. We sat down with Malik to find out his hydration tips for long-distance racing, the ever-changing hydration science of endurance sports, and the future of FuelBelt.
LAVA: So Vinu, how many Ironmans have you done in your lifetime? Isn’t it 36? At least some of those were before FuelBelt, so paint us a picture of what “hydration” really meant before FuelBelt came along.
You have done your homework! 36 Ironman races it is, which means I have put a lot of miles and time into this sport. I raced 13 Ironman distance races before launching FuelBelt back in 1997. I suffered quite a bit with dehydration during my training and racing, so my business idea was directly tied into my passion for long course racing and trying to figure out how to get better.
In the early years, my strategy was to hide water bottles in the woods or look for sprinkler systems around town. The idea of carrying your drinks with you was counter intuitive to the run world back then, and the options were limited at best. Since the launch, we’ve had 10 Hawaii Ironman World Championship wins and hundreds of podium finishes around the globe. It’s pretty clear now that I wasn’t the only one trying to figure out a better hydration strategy!
LAVA: You’ve created a brand so globally recognized, that people ask for even if they are pointing to one of your competitors’ products. How does that make you feel, and what about the brand and the company are you most proud of?
FuelBelt pioneered the hydration belt concept a long time before our competitors came around. That gave us a huge lead. Creating a brand is a very difficult undertaking. Now that we have a global presence and our products are recognized everywhere; I am proud of what we’ve accomplished as a team. Building long-term value and brand equity has always been our focus and we hit that hard every day of the week.
As far as competitors go, most people can’t recall the names of those other brands! It’s very flattering to find out that the majority of people who wear a multi-bottle hydration belt actually think they are wearing a FuelBelt. Every company strives to have that ubiquitous quality where they are recognized as the Kleenex or Baby Jogger of their category. FuelBelt totally owns the brand equity for the hydration space just as Camelbak did for hydration packs years ago.
LAVA: You make a special effort to find a great work/life balance, not only for yourself but for your employees as well. How has this positively affected the growth of your company and what advice do you have for triathletes who struggle to find balance within their own work/family/training time?
I’ve learned that balance is very important to good long-term health. I’m happy with what I’ve been able to do as an athlete, a business leader and now as a parent and husband. Last year I stepped back from Ironman racing for the first time in 28 years. I focused on my three young kids, my wife, work, and time with friends. I kept active and didn’t go deep into the well like I used to. I transferred a lot of my energy into growing the company and being involved with my family and it keeps paying off.
I remind my team to appreciate their families, take personal time to recharge and to always give their best. We have an unbelievable company culture here that’s tough to beat. There are no offices, no closed doors, and everyone works together in a beautiful loft space overlooking the ocean. It’s another expression of balance by having a great work environment.
LAVA: The idea of “wearable tech” like handheld hydration has its roots in our sport. What about triathlon (and triathletes) do you think has made it such a hospitable space for these types of product innovations?
Triathletes are always looking to push the envelope and can get very caught up in how much time they can save with the right bike, the fastest wheels, the most aero helmet. The problem is that if you really paid attention to your hydration and nutrition intake during the bike and run, you could make up significant time late in the race and run closer to your true potential. If you bonk or cramp during the run, you lose time very quickly. If you practiced your fueling strategy during training, you could be a lot stronger instead of falling apart. That story is one that we hear about all the time and that’s why proper fueling is key.
Craig Alexander doesn’t wear a FuelBelt to make a fashion statement. He’s racing to win and wearing a FuelBelt keeps his energy levels on par with his 6:10 average pace in Kona for 26.2 miles—in some very tough conditions! He’s raced every Ironman event with a FuelBelt on, including two outstanding performances: the world record in Kona and his sub-8-hour Ironman in Melbourne.
LAVA: What about race-day (and pre-race day) hydration do you think triathletes often overlook?
Triathletes spend a lot of time training. Assuming you’ve done the work, the real key to being successful is repetitive practice of your fueling plan during training. The more you practice, the fewer surprises you’ll have on race day.
If you’ve ever watched Cait Snow run (hard to miss with that very fast turnover of hers), she is like a metronome. She has a very specific fueling strategy, which she’s practiced hundreds of times before race day. She’s able to get the very best out of herself and run closer to her potential. Her 2:53 in Kona was a combination of being very race fit and executing her fueling strategy perfectly. She’s also run 2:51 at Ironman Texas, which is absolutely world class in our sport. Practice makes perfect, and carrying valuable nutrition is what FuelBelt is all about.
LAVA: Your company sponsors several of the top triathletes and endurance athletes in the world. Are there any new sponsorship agreements or continued relationships that are particularly exciting for you right now?
The talent we have on any given weekend is world class at every level. We’ve got the seasoned veterans in Craig Alexander, Cameron Brown, Leanda Cave and many more. On the other end we’ve got exciting racers in Terenzo Bozzone, Luke McKenzie, Josh Amberger, Tim O’Donnell, Ben Hoffman as well as Heather Jackson who will be making her Kona debut in October. Our pro roster is made up of 20+ of the best triathletes in the world.
LAVA: What’s next for FuelBelt? Anything on the horizon you want to give us the scoop on?
We are introducing all new gear in 2015 with a continued focus on function and design that is both lightweight and fashion forward. It’s a very exciting time for product and we’ve invested a lot of time and resources back into the company to stay out front. Look for more wearable tech to come from our camp that has never been seen before. The responsibility is on us to lead the category we created so you can be sure we won’t disappoint.
We’re excited about our continued partnership with Ironman as they continue to meet global demand with new events and services added to the schedule. We will be introducing an all-new collection of Ironman inspired gear that will be made available at every Ironman event around the globe as well as at Ironmanstore.com.
We continue to share triathlon news and content on our popular site, Xtri.com, which is the oldest triathlon content site in history. We have the support of several great industry leaders and our site traffic has grown considerably over the past decade. It’s been a great platform to keep us close to the industry at all levels.
FuelBelt is Gatorade Endurance’s exclusive distributor to specialty retailers in the endurance channel, so you can expect to see more of them over the next few years! Gatorade Endurance will be at the biggest endurance events across the country with impressive product support in the form of sports drinks, electrolyte chews and more … stay tuned for that one!