What I learned about Headphones after a Year of UltraRunning; Likes and Dislikes and Personal Preferences when it comes to Audio Consumption on the Trail and in Training

Before we get into this, there’s a lot of layers to unpack when we reviewing and benchmarking like headphones and ear buds. For this particular review, my focus will be less on audio quality and more on performance. I also need to preface this by saying I did not use any over the ear headphones. There are a lot of concerns I have with headphones in general, let alone over the ear style muffs. There are a lot of factors when running and ultra running that make wearing large, bulky headphones not practical, which is why I avoided it.

Over the last 18 months, I have tested and used a variety of different earbud type devices, both wired and wireless. I’m not going to rank order these either because headphones/earbuds and music is all highly subjective…I will just stick to what I like and dislike about them and I will say which one I like best. Also, there are a few that I am reviewing that I have to use stock photos because I have lost them on the trail at random parts across the country.

So in no particular order, here we go…..

The first one that I’m going to discuss is the generic headphones that come with iPhones and iPods. Could lump most cheap headphones in with these as well.

Pros: It’s easy to make or answer calls while running. They also have pretty easy controls to use (once you’ve mastered them) for controlling volume, answering/declining calls, and switching between songs. You also don’t have to worry about losing them if you are only wearing one and they are relatively cheap to replace.

Cons: The cable can cause a variety of issues, depending on where you keep your phone. The cable also caused some snags when running past branches or climbing technical terrain and while using trekking poles.

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Overall: It’s not a bad option for the cost, but it can be limiting with range of motion restrictions. Also, if you are an iPhone user and you have a newer iPhone, you have to use an adapter to use these type of headphone inputs. Not a deal breaker for me and I usually carry a pair of these as a back-up just in case the other headphones that I’m using die or get damaged.

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We will look at the Aftershokz Trekz Titanium next. These are pretty cool in the fact that they aren’t like traditional headphones or earbuds in the fact that they use bone conduction which (basically) is sending sound waves through the skull to the inner. I used similar technology when I was in the Army. The thing I really like about these is that you don’t have anything physically in your ear and you can still (kindof) have conversations with people and still hear your music. It’s a nice thing to have on trails to help with situational awareness. These would’ve been nice to have during Ultra #6 because I thought I was being tracked by bears and moose, so I spent the majority of that affair listening solely to the sound of nature. I have also used the Aftershokz Trekz Air. Everything I didn’t like in the Titanium was remedied in the Air.

Pros: Non-intrusive design helped provide situational awareness. It was also easy to stop and start music/podcasts with the relatively large button on the outside.

Cons: They felt a little bulky and would flop around if I didn’t wear them on top of my hat. They were not very flexible and would feel uncomfortable after extended use. They, in essence, pinched my head, but I also have a very large melon (so that could just be a me thing). The volume control was difficult to use, especially when running. I found myself just taking them off or putting them around my neck when I wanted to talk or needed to turn them down. Phone calls were not easy to answer or the person on the other end could not hear when I was talking.

Instead of doing a whole other review for the AfterShokz Trek Air, I will just add onto the Titanium review. Everything that I liked with the Titanium, I liked better with the Trek Air and every issue I had with the Titanium, I did not have with the Air as well. They were lighter and less intrusive. They did not cause hot spots or issue with discomfort that comes from extended use and talking during phone conversations was much easier than with the Titanium.

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You might be wondering why I used a stock photo and that is because I lost my set of Trek Air’s on Mount Currahee. That was through my own error, so if you are in Toccoa Falls, Ga, head over to Camp Currahee and if you look around, you might find a set of AfterShokz Trek Air. You will love them, I promise.

Overall: I really like the idea of the bone conduction headphones, especially when running trails in the middle of nowhere where having situational awareness is at a premium. I also recommend spending the extra money on the Air. The Titanium’s are nice, but they just don’t work with my giant melon. (maybe I can do a giveaway with them, let me know if you’re interested!) I have also used these while strength training and they are a good option when doing more intense work, particularly if you are the kind of person who gets the sweat in your ear. Also, if you are looking at getting the Titanium’s make sure you try them on first and dance around to ensure that they are a good fit.

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Next I will look at Bose Sound Sport (wired). These are nice earbuds, but there’s nothing really remarkable about them. It’s the same considerations and issues that I discussed with the Apple headphones, but with better sound quality.

Pros: Good sound quality, customized fit based on ear size, not issues with them falling out.

Cons: The wire provides the same challenges previously mentioned. The silicone ear flanges aren’t very durable and I had to replace them a few times.

Overall: These are really nice earbuds that function well with listening to music or talking on the phone. I had issues with the durability of the silicone flanges on the ear buds and the durability of the headphones overall. They were a victim of a wipe out that I had during a training run and are sadly no longer with us. It’s a nice everyday headphone with better sound quality than what comes shipped with your phone. Nice to have at the office, not so great for the trail.

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Staying with the Bose theme, the next pair I tested were the Bose Sound Sport Free Wireless. These are have a really nice sound quality and functionality. They feel pretty good in the ear and were never painful.

Pros: Great sound quality and fit, easy to use when answering calls while running. Battery life was not an issue, but I never used them for more than 3 hours at a time.

Cons: Even though these fit well, they are still big and I was always worried that I would lose one or both while running, especially when I was pushing the pace. The sound quality is too good in the fact that I generally could not hear anything else when I had these in, which can be problematic when there are environmental concerns on the trail. The cost…

Overall: These are really great wireless headphones, but you are going to pay for it. I personally feel that there are better, less cost prohibitive, wireless earbuds out there for trail running and training, but these are really nice for casual use.

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Ok…one last Bose item…It’s technically not headphones, but it’s a portable speaker. I won’t go into a full pro/con, but this is by far one of the coolest bluetooth speakers that you can get. I have used it on the trails while running and hiking. You can just use the strap on the back and loop it on your running vest or pack. If you go with an option like this, be respectful of others out on the trail…not everyone likes your music and this little speaker packs a big punch in terms of volume. I’ve used it when I was very secluded and didn’t think that it would impact anyone else’s experience. It has a couple of nice bonus features; first it’s waterproof and it can also work as a speaker phone, so you can also have a conversation without missing a beat…It’s also pretty inexpensive, I think right around $75 now. It’s by far the best deal in terms of what I’ve reviewed so far.

Lastly, we will look at my personal favorite headphone that I’ve had the best experience with while running and training so far…

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Apple Air Pods….I am being serious…when I first got these (almost) two years ago, I was very skeptical and I was confident that I would lose one or both of them. I can say confidently that I am wearing them both at this current moment. In terms of sound quality, they are not the best that I have or have used, but for practicality, functionality, and ease of use, they are by far the best.

Pros: Easy to use, great battery life (I’ve used them during a 12 hour race without issue), no functionality issue when using with phone or Apple Watch (it’s supposed to work like that, I know).

Cons: During intense workouts when I sweat a lot, I still get inner ear sweat pooling. Have to adjust volume on the phone (as far as I know).

Overall: Airpods are great for being what they are. I don’t use Android devices, but I have in the past and I have used Airpods with them and I didn’t have any issues. They aren’t too expensive, but they also aren’t cheap. The battery life is still outstanding and I use these daily for regular use and during training. All of the concerns that I had about losing them have eroded away because the only issues I have is if I misplace the case, which will happen at times because it is a small package. I do wish they were waterproof, but I have used them running in the rain and I haven’t had any issues during that.

Like anything else that you are going to invest money in, make sure you do your research and test drive your headphones. There’s a distinct difference in fit in the two pairs of AfterShokz that I used which resulted in two different experiences. Also, be mindful of the rules of the races, if you plan on using them during races…some races prohibit them. It’s also worth testing how they perform if you are only going to use one earbud at a time, which is advisable when running in secluded areas or high traffic areas.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them in the comment section.

My White Walls

I get a lot of questions about footwear...what shoes I wear, what shoes are good for different foot shapes and sizes, and what type of activity.  Well, first off, I am not a podiatrist, so I don't know what shoes will be good for your feet and footwear is all about preference.  With that being said, I can speak to what I wear and use and why I do that.  

Under Armour KTV

Under Armour KTV

To start off, I have Barney Rubble feet...this precludes me from wearing a lot of shoes out there, so if you have this same affliction, you will probably find this most useful.  This affliction also has saved me as well, which is something that I will get to a little later on.  The first thing I want to discuss, is the heel to toe offset.  I have always been of the mindset that anything that takes our bodies out of it's natural movement patterns is, generally, not a great thing.  Once we create a change in our (bio)mechanics, the effect will probably be felt up or down stream, depending where that change takes place.  Our feet are no different.  We aren't meant to be heel strikers and in doing so, we create stress and shock up our kinetic chain depending upon the intensity of our activity.  We also begin creating imbalances in our body by changing the angle of impact/force, shortening or lengthening fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc.  

So back to the heel to forefoot/toe offset...As a rule, I try to stick to shoes with no offset, they are popularly referred to as "Zero Drop" shoes.  These take a little time to adjust to because we spend the majority of our lives in shoes with a fairly substantial offset (+12 mm).  With one exception, I will not use a shoe with an offset greater than 4mm.  The shoes I'm referring to are the Salomon Speedcross 4 Wide, which boast a 10mm offset...on second thought, I did put quite a few miles down in the Under Armour KTV's, which have a 7mm offset, so I guess there are two exceptions.  With that being said, I only put about 20 miles into the Salomon Speedcross.  The offset was very uncomfortable to me, and even though they are "Wide", pretty much everything Salomon makes runs very small.  So if anyone is interested in a US size 13 Salomon Speedcross, let me know.  

I won't get on a soap box about "Zero Drop" shoes, but I do credit them with keeping me relatively injury free.  I currently, do not have any affiliation with any particular company, but the shoes I wear the most are Altra's.  I discovered them about 3 years ago, prior to my weight loss.  All of their shoes are zero drop and they have a wide toe box so they allow your feet to splay naturally.  They do say that there is an adjustment period to wearing those, just like you would have if you were wearing the Five Finger shoes from Vibram.  This is more of an adjustment period to running.  I was pretty fortunate and I started wearing them when I was still fat and I had to walk a lot for my job.  (I was doing ergonomic evaluations in a 4 million square foot plant, so I would get my steps in, to say the least)  I never had that adjustment period  that they talk about.  It happened naturally for me, so when I started running, I didn't have those same issues that a lot of people go through.  

Altra Superior 2.0

Altra Superior 2.0

Altra Superior 3.0

Altra Superior 3.0

Salomon Speedcross 4 Wide

Salomon Speedcross 4 Wide

Vibram 5 Finger

Vibram 5 Finger

I do have the Five Finger shoes from Vibram, but I don't run in them, I really just wear them for normal daily activity, for the most part.  I have lifted in them and done some calisthenic type workouts, but as a whole, I just wear them around.  I equate it to the same thought process as training at high altitudes, train low, live high...I do the same thing with the Five Fingers, but I might start doing some running with them in the future.  Altra also makes casual shoes and I wear one of their casual boots most days to work.   

I am hoping to get my hands on some Inov-8 trail shoes soon.  They have some that have a 4mm offset, as well as a zero drop as well.  I have worn some of their "crossfit" shoes and I have some of their Olympic Lifting shoes as well, from my "Crossfitting" days.  

The other shoes that I have used and worn were the Under Armour Fat Tire 2.  I got those because of the extreme cushioning and 4mm offset.  I felt because I was such a heavy runner, the extra shock absorption would help.  I did like them, but they were very heavy and the traction was not great when it was wet and muddy.  Additionally, the BOA system was nice, but the laces were thin and would cause hotspots on the top of my feet at times.  

Under Armour Fat Tire 2

Under Armour Fat Tire 2

Altra TIMP

Altra TIMP

Most recently, I have been wearing the Altra TIMP.  These have a lot more cushion in them in comparison to the Altra Superior, which was my first Altra shoe.  I have gone through three pairs of the Superiors and I do have a fondness in my heart for them.  At times they feel like you are running/walking in Crocs.  The Alta TIMP is a lot more robust and you can definitely feel the cushion.  

So my goal here is to not come across as biased, I am not.  I do wear a lot of Under Armour and Altra footwear.  I have always had a fondness for Under Armour since my days in the Army, but not necessarily because of their footwear.  As a soccer coach, a few of the organizations and Universities I was affiliated with were sponsored by Under Armour and Nike, so I have an excess amount of clothing, footwear from them.  I don't wear Nike shoes to run in because they don't fit my feet well, but I plan on trying the Terra Kiger model in the near future.  Another reason I don't wear a lot of Nike is because of the heel/toe offset.  Most of the time it is outside of the parameters of what I will run in, with the Terra Kiger being the exception at a 4mm offset.  

Altra Escalante

Altra Escalante

I don't really deviate between shoes between road and trail.  I did wear the Under Armour Speed Tire and the Altra Escalante for road work primarily though.  The Escalante is a road specific shoe.  It's very lightweight and the upper is knit, which is great if you are a lightweight runner, but for me, I don't care for it.  I find that my feet will slide laterally because the material is so light.  Again, it's a really nice shoe and by far the most breathable Altra that I have worn, but it offers the lateral support of a sock, so if you are concerned with that, you might want to look elsewhere.  The Under Armour Speed Tire is a less cushioned version of the Fat Tire.  There is also laces, instead of the BOA system, but I know that you can get the BOA with that.  It's a nice, no frills shoe that served its purpose.  It's not overly aggressive, so you can wear it on a treadmill or road and to the gym as well.  

Altra Smith Boot

Altra Smith Boot

I do wear a lot of Altra because they fit my feet really well and the fit is pretty universal throughout their line...even the casual boots I have fit the same as the running shoes.  With that being said, they run a little small, so I might go at least a half size bigger.  They are becoming more common place so you can find them at a lot of common outdoor retailers like REI.  I don't currently have any affiliation with them, I just really like their footwear.  

As I said before, footwear is highly preferential and our feet are all a little different.  If you want to move into a "Zero Drop" shoe like an Altra, VivoBarefoot, or Vibram Five Finger, I would recommend to ease your way into it if you have never worn them or run in them before.  Take the 'Training at Altitude' approach and maybe wear them in your day to day and then work your way into it.  All three brands that I mentioned offer casual shoes that you could wear in a professional/business casual environment...yes they make Five Finger shoes like that.  I will add some links below to all of the brands and shoes that I mentioned. 

 

https://www.altrarunning.com/men/altra-timp

https://www.underarmour.com/en-us/mens/footwear/trail/g/39ri1

https://us.vibram.com/shop/fivefingers/

Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 8 Vest Review

Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 8

The Salomon S/Lab Sense 8 vest is the vest that I am currently using in races and training.  I have at least one race in this (at the time of posting) and I have logged a couple hundred miles in it.  There is a lot to love about this vest and Salomon has done a pretty good job with it.  

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My vest also has an FBomb logo, this is not standard on Salomon vests or gear.

Pros

So lets start with what I really like about this vest.

  • The accessibility of the storage.  It's easy to get in the water bottles in the chest and access the other storage while on the run.  
  • The pockets are flexible and stretchy, so you can stuff a lot of things in them and it won't bounce that much.  I have used it to stuff hat and gloves, as well as trash from my FBomb packs.  
  • The vest is light.  The material makes it feel like you're wearing a shirt...it doesn't feel like you're wearing  a vest.  
  • Pocket/storage placement.  There are so many different pockets and storage options and they are located in places where it's easy to reach and access while running.  Even the pocket on the back is easy to store a layer/light jacket or an additional soft flask/gels/snacks.  
  • Large rear pocket can accommodate larger layers or smaller hydration bladder.  I have used a 1.5L bladder, but I could also feel it...maybe 1L might ride a little better.  

 

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Cons

There really isn't a whole lot that I don't like about this vest, but there are some minor issues.

  • Cell phone storage can't accommodate large cell phones (think IPhone 7/8 Plus sizes or similar Galaxy sizes).  Also that storage is not waterproof.  (not a deal breaker considering the majority of hydration vests out there do not have a waterproof pocket for electronics)
  • Salomon products are high quality, but they are the skinny jeans of running gear and clothing.  Everything runs slim...think heroin chic.  Again, not really a big deal, but as a husky runner, you might want to get a size up.
  • The tightening loops are not adjustable and can be tricky to cinch down.  I'm also concerned with how durable they will be.  I have to double loop mine to get a tighter fit and it's putting a lot of stress on the plastic piece that you loop around.  This really might be my only valid "Con" or issue/concern with the vest.  Because the material of the vest is "stretchy", I would like to move the location of the adjustment points a little higher.  It would make for a little better ride, but this is just personal preference.  
IPhone 7 in the cell phone storage pocket.  It will zip close, but it is a tight fit and hard to access while on the move.  It is also not waterproof.  

IPhone 7 in the cell phone storage pocket.  It will zip close, but it is a tight fit and hard to access while on the move.  It is also not waterproof.  

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Conclusion

The Salomon S/Lab Sense 8 is a great hydration vest.  It is on the expensive side retailing around $170.  Being a little late in the season you might be able to find it for a little less.  The downside to the vest, for me was the lack of being able to adjust the chest closure, but I have also figured out a work around for that.  It hasn't showed any signs of breaking, but I am concerned with the durability of the plastic piece that holds it together.  Time will tell on that one.  Not having waterproof storage for a cell phone isn't really a big deal.  There really aren't any hydration vests out there that offer that as a feature.  I just use a zip lock bag and that works fine.  The size of the cell phone pocket isn't really an issue either because there are so many storage options on it. 

There are a lot of reasons to like this vest and for me, it would work for experienced runners and racers, as well as those getting into ultra-running/trail running.  I don't think it would be a smart investment  with obstacle course racers though.  It is definitely light weight, but because of that, I don't know how well it would stand up to the demands of crawls, sliding, rolling, etc that happen during an OCR.  

All things being considered and if I used a binary rating system, with 1 being yes and 0 being no, this would easily be a 1.

https://www.salomon.com/us/product/s-lab-sense-ultra-5-set.html?article=393812

 

 

Ultimate Direction Hard Rocker Vest Review

Before we get started, this vest is the 2017 Hard Rocker vest which they no longer make, but it is basically the same as the current models of the Mountain Vest 4.0, as well as having the same fit and concept as some of the other current vests, minus a pocket or feature.  I believe that this review will serve well for those looking for reviews of current product models.

Ultimate Direction Hard Rocker Vest

I have logged a lot of miles in this vest, between training and races.  In fact, it was the first race vest that I ever used and I wore it in my first three ultra races.  There's a lot to love in this vest, while having a lot of room for improvement.  

 

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Pros

  • This vest has a lot of storage.  The front of the vest has a lot of room for small gels, snacks, and tech.  The side pockets are flexible and can hold accommodate an IPhone 7 Plus.  Rear pack can accommodate lots of layers/gear (13L), as well as hold a hydration bladder.
  • Adjustability.  This pack is easily adjustable and was easily able to accommodate a husky runner, such as myself, with multiple layers.  The rear pack can also cinch down to expand or compress the contents.  I have used this pack filled with a variety of gear and empty.  When cinched properly, there is not bounce or excess movement.  
  • The water bottle location on the front is great for drinking on the run, with the long straw or without. 
  • The adjustable chest straps can move up or down to accommodate different sizes or fit preference.
  • Additional storage on outside of the rear pack makes accessing an extra layer fairly quick and easy without needing to take the pack off.
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Cons

  • The nylon material around the water bottles is not flexible, so getting water bottles in and out is not easy, especially when it's cold.  
  • The storage under the water bottles on both sides is hard to access when the bottles are full and not very user friendly when running.
  • With all of the storage, there is no waterproof storage, which would be nice for phones, car keys/key fobs, or other electronics.  

Conclusion

There is a lot to love with this vest and Ultimate Direction vests in general.  This vest has a ton of load carriage capacity and it gives the user a lot of options in terms of adjusting the fit and ride.  The flaws that I found with this vest were, most notably, the ability to access pockets while on the run and while in the cold.  This could easily be fixed if the material was changed to something with more give or if it was the same as the material used on the side pockets.

If you are an urban runner, not running a lot of miles where extra gear is needed, or an obstacle course racer, I would pass on this vest.

If you are running races where you are required to carry mandatory equipment/clothing, adventure races,or running longer distances outside of the reach of civilization,  I would put this vest on my short list.  I also have found this to be really useful hiking because of it's light weight and carrying volume. 

When I began ultra-running, this vest was great because the carrying capacity gave me the confidence that I could make it to the next aid station without running out of water or fuel, or in case I got lost (which has happened a few times).  As I have run more races, I realize that I don't need as much "stuff" as I thought I did when I first began.  With that being said, this is a really nice vest, which could be made better by changing a few small things.  

You can find this vest (on clearance) for around $130, which is a really good deal for it.  The current models which are closest to this are the Adventure 4.0, Mountain 4.0 and Ultra 4.0, which range in price from $130-$170.  

https://ultimatedirection.com/

I do not have an affiliation with Ultimate Direction and the above link is only a link to their website.

 

UD Hardrocker Vest at the end of Ultra #2

UD Hardrocker Vest at the end of Ultra #2

Under Armour Trail Hydration Pack 1.5L Review

Under Armour Trail Hydration Pack 1.5L

This pack has a really nice feel to it when you first pick it up.  Initially I liked the rigid back panel.  It makes sense for obstacle course races that you need to crawl under obstacles.  It's smooth, so it won't get caught up if your low crawl isn't low enough.  It has a 1.5L hydration pouch and a little storage in the back, which I found to be large enough for a windbreaker/mid-layer, some extra snacks, and a collapsable water bottle.  I also put my phone and spare battery in there.  

 

 

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Pros

·  The vest rides really nice.  It locks down really well and doesn't shake or move when it's fully loaded.

·  The rigid back panel could be a really nice addition for obstacle courses where you need to crawl under obstacles.  

Cons

This vest is constructed really well, but it lacks in a lot of areas and there is a lot of room for improvement.  Keep in mind that I am also a big runner (6'2" >250lbs) and the fit and ride might be a little different for me than for you.  

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The primary complaint that I had with this vest is the integrated grab handle.  It's an innovative idea and it makes reaching over-head and grabbing it when you need to refill the bladder very easy.  The issue is that the material is very rigid and it rubbed on my neck and caused a bad hot spot.  I had to put a mid-layer on to create a barrier between that edge and my neck.  I'm not sure how much of this is because I might be outside the size demographic.  I think this could affect a lot of people just because it's a rigid edge and the pack itself is designed to fit so well.  

Another area where the design of the pack itself can be improved is where the pack can be adjusted and the amount and location of usable storage.  The area that I have highlighted is semi-rigid and it does not stretch.  This area is a miss for two reasons. 

First, this is a missed opportunity for storage that is pretty common in a lot of hydration vests.  This storage could also utilize the pack itself for increased capacity.  This is a great feature in some of the Salomon vests/packs.  Great for layers for storing layers, gloves, hats, fuel, electronics, etc.  This vest overall lacks functional storage that you would want during long runs or hikes.  You need to take off the pack to in order to access most stored items

Second, this design negatively effects the fit.  The only area to adjust the fit of the vest is with the shoulder straps.  If the material used was more flexible or if it was adjustable, like a few Nathan, Ultimate Direction and Inov-8 vests, this could provide a more adjustable fit, which might negate the rubbing and chaffing on the neck caused by the integrated grab handle.  This fit would also better accommodate a greater range of anthropomorphic types.  

UApack3.jpg
UApack4.jpg

The last area that is a miss for me is on the shoulder straps themselves.  Most hydration vests utilize this area for soft/collapsible water bottles and additional storage for gels/fuels/snacks and small electronics.  The lone pocket looks big on the photo, but I could fit a couple of FBomb packs and my keys (barely).  My keys did get snagged on the fabric when I was taking them out.  

On my second run with this pack, I wore my Inov-8 All-Terrain 3L waist pack so I could have extra storage because it was an extended training run.  I packed an additional 500ml Salomon collapsible water bottle, gloves, hat, phone, and a couple of FBomb packs.  

The accessible storage provided by my Inov8 waistpack, for me, made a difference in getting some of the common items I would use during races and training, like glove/hats/layers and fuels/snacks.  For me it highlights another glaring need for the UA pack.  

Conclusion

Overall, it's a well constructed hydration pack, that was not well thought out.  It seems to be geared more towards obstacle course races than running/ultra running.  With a few design changes and additional, functional storage, it would be a big step in the right direction for getting into the ultra-running, hydration vest field.  At a retail of $179.99, I wouldn't make the investment when you can get more functional packs and vests from Inov8, Nathan, Ultimate Direction, and Salomon.