One of the biggest nightmares that every runner can experience in their long-distance races is “hitting the wall”. None of us is immune to it and unfortunately it is more common than we may give credit to. Hitting the wall is the point in the race when your body runs out of glycogen, its main source of fuel for long-distance running, leading to a feeling of exhaustion and substantial physical deterioration. This can happen anywhere in the race, but it is most usually reported from mile 18 up to mile 26, and it can be a very demoralizing experience.
It is important to remember that the wall is not inevitable. Let’s review a few things that can prevent you from hitting the wall or at least reduce its impact:
- Proper training: Make sure you’re training for the distance and pace of the marathon. This will help your body adapt to using fat as a fuel source, which can help you avoid hitting the wall. Be sure to follow a progressive plan that gradually increases the intensity and volume of your workouts. In this way, your body will gradually adapt to the increases and you will be able to avoid an overload that can deplete your energy reserves in a single session. Keep in mind that, to help you in this aspect, a Personal Trainer can build a personalized plan for you. We will be happy to assist you!
- Build your base: Another way to avoid the dreaded wall is to train slow on your long sessions and recovery days. Always try to run below your target marathon pace in your long runs to teach your body to burn fat for energy instead of depleting your glycogen stores. A proper marathon plan would incorporate these low intensity runs often, especially at the beginning of your training.
- Fueling correctly: Make sure you plan your carbohydrate intake before, during and after your long sessions. Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for your body. If you don’t consume enough before and during exercise, your energy stores may be depleted more quickly, which can lead to the wall. It is common to eat a high-carb diet in the days leading up to the marathon, commonly known as “carb-loading”, and fueling yourself properly during the race, usually taking in carbohydrates every 30-60 minutes. This can be done by eating gels, sports drinks, or even bananas.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate: When you sweat, your blood volume decreases, so less blood returns to your heart. As a result, the amount of blood your heart pumps with each beat decreases, consequently less oxygen-rich blood reaches your working muscles and your rate of aerobic energy production decreases, which inevitably leads you to hit the wall. The amount you need to drink to stay well-hydrated depends on the severity of the heat and humidity, whether you tend to sweat lightly or heavily, your body size, and how much and how intensely you are running, so it will require some planning and testing during your training phase.
- Pacing yourself: A common mistake that runners do is starting out too fast. This will only make it more likely to hit the wall later in the race. More experienced runners and personal trainers prepare a pace plan for the race, taking in consideration the race course, expected weather conditions and more. A most importantly, listen to your body during the race. If you’re feeling tired or your legs are starting to feel heavy, slow down or take a walk break.
If you do hit the wall, there are a few things you can do:
- Slow down: This may seem counterintuitive, but slowing down will help your body conserve energy.
- Take a walk break: If you need to, take a short walk break to rest your legs and refuel.
- Drink fluids: Stay hydrated by drinking water or sports drinks.
- Stay positive: It’s important to stay positive and motivated. Remember that you’re close to the finish line, and you can do it!
Hitting the wall is not the end of the world. By following these tips, you can avoid hitting the wall or deal with it if it does happen. With proper training, fueling, and pacing, you can reach the finish line strong. So get out there and train hard!