If you’re trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.
Even though Michael Jordan was a basketball and baseball player, his words are very appropriate to marathoners. In this article I’ll tell you how you can avoid hitting the wall and give you tips for getting past it if you do encounter it on your way to finishing your next (or first) marathon.
What is hitting the wall?
It is most commonly thought of as that period in a marathon (typically around 20 miles) when point where your body and mind are simultaneously tested. It’s that time in a race when fatigue starts to overwhelm your mental faculties. Simply put, running at your current pace goes from being hard to being really hard.
Rather than worrying about hitting the wall, it’s best to train properly and think ahead so you can prevent it.
Getting through, around, or over hitting the wall is part of the mystique of marathon running, although there’s a physiological explanation: when runners hit the wall, their bodies have run out of the carbohydrates needed to sustain intense physical activities like long-distance running.
The root cause of hitting the wall is glycogen depletion onset. According to the Sports Fitness Advisor the average person has about 2000 calories of stored carbohydrate. This approximately what your body’s engine (muscles and brain) is limited to prior to the race. Since the average runner burns approximately 100 calories per mile, it makes sense that most marathon runners describe hitting the wall around the 20-mile mark. Their 2,000 calories of glycogen fuel have been exhausted, which results in the overwhelming feeling of heaviness in their legs and a lack of concentration.
In my first marathon, nearly 30 years ago, I hit the wall at 20 miles and slowed my pace by 2 ½ minutes per mile. It took about an hour for me to complete the last 6 miles. I painfully walked through each aid station. I was not prepared for those last 6 miles. Although I finished, it wasn’t pretty.
How to avoid “the wall”
1. Get Used to the Distance
When your body runs out of glycogen, it will start to burn fat. Unfortunately, this is an inefficient fuel source. With consistent running over a period of weeks and months, you’ll become winded less-easily. Your anaerobic threshold, which is the point at which your body draws its energy from fat, will be pushed back. You can train your body to burn fat more efficiently, allowing you to run farther and faster and burn a mixture of glycogen and fat. Proper training allows your body to calibrate the perceived effort, hydration strategy and nutrition plan.
Most training plans, including mine (26.2), limit your longest runs to 20-21 miles. This is important, particularly for 1st time marathoners, because we want to bump up against the edge of the wall, without trying to burst through it. You significantly increase your risk of injury when you hit the wall. We don’t want to adversely impact your race day performance.
2. Keep to a Consistent Pace
Proper pacing is key. You need to do your best to run at your “Should” Pace. This pace is the average pace of your long runs for the last eight to ten weeks. It is the pace you have demonstrated you can run consistently in your training. If you have been fortunate enough to complete a 10k or a half marathon, you can use that value to predict a marathon time. Use the various online calculators (like McMillan) to estimate a marathon goal pace based on this or other previous performances.
3. Fuel Your Body Properly
You can also delay the onset of glycogen depletion by consuming sports drinks and gels during the run. These foods are high in carbohydrates. I recommend taking gels approximately every 45 minutes during the marathon to provide additional energy.
Proper nutrition prior to and during the race is also key. An adequate, though not overindulgent, pre-race breakfast high in carbohydrates is ideal because carbs can be burned aerobically or anaerobically. You’ll want to experiment in training with what agrees with your stomach because some runners find that particular mixtures create nausea, vomiting or some kind of gastrointestinal discomfort.
A few years ago, I was training for the Chicago Marathon which is October every year. Most of the training for this race is during the Summer months. I learned the hard way that having ice cream and smores doesn’t sit well with my stomach if I have them the night before a long run. Bottomline, the time to experiment with different foods is during your training. The days leading up to the race and in particular the night before your race, ONLY CONSUME FOODS YOU KNOW ARE EASY ON YOUR STOMACH.
During the race, YOU MUST STAY HYDRATED. This is critical to your success and to avoid hitting the wall. No matter how well conditioned you are in on race day and how well you pace yourself, if you don’t properly hydrate, you will hit the wall. I recommend to start drinking more water than normal 3-4 days before the race. Continue drinking water and avoid alcohol in the days leading up the marathon. In a 2007 Runner’s World article, the author discusses the need to drink at every aid station. Even at the first aid station which is typically 2 – 3 miles into the race, you should drink to prevent even slight dehydration which can slow gastric emptying, the removal of food from your gut into your blood stream. You need to keep a constant flow into your system.
At the 2014 Boston Marathon, I didn’t drink as much water the day before the race as I typically drink. I thought that having to go to the bathroom all night would disrupt my sleep. Unfortunately, I didn’t sleep well anyways (due to nerves). I suffered from dehydration and slowed the last 5+ miles in the 70 degree heat.
Getting past hitting the wall
There is a huge mental component to running a marathon. Although running, in and of itself, is not a complicated mental activity, your brain can essentially go on cruise control while your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and heart need more and more energy each mile. Unfortunately, your mind is at it’s weakest just when you hit “the wall” and when you may need it the most to push through those last miles. This is where the mental component comes in. It helps to be mentally prepared for your race. To a large extent, once you start to hit the wall, getting through the last miles becomes a mind over matter experience. Sometimes you need more.
Your internal dialogue is extremely valuable. Repeat positive, self-affirming statements to yourself. Avoid thinking words like “not.” Even if you’re simply telling yourself that you’re not going to fail or stop, your subconscious will only preserve the heart of the message which is “going to fail” or “going to stop.” Instead, I like to tell myself “I am strong and I always finish.”
I’ve read that Olympic Coach Bobby McGee stresses positive internal dialogue to be practiced during training until it becomes habit. He claims that such habits can have a huge influence on the body. McGee claims that some athletes succeed by acting and believing in the opposite of what their body is telling them. They “fake it ’til they make it,” says McGee and in this way avoid hitting the wall.
Experience can also lessen the shock of hitting the wall. If you’ve been through it in training or previous races, you’re less likely to succumb to it. As humbling and physically challenging as it can be, it is only temporary. That intrinsic knowledge alone can be enough to get you to the finish line and emerge from the shadow of the wall.
If you’ve completed marathons before, remind yourself that you’ve done this before. You’ve hit the wall before and succeeded in finishing.
Another strategy I’ve used is to simply break down each mile into 200 – 400 meter sessions. You can do this by identifying a point 200 – 400 meters in front of you and concentrating on getting there with the best form possible. Once you get to that point, pick out another point 300 – 400 meters in front. Continue this process, but increase how far in front you focus.
Focusing on what you can control at this stage of the game is a great way to fight the sense of powerlessness. Since you start to lose control of your desired pace as you fatigue, to avoid hitting the wall, try to think of some technique cues to improve your running form. Start with one facet of your form, like your arms or simply keeping your head up, relaxing your shoulders and chin up, forward lean and chest out are all positive for your running form. If you can regain some part of your form, you’ll start to be more efficient (and you should see an improvement in your mile splits).