Hitting the wall during a marathon is an unforgettable moment experienced by so many runners every year.
If you are lucky enough to have never experienced ‘the wall’ it can defined as a point in a marathon were things suddenly go from difficult but manageable, to extremely difficult with your body and brain yelling at you to stop. It’s the moment physical fatigue meets mental fatigue and it has been the undoing of so many marathons.
The physical fatigue felt when you hit the wall during a marathon, is a result of the depletion of stored glycogen, the carbohydrate stored in muscles and liver that you use for energy when running and exercising.
When your glycogen levels are low or almost depleted, the brain reacts by wanting to shut down activity as a method of preservation, this leads to the negative thinking and self doubt that accompanies the physical fatigue felt when you hit ‘the wall’.
As very few runners train beyond 22 mile, it can be a huge shock when ‘the wall’ is faced for the first time in a race, making it more difficult to prepare for and overcome.
But it doesn’t have to be the undoing of months of training if you prepare and react correctly, so here a few tips and strategies to help when you next face ‘the wall’.
Don’t start too fast
How many 5K races or half marathons have you started out too fast, with the quickest splits in the early stages of the race? For most runners this is quite a few. While we might get away with excitement and adrenaline taking over in shorter races, the 26.2 mile marathon is different, and how you run those first five mile can immensely increase or decrease the likelihood of encountering ‘the wall’.
In the first five miles of a marathon aim to run ten seconds slower per mile than your target race pace. So, if your goal is to average 7:50 per mile, aim for 8:00 per mile instead for the first five mile. After this settle into your target race pace, this will help ensure important energy is reserved for later in the race when it is needed most.
Fuel along the way
Boost your blood sugar levels by grabbing an energy gel for a quick source of carbohydrates during the race. An even better strategy is to experiment with energy gels on your longer training runs to determine the best time to take energy gels before you become fatigued – prevention is always better. As a rough guide, one gel every forty five minutes should help you see out the 26.2 miles.
Progressively increase your long run in training
The weekly long run in training is one of the best ways to prepare you for ‘the wall’. By progressively increasing the distance of your long run each week, you increase the body’s capacity to store more glycogen within the muscles and liver.
In addition, running your long run in training at a slower pace helps to train the body to source and make use of alternative energy sources, namely stored fat, helping to conserve your glycogen stored in your muscles.
Know the signs and react
When you set out to run 8:00 per mile, but all of a sudden the pace drops to 8:15 per mile and you can’t seem to speed up, it’s normal to panic and feel powerless.
In this situation aim to regain some control. Stay positive and start to focus on what you can impact, your running form. Do a full body scan – how is my breathing? Are my shoulders relaxed? How is my stride? Assess all of these and try to regain your form, and if do this you’ll run more efficient and finish stronger.
Embrace ‘the wall’
Hitting ‘the wall’ is not something that should be feared or avoided, and as long as you learn from every difficult experience it is not wasted.
The next time you hit ‘the wall’, try and see it as an opportunity to learn more about it and yourself. Don’t panic and ask yourself; what went wrong? What could I have done differently this time?
Know that ‘the wall’ has a limited amount of options to try and beat you on your marathon quest, an onset of fatigue, cramp and self-doubt to name a few, but you will eventually learn how to tackle and conquer them all.
Draw strength from others
Remember this isn’t just your big day, try to soak up the energy from fellow runners, as well as the encouragement and support from spectators.
If you aren’t chasing a personal best and running the marathon for a charity, relax and remind yourself that you are trying to help others and your efforts and pain will make a difference.