Hitting the wall
Hitting the wall - and how to avoid it!
The Wall! – Sounds scary doesn’t it? That feeling of sheer exhaustion is something that the vast majority of us will only experience a few times in our lives so I guess for many, it is the fear of the unknown. It certainly was for me as I stood on the start line of the New York City Marathon (my first marathon) knowing that I had simply not done enough training and knowing that it was going to be a world of pain. That, I can live with but it was ‘the wall’ that I had never experienced.
I had a friend, Mark, who got carried away the year earlier and found himself sitting in on the leading pack of women elite runners. I waved at him as I sipped my beer outside a bar at the 17 mile mark. He wanted to break three hours, he was on for sub 2:30!! We shook our heads and laughed as we knew what he knew – he was going to hit the wall – big time!
He looked great at the time though - really smooth and easy. But, it was only a couple of miles later that he went from great to desperation. He was begging people in the crowd to give him food and the good people of NYC were handing him pieces of orange as I recall. How does that happen though?
What does it feel like?
It might be that your body will just want to throw in the towel. Your legs feel like jelly or perhaps lead. Every step is arduous. Other times it might be your mind saying stop, this is just too painful. As with Mark, you could become a little desperate, a little disorientated, you may even start hallucinating and certainly, self-doubt will kick in.
However, we live in an age where we have more knowledge. More training know-how and more nutritional expertise. There is also the addition of nutritional aids to help us buffer this onset of extreme tiredness that leads to the mental desperation.
Fuel for the body
Fuelling the body is important and doesn’t just need to happen on race day. You may have heard of carbo loading, but more of that later.
Fuel is stored in the muscles in the form of glycogen or in the body as fat. If running hard, the body will use its more immediate form of energy, the glycogen. When running normally however, the body will use a combination of both and when the body is depleted of glycogen, it’ll start to rely on the fat but this is not all good! When reliant on just fat, the muscles ability to function normally is greatly reduced.
So, we need to keep glycogen levels up before and on race day to avoid the lead leg feeling.
The other thing to be aware of is your blood sugar level. If this drops too low, you will start to get that confused feeling, not being able to think straight and at its worst, you may start to hallucinate!
Ten days before the marathon you should start to taper down your training and your body will go in to a semi-rested state, recovering to some extent from the strenuous training programme. Alan Storey, coach to many international marathon runners will prescribe the following for runners hoping to break 3:30hrs: “Carbohydrate loading to build up muscle glycogen stores requires a 15 mile slow run 7 days before the race followed by a 24 hour fast taking in only quality water. After the fasting period, at least 700 grams of carbohydrate should be consumed daily”. If you are not as trained as these sub 3:30hr runners, we suggest running a shorter 8m perhaps a week before the race but follow the programme.
Take carbs with you in the form of gels sweets like jelly sweets which are high in sugar. I ran NYC with a money belt on under my vest packed with gels but also a chewy bar which I soon realised was not a good idea. I soon found out that chewing and running uphill has an adverse effect on your breathing! Stick to the gels and follow these two top tips:
- Start taking them early, don’t leave it until you are tired as it might be too late
- Take them just before a water station. Sometimes the taste of these gels is not too palatable and you can wash them down with a swig of water.
The long runs you have done in your training would have trained the body to use your fat stores which is a good thing as fat gives you more calories than glycogen, but you need to ensure you top up the glycogen with the gels and sweets. Plan to take at regular intervals, you will really need them after 16 miles or so.
Read our full article on race day hydration but the key summary for race day is below:
On race day before you race
- Bring your own water
- Stay hydrated. Drink a little and often. Nerves may make absorption a little less easy than usual
- Consider using an energy drink. It can boost your energy levels more easily close to the event than eating.
On race day during the event
- Remember it takes around 15min for water you drink to get into your system so start drinking early on. As always make it little and often
- In longer events consider drinking an energy drink.
- Some people find a half empty bottle is easier to drink from than a full one while running.
- It can help to hold the water in your mouth before swallowing. Gulping down air with the fluid can lead to a stitch.
- If you have not done the ‘weigh yourself before and after training’ test you can use the approximate amount of 150ml for each 15min of exercise.
- In hot weather it may be worth pouring water over yourself to aid cooling but beware of chaffing, particularly if you are a not wearing breathable/wicking fabrics
Major marathon races will provide water every mile and energy drinks every 5k maybe. Smaller races may just provide water every 5k so it is important to find out who is providing what and when.
Hitting the wall will be delayed if it happens at all with the tips above, but running a marathon for most of us is not easy and you will feel very tired at some point. For what it’s worth, here are my top tips for when things get tough.
- Congratulate yourself mentally at every mile point. “Another mile down, well done”. It is important to feel upbeat and positive about your achievement as it is massive!
- Think of something else when times get tough. Think of lovely things you’ve done, seeing the kids at the end, friends and family. Anything to get you through another 5 minutes or so. Countdown the miles. I always break any session of race up in to chunks to encourage myself to hang on. “Well done you’re ¾ of the way there”. “Now you’re at 20m, well done mate only 6 to go”, “now only 5 to go, you are doing great, just hang in there” – you get the picture.
- Think of the finish and the plaudits from friends of family. This will be one of the great achievements in your life, it is a life experience you will never forget.
- Be excited, do not worry.
- Get the tunes right – music can be a great motivator so plan your playlist if you enjoy running to music. Play sounds that may uplift you – just make sure the beats per minutes are not too high – you want the music to speed you up with 6 mile to go when you really should be slowing up.
- What’s the worst that can happen, you just slow up! Ease back a bit and try to enjoy it. My main aim, when things got tough, was not to stop. I had a real thing about not stopping, so I just started to shuffle with 4 or 5 mile to go. Central Park is undulating so it can be rough (and boy did I find it tough!) but you’ll make it through and the felling at the finish just wonderful.
Check out our article on running a fast marathon, it's written by an amazing marathon coach and give you some top tips.
Look around you, take encouragement from the crowds and try to enjoy yourself. Good luck!