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What Does Hitting the Wall Mean during a Marathon Race?

There is a popular expression in running as well as other endurance sports that are referred to as “hitting the wall” or sometimes also referred to as “bonking.”

Hitting the wall happens when the athlete is taken over by feelings of fatigue and a sudden loss of energy. In a lot of cases, it can literally feel like running into a brick wall and losing all of your momentum right in that exact moment. 

This feeling is caused by a depletion of your stored glycogen, which is a carbohydrate that lives in our muscles for energy. This explains why athletes feel completely drained when they suddenly run out of it.

When hitting the wall, your brain will also start to shut down and turn to negative thoughts. This is because your body sends signals to your brain saying that you have pushed beyond your limits, and the brain shuts down in order to try and preserve whatever energy you have left.

“Hitting the wall” will give just as much of a hit to your mental well-being as it will your physical well-being.

When are you most likely to ‘hit the wall’?

The sensation of hitting the wall is commonly talked about for happening around the 20-mile mark during a marathon. That is about the time that the average person’s body will start to run low on glycogen, and the sensations will be triggered.

The reason that runners tend to hit the wall around the 20-mile mark can be broken down mathematically. Our bodies store roughly 2,000 worth of glycogen between our muscles and liver at a time.

People burn roughly one-hundred calories per mile when running, depending on the runner’s pace and body mass. Knowing those two things, we can easily figure out that we will deplete our glycogen levels right around the 20-mile mark.

Does everybody ‘hit the wall’?

It is entirely possible for anyone to hit the wall why they are running and suddenly feel fatigued and start having negative thoughts. Although the point at which a runner hits the wall will vary from person to person, and not everyone will hit the wall during a marathon.

First of all, this mostly has to do with a runner’s level of preparedness for a race. A runner that is in great shape has been training for the marathon they are about to run, eats right, and eats right before the race is far less likely to hit the wall than someone who has not been doing all of the above.

Whether or not a runner will hit the wall during a race also depends on other factors like their body mass and their pace, but these factors come second to the other factors that are entirely in the athlete’s control.

What-Does-Hitting-The-Wall-Mean-Marathon-Race

How to prevent hitting the wall during a race.

There are a lot of precautions that you can take to avoid hitting the wall during a race and a lot of steps you can take during the actual race to maximize your chances of making it through to the end without hitting the wall.

1. Take long runs frequently.

First and foremost, you will want to get your body used to running long distances before deciding to run a marathon. It shouldn’t be a surprise if you hit the wall during a marathon when you are not one to really ever run long distances.

Try to carve time out at least once a week to go out for a run, and don’t skimp on the distance that you are running. Start with a one-mile run or even a half-mile run if you have to, and then start building that up week after week.

This will start to condition your body for running and make you less likely to ‘hit the wall’ during any real races.

2. Be intentional with your calories.

Again, the sensation of ‘hitting the wall’ really comes from your body running out of glycogen that is stored in your muscles and your liver. An obvious way to minimize the chances of you hitting the wall, then, would be to make sure your tank is full before starting a race.

This, however, does not mean that you should go and eat a lot of food or take in a lot of calories. Do some research and find out the best approach to keeping your glycogen levels up without sacrificing anything else.

In other words, be intentional with what you are eating.

Also, consume more calories during your race and not just before it. Kind of like a race car driver pulling over during a race to put more gas in the car, you can pull yourself over (or bring yourself down to a walk) and refuel yourself before you do hit the wall.

3. Have a walking strategy.

Some runners will find that taking a brief walking break during their run will give them bursts of energy, while other runners find walking breaks to have the opposite effect.

Planning out walking breaks during your run may seem counterintuitive, especially if you are consistently trying to set new best times for yourself. Still, depending on the type of runner you are, they may actually help your time, and they can also help stop you from hitting the wall (which will definitely help your time).

Don’t just take walking breaks during your run. Use your training to determine what sort of walking breaks work best for you to give you those boosts of energy. Then come up with a strategy that you can use during an actual race to maximize those breaks to make you run the fastest and feel the best during a race.

4. Know your pace, and don’t come out of the gate too fast.

Many runners will have a pace in mind before running a marathon that should be in line with their goal for the time that they want to reach with that race. When you have that pace in mind, you want to keep that pace in mind from the beginning of the race all the way through to the end.

A lot of rookie runners will find themselves taking off right at the beginning of a race because that is when you are prepared, energized, and you get fired up about accomplishing your goals. That energy eventually fades away, though, especially if you are doing nothing to preserve it throughout the course of the entire race.

If you want to avoid hitting the wall during a marathon, then keep your pace at the beginning of the race as well as at the end. Don’t get caught up thinking that the best thing you can do is gain a big lead right at the start.

Your goal is to hit your best time for 26.2 miles. Your best time for 10 miles or 1 mile during a marathon doesn’t really mean anything.

What Does Hitting The Wall Mean Marathon Race

How to recover from hitting the wall.

Even if you take all of the necessary precautions and have been training your entire life for the race that you are in, there is still that chance that you will hit the wall during the race. It is important to be prepared for that to happen, and it can help you greatly to have a plan of action for what to do on the back end of hitting the wall.

1. Consume proper calories.

One of the main things that you will want to do if you have hit the wall is to restore your glycogen levels. Do that by finding some simple sugar calories that you can get from most sports drinks, gels, non-diet sodas, candy, or fruits.

2. Shift your focus.

Hitting the wall is just as detrimental to your mental energy as it is to your physical energy. Your brain will “shut down” when you hit the wall to try and get your body to start preserving its energy.

One big tip to help recover from hitting the wall is to shift your focus from an external focus to an internal focus. An external focus is when you are focused on the environment around you, where an internal focus is when you are focused on yourself.

Try to focus on your breathing or running form, and you will start to notice a shift to an internal focus. Doing this will help to combat the mental effects of hitting the wall.

3. Bargain with yourself.

Hitting the wall can make it extremely easy to want to throw in the towel and immediately start walking or slowing your pace during the race. In other words, it makes it easy to give up on your goals and maybe even give up on finishing the race altogether.

After you have hit the wall, think to yourself what your goal is and whether or not you can still achieve it. In most cases, you can. Before deciding that you will slow down or walk, have a little negotiation with yourself to keep pushing toward that goal.

Our bodies are often capable of doing more than our minds tell our bodies they are capable of, so in a situation like this if you make a deal with yourself to run for two more minutes before walking for one, it will likely work.

Conclusion

Hitting the wall never leads to a pleasant experience, and it is likely to happen if you are running long distances. While there is no surefire way to avoid hitting the wall during a marathon, there are many steps that can be taken to prevent it.

As a runner, the best thing you can do is always keep obstacles like hitting the wall in the back of your mind as you train, as you eat, and as you go through your day to day life. The more you take action to help yourself get through these challenges, the more likely you are to get through them with ease.

If you are preparing for a big race soon, make sure that you dedicate yourself to your training and that you train with intent. Also, make sure that you are eating properly, and on the day of the race, you can put some simple sugar calories into your system before you get started.

Doing this will not only help you avoid hitting the wall, but it will help you train harder, boost your energy, and boost your performance on the day of the race and for all of the other races that are yet to come.

References

https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/training/marathon/a774858/how-to-avoid-the-wall-and-cope-if-you-hit-it/#:~:text=In%20general%2C%20hitting%20the%20wall,muscles%20and%20liver%20for%20energy.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitting_the_wall

https://www.verywellfit.com/how-to-avoid-hitting-the-wall-in-a-marathon-2911443#:~:text=If%20you’re%20training%20for,considerably%2C%20sometimes%20to%20a%20walk.

Coach Scott is a published author and RRCA certified running coach (Level 2). He has published over 20 books including, Beginner's Guide to Half Marathons: A Simple Step-By-Step Solution to Get You to the Finish Line in 12 Weeks! (Beginner To Finisher Book 3), which has become an Amazon International #1 bestseller. Scott specializes in helping new runners become injury-free race finishers. He recently completed his 14th half marathon race. 

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What Does Hitting the Wall Mean during a Marathon Race?
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