Running a Marathon: How to Avoid Hitting the Wall
Running a marathon is an incredible feat of endurance and mental strength. However, many runners dread the moment when they “hit the wall.” This phenomenon occurs when a runner’s energy levels plummet, leaving them feeling fatigued and struggling to continue. In this article, we will explore what it means to hit the wall during a marathon, why it happens, and most importantly, how to avoid it.
We will also provide tips on how to cope if you do hit the wall and strategies to help you keep running strong.
Understanding the Wall: Why it Happens
Hitting the wall, also known as “bonking,” is a common experience for many marathon runners. It typically occurs around the 18 to 20-mile mark and is the result of depleted energy stores. During exercise, the body relies on carbohydrates as its primary fuel source. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. When glycogen levels become low, the body struggles to generate energy efficiently, leading to fatigue and a decrease in performance.
There are several signs that indicate you may be approaching the wall. Heavy legs, sudden fatigue, blurred vision, detachment from surroundings, fluctuating heart rate, and muscle cramps are all common symptoms. These signs suggest that your glycogen stores are running low, and it’s crucial to slow down, refuel, and take appropriate action to prevent hitting the wall.
Fuelling Your Marathon: Tips to Avoid the Wall
Proper race nutrition is crucial to preventing the dreaded wall. The average runner’s body stores around 1,800 to 2,000 calories worth of glycogen in the muscles and liver. Considering that running burns around 100 calories per mile, it’s easy to understand why many runners hit the wall between the 18 to 20-mile mark. To avoid this, it’s essential to consume carbohydrates during your marathon.
Sports dietitians recommend consuming 30-60 grams of carbs per hour for the first three hours of your marathon, increasing to 60-90 grams per hour after that. Carbohydrates can be obtained from various sources, including sports nutrition products like carb drinks, energy gels, energy bars, or even real food such as bananas and Jelly Babies.
Finding the right fuelling strategy for you is crucial. During your training, experiment with different options to determine what works best for your body. Take note of how different products or food sources affect your energy levels and digestion. Aim to take your first fuel source within the first 30 minutes of running and continue fuelling every 30 minutes thereafter. Setting alarms or reminders can help ensure you don’t forget to refuel during the marathon.
Preparing for Success: Fuelling Before and After the Race
While fuelling during the marathon is crucial, it’s equally important to properly fuel before and after the race. In the days leading up to the marathon, focus on consuming meals high in carbohydrates to maximise your glycogen stores. Complex carbohydrates like rice, potatoes, and pasta are excellent choices. Avoid spicy, high-fibre, and high-fat foods that may cause digestive issues. Stick to portion sizes you’re accustomed to, as tapering your training reduces your body’s energy needs.
The night before the marathon, have a carbohydrate-rich meal to ensure your glycogen stores are full. This will provide your body with the fuel it needs to sustain you throughout the race. Pesto pasta is a popular pre-race meal option. In the days leading up to the marathon, consider swapping out some of your usual snacks for carbohydrate-rich options like toast or hot cross buns to increase your carb intake without significantly increasing portion sizes.
Hydration is another crucial aspect of marathon preparation. Aim to consume the recommended daily intake of 2 litres of water leading up to the race. If you’ve been training with electrolytes, consider taking them the day before the race as well, but avoid consuming them right before bed to prevent disruptions to your sleep. Adjust your water intake based on factors like outside temperature, sweat rate, and thirst.
Pacing Yourself: The Key to Conserving Energy
Proper pacing plays a significant role in preventing the depletion of energy stores and hitting the wall prematurely. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and adrenaline at the start of the race, but starting at a comfortable pace is crucial. Avoid going out too fast, as this will deplete your glycogen stores quickly, leading to fatigue and a higher likelihood of hitting the wall.
Aim to start the race at a pace that feels easy and sustainable. This will allow you to conserve energy and gradually increase your pace as the race progresses. Avoid the temptation to keep up with faster runners or push beyond your limits early on. Remember, running a marathon is a long-distance endeavour, and pacing yourself is key to maintaining energy levels and avoiding the wall.
Coping Strategies: What to Do If You Hit the Wall
Even with the best training and preparation, hitting the wall can still happen. If you find yourself struggling during the marathon, it’s essential to have coping strategies in place to help you push through and keep running. Here are some tips to navigate the challenging moments:
Shift to an Internal Focus: Researchers have found that runners who successfully complete marathons tend to have associative thoughts, focusing on internal cues such as breathing patterns and running form. If you hit the wall, try shifting your focus internally and engage in positive self-talk to motivate yourself.
Recommit to Your Goal: Hitting the wall can affect both your physical and psychological state. Exercise-induced muscle damage can increase perceived physical strain and decrease perceived power. To combat this, try bargaining with yourself for short distances. Commit to running for another minute or two before considering a walk break. Gradually recommit to running in small increments.
Recalibrate: If all else fails and your body and mind are fighting against you, consider recalibrating your pace and goals. Slow down your pace before resorting to walking. Try implementing a walk/run strategy before giving in to a full walk. By taking incremental steps and giving yourself time to recover, you may find the energy to keep running and cross the finish line.
Remember, hitting the wall is not a reflection of failure. It can happen to even the most experienced runners. Stay positive, focus on your accomplishments, and use the experience as an opportunity to learn and improve for future races.
Mental Resilience: Overcoming the Wall in Your Mind
In addition to physical challenges, marathon running can present mental obstacles. Negative self-talk and doubt can undermine your confidence and make you want to give up. However, developing mental resilience is just as important as physical training. Here are some strategies to overcome mental barriers:
Refocus: When negative thoughts creep in, redirect your mind to positive aspects of the race. Focus on the crowd’s energy, the scenery, or the feeling of putting one foot in front of the other. Listening to music or finding a mantra to repeat can also help shift your mindset and provide a boost of motivation.
Visualise Success: Before the race, practice visualisation exercises that depict hitting a mental wall and successfully overcoming it. Imagine yourself dealing with challenges effectively and pushing through to the finish line. Having a supportive mantra can reinforce positive self-talk and keep you motivated during tough moments.
Remember Your Purpose: Running a marathon is an incredible achievement. Reflect on why you chose to participate, whether it’s for personal growth, a charitable cause, or honouring someone’s memory. Write down your reasons or dedicate a mantra to remind yourself of your purpose. These reminders can provide a powerful emotional boost when you need it most.
It’s important to note that there is a point of no return when it comes to pushing through mental barriers. If you genuinely feel unwell or your body is showing signs of severe depletion, it’s crucial to listen to your body and seek medical assistance if necessary. Your health and well-being should always be a top priority.
Conclusion: Embracing the Marathon Journey
Hitting the wall is a common challenge faced by many marathon runners. However, with proper training, nutrition, pacing, and mental resilience, you can minimise the likelihood of hitting the wall and keep running strong. Remember that each marathon is a unique experience, and even if you do hit the wall, it’s not a reflection of failure. Embrace the journey, learn from each race, and use the experience to grow as a runner. With determination, preparation, and the right strategies, you can conquer the marathon and achieve your goals.