Long Distance Running: How to Get Through “the Wall”

Tips for Long Distance Runners and Pushing Through “The Wall”

Long Distance running can be tough once you hit the wall. Learn how to push through!

You have been training for months and now you’re right in the middle of a marathon event… You’re feeling pretty good and have just a few miles left to go. Suddenly, you start to feel your body falling apart. You go from feeling good, to really awful. Your legs feel like concrete blocks, your strides turn into shuffles, and it becomes impossible to maintain a running pace. You are forced to walk but actually want to lay on the side of the road. Negative thoughts flood your mind, making you want to quit immediately.

You may wonder, “What the heck just happened? Why did I start feeling so terrible in just a few short minutes?”

If you’re a long distance or marathon runner, you are bound to experience this overwhelming feeling of “hitting the wall” (also called “bonk”) at some point during training or an event. The reasons endurance athletes “hit the wall” are both physical and psychological. To combat “bonk” or “hitting the wall,” it’s most important to gain knowledge of this condition, how you can prevent it, and how to recover if it occurs. Learning about these can help you from “hitting the wall” and help you get back on track from the setbacks.

What does “hitting the wall” actually mean?

“Hitting the wall” is defined as a period of time during a marathon when your body transitions from being ok and working hard, to not feel good at all and working extremely hard! It is the point where your body and mind are simultaneously tested, which causes you to feel a sudden moment of extreme fatigue that interferes with mental focus. At this moment, all physical and mental abilities are shot…lost… diminished!

When do long distance runners “hit the wall?”

There is no way to know when or if this will happen, but it usually arrives when you least expect it during race day. It is created by several physiological factors, but also operates much on a runners’ fear of covering the whole marathon distance of 26.2 miles. To avoid “hitting the wall” you really have to be prepared and know how to overcome the effects.
No matter how you look at it, 26.2 miles is a great distance to travel on your feet. Many runners never actually run the distance of a full marathon when training for their race, therefore, some may never experience this until it occurs on the event day.

What happens physiologically when “hitting the wall?”

Endurance sports (such as long distance running) require a lot of fuel to carry the body for an extended period of time. If there is not enough fuel, the body gets depleted of glycogen stores in the muscles and the liver, which develops a sudden loss of energy and extreme fatigue.
Loss of glycogen stores can be avoided by:

  1. Ensuring that the levels are initially high enough before training or an event
  2. Fueling during exercise to maintain glucose levels
  3. By reducing the intensity of the exercise

If the glycogen stores are not replenished during exercise, they will be depleted in less than two hours of continuous exercise. Depleted glycogen stores cause debilitating performance and exhaustion to the point where the body has to stop. This depletion simultaneously creates a chemical change in the brain that interrupts all positive mental and cognitive thoughts to reflect negative ones. This can be devastating to any athlete who has spent months training for an event, but was not prepared for this condition to occur.

What are the effects of “hitting the wall?”

The most common effects of “hitting the wall” are:

  1. Extreme exhaustion
  2. Weakness and muscle fatigue
  3. Lack of coordination and shaking
  4. Hypoglycemic reactions such as dizziness and hallucinations (like seeing the beings from Dr. Seuss!)
  5. Drop in dopamine levels (feelings of excitement, motivation, pleasure)
  6. Serotonin levels increase by delivering tryptophan to the brain (a negative effect of fatigue)

How can runners avoid “hitting the wall?”

Now that you know what “hitting the wall” is and its effects, here are several training tips to help avoid and prevent it. Perhaps these approaches can save you during your next long distance event and assist in recovering from the set back if it does occur!

  1. Ensure glycogen stores are high enough by carbohydrate loading
    • Increase complex carb intake a few days prior to the event
  2. Refuel and hydrate during exercise to maintain glucose levels
    • Gel packs, sports drinks, gummy bears – this is a must during the event!
    • *Be mindful that if you haven’t been fueling properly during your run, the damage of glycogen stores is already done. Chugging a big sports drink takes time to covert the carbs into simple sugars for the muscles to use as fuel! Therefore, don’t wait until you are thirsty to replenish!
  3. Reduce the intensity of exercise
    • This lowers the energy derived from glycogen and the amount of energy burned over time
  4. Take a mental time out
    • But not for too long! Think of something other than the task of all the miles you have to go (for example: make a list, count trees, look at the clouds)
  5. Check in with yourself
    • Pay attention to your surroundings and how you feel mentally and physically
  6. Stretch or walk
    • If you feel pain during the event, take a moment to regroup so you can continue on
  7. Recruit a running partner -This can be a psychological booster!
    • During the event your all feeling the same excitement yet pain together. Cheer another on- and they will do the same back to you
  8. Turn to the crowd for support
    • A smile or a thumbs up from a stranger can be all you need to carry you onward
  9. Think positive before, during, and after the event
    • Negative thinking at any time can set you up for failure
  10. Know your body
    • If you have warning signs of thirst, muscular, joints, know when to stop and call it a day
  11. Feeling fatigued from the start
    • Hitting the wall early in an event could mean your not prepared or a serious medical issue could be occurring
  12. Have a good music playlist
    • Music can motivate your body to carry you through a rough spot

Bottom line, if you do suddenly “hit the wall” then you need to stop to refuel. Try to regain physical and mental awareness again before choosing to continue or end your event. Know what it feels like, and then learn from your mistakes to prevent it from happening during your next event!

Being knowledgeable about “hitting the wall” and its effects during training or an event can help you avoid it all together. If you are aware of the common signs and what happens to your body during long periods of exercises, you can possibly prevent it from occurring. Learn from these proven strategies that can help you bounce back from a mid-run meltdown and help you finish your event strong!

Train smart and hard. Best of luck always!

Maria Sollon Scally

Maria Sollon

Maria Sollon Scally MS, CSCS holds a Master’s Degree in Performance Enhancement/Injury Prevention and Kinesiology. She has obtained numerous certifications in various areas of fitness and is a national conference presenter. Maria specializes in Pilates, Performance Coaching, and Corrective Exercise Techniques and Kettlebells. She is the creator of the Plyo Pilates Method and has developed a series of amazing workout DVDs. She is a Master Trainer for Total Gym, Resist-a-Ball, Body Blade, Peak Pilates, Kettle Bell Concepts and is a freelance writer for Fitness accredited magazines, newsletters, and fitness blog sites. Maria demonstrates her knowledge each day and uses her dynamic creativity throughout her specialized line of work. http://www.groovysweat.com http://www.groovysweatstore.com (purchasable workout videos) http://www.youtube.com/groovysweat (workout clips)

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