What is 'the wall'?

When training for a marathon, you might encounter some unusual terms. Bupa sports dietitian, Nick Green, helps debunk the mystery of ‘the wall’ and provides some tips for how to overcome it.

‘The wall’ is part physiological, part mental, and it tends to rise up in front of a runner somewhere between the 30 to 42 kilometre marks if running a marathon.

It is a feeling of heaviness in the legs, a shortness of breath, a dryness in the mouth and a slowing of pace. You tend to feel like there’s no way for you to go on, your mind screaming at you to walk, cursing you for taking on this challenge, and crying for it all to be over. For some, it’s impossible to overcome, forcing many marathon participants to pull out before the finish line.

“From a physiological point-of-view ‘the wall’ occurs when the body’s glycogen (fuel) stores are depleted,” Bupa sports dietitian, Nick Green, explains. “Up until this point your body has been using a mixture of glycogen and fat to fuel your run. The feeling of hitting the wall is when you’ve run low on glycogen and are relying predominately on fat for fuel. Adequate consumption of carbohydrates before and during the event is the key to helping prolong your glycogen stores and delaying depletion.”

The good news is, only about 40 percent of runners report experiencing  it and according to Green, a good nutritional race plan can help avoid it.

How do I avoid ‘hitting the wall’?

If you’re a returning marathon runner who has experienced ‘the wall’ in past races, try adjusting your taper, carb loading and race-day fuel strategies. If you’re a newbie, make sure you have these strategies in place!

Tapering means decreasing your training distances and intensity leading up to a race. Most good marathon training plans have these built in. If you’re not following any kind of training plan, try reducing the amount of running you’re doing by about 40 percent two weeks prior to your marathon and 60 percent in the final week.

Carb loading is the eating of additional carbohydrates in the week, and on the day, before a race. This is not about eating pasta every night, or a huge plate of grains every lunch. It’s about adding an extra handful or two of additional carbs to every meal as marathon race day approaches. Green explains:

“The purpose of carbohydrate loading is to help maximise your muscle glycogen (fuel) stores. This is achieved by following a high carbohydrate diet for one to four days before the event, during a period of exercise taper.”

Appropriate tapering and carb loading can get you so far, but alone won’t get you through to the end of a race. Appropriate fuelling during the race is the final piece to the puzzle.

“Think of your glycogen stores as your muscles’ fuel tank,” Green explains. “In the first 60 minutes your body draws that fuel down. Start re-fuelling and re-hydrating 30 to 45 minutes into an event to keep on top of things—help keep that tank just above empty.”

Green discusses more on appropriate race day fuelling here.

Runner climbing a wall

What do I do if I encounter ‘the wall’?

The best laid plans can still derail, so while prevention is the best approach to combating ‘the wall’, if you do find yourself facing it, there are some techniques you can use to defeat it:

  • Get your hands on a sports drink and/or a gel as soon as possible. The additional hit of carbs, sugar, even some caffeine, may get you back on track.
  • Try not to walk. Even if you end up doing the ‘Cliff Young shuffle’, keep those feet running, because if you give yourself permission to walk, you may find it hard to start running again. And worse, if you do manage to get running again, you’ll probably have to fight that overwhelming desire to walk even harder.
  • Focus back on your training runs. What distances did you complete? More than what you’ve got left in this race? Try some positive mental reinforcement, like: ‘I do this distance weekly in my training runs, I can get through this, even at a shuffle if need be!'
  • Draw on the crowd, soak up their support. Use it as a distraction and a motivation. Try cheering them back, thanking them for their support. Even joke around with them a bit. Whatever it takes to get your mind off the pain.
  • Remember why you’re doing this. Focus in on what motivated you to start this whole process. Remind yourself of all the training you’ve done, and all the effort you’ve put in so far while running this race, and tell yourself: ‘Don’t go ruining it all now!’ Visualise yourself at the finish. Draw on that feeling of achievement. How great will it feel when you cross that finish line? Marathon complete!
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