Hitting The Wall – A Runner’s Survival Guide

The Wall is the legendary barrier that has been responsible for stopping runners in their tracks since races began.

Hitting the wall can be described in many different ways – a sudden feeling of fatigue, a lack of enthusiasm, an energy drain, the desire to quit.  However you sum it up, The Wall is one of the worst obstacles a runner can face.

And many of us are familiar with how it feels – present company included.   A few miles into your run, you start to feel the creeping fatigue come over you.   Your legs aren’t half as graceful as they were a few miles ago… perhaps they’re starting to tighten up.   And your energy has completely disappeared.

thewallbandw

Whatever is going on, your body has declared ‘No more’.   Your physical being is officially on strike, so all that’s left is your mental strength.   And boy, it’s tough.  Along with the physical pain and feeling of emptiness, negative thoughts can drift into your mind like dark clouds on a sunny day.

On two distinct occasions, I’ve found myself hitting the Wall face-first and having a strong desire to quit the race completely.   My body was so depleted, running felt impossible – I just had to walk onwards, dejected.

Let’s look at what actually happens inside your body when you hit the wall, and then what you can do to minimize your chances of actually encountering the wall:

The Wall = An Empty Glycogen Tank

During exercise, our body gets energy from one of two sources:

  1. Metabolising fat,
  2. Glycogen reserves

Most of our bodies are used to using glycogen reserves as the primary fuel source, especially during intense exercises like running.

TwoSourcesOfEnergy

A typical person will store around 1500 calories worth of glycogen in their bodies, give or take.  With intense exercise – such as running – burning around 700 calories per hour, you can see how this glycogen reserves will be depleted after a couple of hours.

Hitting The Wall - A Runner's Survival Guide 1
Beautiful glycogen…

What happens once this glycogen tank is emptied?   Your body starts to hunt around for more supplies of energy, usually turning to fat.  Unfortunately, if your body isn’t used to metabolizing fat quickly into energy, it’s probably not going to be very efficient at the process.

So suddenly you’re half-way around a race and you run out of energy.

Hello, The Wall.

Mister A Finish Line

Quick Tips For Avoiding The Wall

The are some short-term tips you can implement if you want to avoid hitting the wall

 1. Carb Load Like a Motherf*cker

In the two or three days prior to the event, carb load up on carbohydrate-rich foods.   This maximizes your store of glycogen, so you’ve got more fuel in the tank on race day.

 2. Eat Carbs During Your Run

Eating carbohydrate-loaded food during your run tops up your tank, so you’re replenishing (some) of the energy you’re burning.   The most effective method of doing this is through energy gels.   Many runners eat trail mixes, sweets, bananas, etc – this all depends on what you are capable of stomaching while running

 3. Dial It Back A Bit

Reducing the intensity of your running reduces the amount of glycogen required.   There is an aerobic threshold, below which you use a lot less energy (and therefore glycogen) per unit of distance covered.   ON the other hand, you don’t want to slow down too much.   Just don’t go out like a maniac!

 4. Plug In, Tune Out

Ok, this one is a way to try and ‘ride out’ the wall.   Bring your music player loaded up with some great songs – a good soundtrack might be enough to help you push deeper, or at least tune out, of some of the pain you’re going through.   The same can be said for buddying up with another runner who is suffering like you.

The Wall Mile 20

Long-Term Strategies for Avoiding The Wall

OK so the tips above are quick fixes, but if you’re really looking to minimize your risk of encountering The Wall, the real trick is to train your body

1. Get Used To Long Distances

Who encounters the Wall most often?   Inexperienced runners, attempting a half or full marathon for the first time.  More experienced runners who are under-trained also tend to fall victim to The Wall.   This is simply because their bodies are not used to running long distances, delivering glycogen for sustained periods.

By doing more long runs prior to your running event, you are getting your body used to long, sustained bouts of exercise.   Your glycogen fuel tank will gradually adapt – recognizing the increased demand and expanding to meet this demand.   This way, during your race you’re not shocking the system- you’ve already been building it up to this day for a long time.

 2. Train Your Body to Burn Fat, Not Carbs

Glycogen is the easiest and fastest form of fuel for your body when doing intense exercise, but another one exists – your fat.   The reason most people hit The Wall so spectacularly is that they run out of glycogen and their body isn’t used to burning its fat reserves efficiently enough to make energy on-demand.

But the good news is that you can make this process more efficient and train your body to burn fat, not carbs, if you’re willing to put in the work.  By avoiding carb-loading during your training runs, you are signaling to your body that it has to get used to burning some fat to use as fuel during exercise.

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and good beer. More at his bio.

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