If you are new to marathoning or have been running them for years, you probably hear a good bit of talk about the marathon “wall” and what it means to hit it. I could make an assumption that even the most prepared and experienced runners have hit the wall at some point in their marathon running career. And if you aren’t quite sure what it means, it really is more than just a state of fatigue, it’s an actual physiological thing. Fortunately, the more you train and the more prepared you are to cover the 26.2 distance, the more likely you are to NOT let the wall take you down.
In a nutshell, without getting too technical, the wall refers to the point when your body runs out of glycogen. The body stores glucose to produce energy, about 2000 calories worth. A runner burns calories at an approximate rate of 100 per mile. So, by mile 20, runners will have burned about 2000 calories. See the problem here? Glycogen depletes which cause a number of symptoms. Symptoms can include, but aren’t limited to heavy legs, cramps, cold sweats, and even a lack of concentration. Well now that sucks right? Scientifically we can’t get around the wall. Or can we? The good news is, with proper training we can teach our bodies to use our energy more efficiently. Pair that with a good re-fueling plan and you should be able to be successful.
Obviously, I can be successful because I’ve done it. I’ve finished 8 marathons to date. But I can also say in the same breath, that I’ve hit a wall in each and every one of them. Where that wall was placed during the race and more importantly what KIND of wall it was mattered. I believe there is a non-physiological wall that can occur as well. And in my opinion, it’s way more debilitating than the physical one. It’s the Mental wall. The mental wall is the more dangerous of the two because once the mind gives up, the body is more than willing to stop.
Last year during the Columbus marathon, I made a huge mistake. I focused on one single goal, qualifying for Boston. I knew where I needed to be at the half way point, and at mile 20. Mile 13 came and went right on pace, I felt great, but when I saw that I was 3 minutes off by the time I hit 20, I was mentally devastated and couldn’t see past the failure that I already thought had occurred. THE MENTAL WALL. In hindsight, I probably could have PRd that marathon, but instead, I came across the line at a 4:02. My mind gave up and the body gladly followed. I walked, cried, ran, walked, cried, ran all the way from mile 21 to the finish line and was so incredibly disappointed in myself. I still occasionally get mad at myself for being so mentally weak and pathetic that day. It was a good lesson on how I didn’t’ want to feel ever again.
Two weeks ago, I experience a completely different kind of wall. I had a couple of bad miles (18-20) but I didn’t let them rattle me. I had four goals for the race that day (not just one) and I was determined to hit one of them. I pushed though and stayed mentally tough and the body was responding, up until mile 25. At mile 25, the body started to shut down. I was still mentally pushing and willing my legs to turn over faster, but they just wouldn’t respond. Aside from a few other environmental factors, my body was just running out of fuel. THE PHYSICAL WALL. I felt like I was running in quick sand – moving, moving but going no where.
But here’s the difference between these two walls. I wasn’t disappointed with myself at Indiana. I was mentally tough and pushed as hard as I could. My body didn’t respond exactly the way I wanted, but at least I didn’t give up and give in. How can I be upset with myself about that?
Avoiding the mental wall:
- Make multiple goals and memorize them so when you know you won’t hit one, you have others to fall back on and strive for.
- Stay mentally tough during workouts. When runs got tough in training I reminded myself that this is nothing compared to how hard miles 20-26 are. Stay strong – push hard. Your body will always want to stop – but if your mind is tough, the body will follow. (to the best of it’a ability anyway)
- Visualization. I used this so much during this short training cycle. I envisioned myself running strong in the last 10K during training runs. I also used this during my marathon. The Indiana marathon trail seemed to go on forever and all looked the same to me. It was difficult for some reason to envision the finish. So instead, I thought about the end of the Pittsburgh Marathon and where mile 23 is in relationship to the finish. It made it easier to cope with the “never-ending tunnel”. So, visualize a familiar route to get you through tough spots and relax you.
Avoiding the physical wall
- Follow through with all your long runs to get time on the feet and get your body efficient at using it’s fuel in the best way possible.
- Practice a good re-fueling strategy. I may change mine slightly since I’ve had repeated problems during those two last miles. Right now I re-fuel at 5,10,15, and 20. I’ve heard recently from more than one source that a lot of runners re-fuel at 5,10,15,18 and 23, which may actually may work better for me. And, it kind of makes sense if you’re running the last 10K at a relatively faster pace than the rest of the marathon.
- Avoid over-training. Over training is really a post in itself. When I went to the start line last year before Columbus, I was physically tired before I started running. I never really recovered from training during my taper and felt a little beat down. I think the fatigue played a huge part in my mental break down as well.
- Sleep good the entire week before the marathon. It’s not wise to just try to get to bed early the night before your race. Most people are too wound up to sleep well. But I feel like if I have some solid sleep the entire week before, I can afford one restless night and still be well rested.
There are probably so many little things I can think of to help avoid these two possible walls. They key for me is learning from each race and recognizing the reasons why things went south and try to correct them for the next race. I’ll be registering for my next marathon soon and will take all this knowledge with me into the next training cycle.
If you have a great experience to talk about or some helpful tips, please share them. Have a great week.