If you learn to fuel appropriately and pace yourself well, you never need to experience this unpleasant sensation.
Doug asks: I hit the wall during my last marathon and it nearly brought me to my knees! How can I avoid it in my next race?
There’s no mistaking the sensation of truly hitting the wall. It is the exact point at which the glycogen stores in your muscles and liver become depleted, and you’ll know that this has happened because you’ll suddenly feel terrible. But hitting the wall doesn’t have to happen. Here are four ways to avoid it.
BUILD A STRONG FOUNDATION
A solid base of running kilometres and fitness will allow you to race longer and stronger. Start from where you are, fitness-wise, and gradually build your training over a period of weeks and months. Make sure to build in enough time to develop a foundation of fitness that will support your race goals.
For newbies, this may mean running all or most of your kilometres at an easy effort and dedicating eight to 12 weeks for a 5K or 10K, 12 to 14 weeks for a half marathon, and 16 to 20 weeks for a full marathon. Seasoned runners can work with the same runway of time and build in a variety of workouts (speedwork, tempo runs, hills, race-simulation runs) in addition to weekly longer runs.
PACE BY EFFORT
The easiest change you can make to avoid hitting the wall is to run by effort rather than pace. When you train and race by your body’s perceived effort, you put yourself in the control room and learn to adjust the speed based on how you feel on the given day. By tuning into your body and breathing, you learn what it feels like to run in the easy, aerobic zone, and what it feels like when you cross over the threshold and are burning more glycogen.
To avoid hitting the wall in a marathon, you want to pace yourself in the easy effort zone early on, progress to a moderate effort zone for the middle miles, and hit the hard effort zone for the finish. In doing so, you conserve your glycogen stores, maintain a positive mindset, and have the energy to push harder than you can imagine in the final kilometres. If there is a headwind for the first half of the race and you run by effort, you will run more slowly, but you will not burn through your glycogen stores. If you run at a target pace against a headwind, this will likely cause you to deplete your energy stores more quickly. Learn more about training by effort here.
If you take the time to learn to run and race by effort, you will always finish strong and never hit the wall.
SIMULATE THE RACE IN TRAINING
If you want to race a marathon, you need to practice race effort in your training and build the fitness to run at this effort. Incorporate race effort into your midweek training runs and long runs with these two workouts.
Race Tempo Workout
- Run 10 minutes at an easy effort.
- Run 20 to 30 minutes at your target race effort. (Focus on an effort that is comfortably hard where you can talk in only a few word responses. Keep track of your pace as an outcome and as you repeat this workout, watch it get faster during the season.)
- Run 10 minutes at an easy effort.
Race Simulation Long Run
- Run the first half of an 13K to 16K run at an easy effort and the second half at a moderate effort. An effective way to run these workouts is to weave them into your shorter cutback long run weeks (13K to 16K) versus your longest runs. It allows you to train in the harder effort zones without needing a significant recovery period. Learn more about race simulation runs here.
It is also wise to train on terrain that’s similar to your race course. If you are running the Chicago Marathon, do many of your long runs on pancake-flat roads. If you’re running the New York City Marathon, train on hills. Your body will adapt to the impact forces and wear patterns and have less risk of muscular issues on race day.
RELATED: 7 Best Treadmill Workouts
TAPER AND FUEL FOR PERFORMANCE
Tapering your kilometres in the days prior to your race allows your muscles to store glycogen for race day. Fueling well before and during your race helps you ensure your energy stores are topped off for race day. During your training season, develop a menu of meals that sit well in your system. Then, practice the timing of your prerace dinner and breakfast so you’re ready to go race weekend.
For on-the-run fueling, a common guideline from sports nutritionists is to consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Experiment on the low end of this range and increase your energy intake as needed. It can also be helpful to keep a log of how you felt during your long training runs and races to gauge whether you’re taking in too little. If you finish strong but tired, you’re likely on the right fueling plan. If you’re crabby or you feel like your energy is low, try increasing your intake by about 10 percent. If, on the other hand, you feel nauseated or bloated, you may need to experiment with a different type of midrun fuel.