Hitting a Wall Marathon

Hitting the Wall Whilst Running a Marathon

Bonking for Marathon Runners!

Training for and running a marathon is tough! One of the most talked about experiences that most marathon runners can relate to is the feeling of ‘hitting the wall’ or ‘bonking’ as it is called in America.  It is that point, usually between 18 and 20 miles where you are hit with an overriding sense of fatigue and your legs feel like they have been set in concrete.  It takes everything you have to keep going and fight the overwhelming urge to quit.

Paul Radcliffe Marathon Runner
Christian Petersen-Clausen, Paula Radcliffe in Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0

When Chris Evans interviewed Paula Radcliffe on his podcast ‘How to Wow’, she advised him to prepare himself psychologically to hit the wall 3 times during his first ever marathon and this was good advice as if you are prepared for something then it doesn’t come as such a shock.

How do you avoid hitting the wall when running?

There are several things that you can do reduce likelihood or severity of ‘hitting the wall’ and also strategies that you can put in place for if and when you reach this point.  Ultimately, this marathon phenomenon relates to the point in your run when glycogen stores are depleted. Carbohydrates, which are your body’s first choice for aerobic energy are stored as glycogen in your muscles and liver.  When this runs low, a negative cycle of fatigue and negative thinking can take over.  At this point, the body has to change energy systems and access fat stores for energy.  It is therefore paramount to practice running distances over 18 miles in training to train the body to utilise the fat metabolic pathway more efficiently.

Don’t wait, it could be too late!

Refuelling on the go during any run over 60-75 minutes will help to stabilise energy and prevent you running out of steam.  Think about replenishing carbohydrates at regular intervals from the beginning of a run, maybe every 10-15 minutes when your body can digest and process carbohydrates more efficiently.  Waiting until you are already exhausted before taking on extra carbohydrates it will likely be too late.  Hitting the wall can be physically and mentally really tough on the body and mind.  This also applies to water as staying hydrated and drinking to thirst are equally important.

How to refuel on the day and during the race

Energy gels are a popular choice for energy on the go but there are lots of options available to you including real food, sports drinks and energy bars.  The most important thing is practicing your fuel strategy in training to see what works best for you. Do not try anything new on race day.  You need to work out what products work for you, when you are going to take them and how you are going to carry them all on day.  Lots to think about!

As many marathoners know sometimes even if you hydrate and refuel correctly things don’t always go to plan and you can still run out of energy on the day.  Mentally it is useful to prepare psychologically before-hand by imagining yourself reaching this point and visualise yourself getting through it by identifying strategies that will help you.  Maybe just remember the reason why you are running, perhaps to raise charity money or to prove someone wrong.  Sometimes going inside yourself helps, positive self-talk or singing your favourite song or dedicating each mile to someone you love.  Jenni Falconer from her podcast RunPod famously admits to counting every step her right foot takes to get her through tough spots.

Equally you may look externally to support from crowd or other runners.  Maybe at this point you need to take on an extra gel or sip a sports drink to get extra carbohydrates into your system, although not too much all at once! It is okay to slow your pace down if you need to or even to walk or stop if that is what your body is saying.

In summary, whatever happens on the day, you’ve got this. Learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable! Marathons are not supposed to be easy right?

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