How to Avoid “The Wall”
If you’ve ever run a marathon or long-distance race, you’re probably familiar with what is called “hitting the wall.” I’ve run 7 marathons now, so it’s safe to say that I am a “wall veteran”. Back when I was new to this marathon business (and even when I wasn’t), I would hit the wall and hit it hard, sometimes as early as mile 16-17. Ouch! I’d be cruising along, often after going out too fast, and then BAM! Face first into a pit of spiraling despair. People told me to carbo-load the night before a big race, to eat an obscene amount of gels on the course, and to stick with a designated pacer, but you know what? None of that stuff seemed to work, and marathon after marathon I’d run, literally, into my old friend the wall.
But then something changed. This last spring at the Eugene Marathon I ran a 22 minute PR and my very first Boston Qualifying race (HUGE!), but the best part was that I never hit the wall, not even a little bit.
What is the wall?
The wall is a point of sudden fatigue during any long distance event, typically onset by poor pacing or fueling. For marathoners, the wall is usually around mile 20 or 21, and can make the last 6.2 miles feel like a death march. Runners of all abilities risk hitting the wall; no one is immune!
How to avoid hitting the wall
I did some reading and researching and guess what? Like all things running related, different things work for different people. Aside from consistent mention of proper nutrition and smart pacing, there is little out there on strategies to avoid hitting the wall. In light of this, I looked back on my training and on race day to find my most important tools and strategies.
Here is how I avoided the wall in my most recent race:
1. Simulate Marathon Fatigue
For me, this meant running hard workouts one day, followed by long recovery runs the next. This year has brought a lot of firsts. My first training cycle working with a coach (shout-out to Lindsey Hein, you rock!), my first time incorporating track workouts, and my first time running really, really hard and then really, really long the following day. The first time I saw this pop-up on my training schedule, I thought my coach was insane. She wanted me to do what? But on race day as the miles crept up, I continued to feel strong and in control. My legs remembered how to run on empty, and they knew how to carry me to the finish.
To incorporate this strategy into your own training, perform your track workouts (10 x 800, for example) on one day, then on the following day, run a long 10-14 mile recovery run. Ordering your workouts in this way will teach your body how to run on very tired legs, and will simulate the feeling of the end of a marathon. It won’t be easy or pretty, but it will make you tough for race day.
2. Dial-in Fueling
There is a whole host of information out there about proper fueling and hitting the wall. It seems simple enough, take in enough of the right stuff and stay energized to the end, but the science behind why we hit the wall is a little more tricky. This might sound obvious but you absolutely must practice your fueling strategy on your long runs. Nathan has written at length on the variety of fuels out there and the amount needed to fuel a marathon – find a strategy that works for you, then practice, practice, practice.
Here’s the fueling strategy that has best worked for me: Start fueling at mile 3 (the first water stop), then eat every 4-5 miles, alternating food/water at each water stop. Usually late in the race I can’t stomach any more gels or chews, so I just go for the gatorade. (Tip: Most larger races list the electrolyte drink flavor on the race website so you can practice with what will be on the course.)
3. Get Tough, Mentally
The wall (and the marathon for that matter) is a challenge that is equal parts physical and mental; as strong as your legs and as strong as your fueling, they are completely useless if your mental strategy is weak. In previous marathons, I would start to tire around mile 17, then mentally give up around mile 20. “This is too hard, I am running too slow, my goals are out the window anyway” were all common things I would say in my head.
But not this year! This year I got tough. I woke up super early for runs, ran hard workouts in pouring rain, and always believed that I could both complete my scheduled workouts (no matter how hard), and would attain my goals.
To get tough, start with positive thinking. It can be easy to fall into a negative feedback loop during hard parts of a race, so try reframing the situation. Instead of “this is too hard” switch to “this is easier than that one workout”. Instead of “I am running too slow”, switch to “I am faster than someone on the couch”. And instead of “my goals are out the window anyway”, focus on your B or C goal. Mental toughness also comes from believing in yourself. As someone very wise once told me, “always believe in the power of your dreams”, and if that doesn’t work, put up a fight for what you love!
By simulating marathon fatigue, dialing-in my fueling strategy, and getting mentally tough, I successfully avoided the wall in my last marathon. With any luck, I won’t meet the wall again any time soon, but as all endurance runners know, every race is different!
What is your experience with “the wall”?
Have you hit the wall in marathons or other long-distance races? How do you plan for or avoid the wall?