Runner and Pacer Shailja Sridhar shares her thoughts on how to break the wall during a marathon.
“Hitting the wall” means running out of energy during a race. Another word commonly used for it is “bonking”. It can happen during any endurance event but most commonly used for marathons. Scientific research says that we have only about 1,500/2,000 calories stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver and it is usually over by 30 kms and then we are dependent on other sources of energy. Glycogen is a form of glucose stored in our muscles for energy. As fat metabolism requires more oxygen and takes more energy, we cannot depend on it during a race. It becomes impossible to sustain the pace if one is trying to burn fat as a source of energy. The only option is to ensure that the body is supplied with an adequate amount of simple carbohydrates and sugars to supply energy to the muscles. Proper nutrition prior to the race is necessary and so is carb loading before an endurance event to ensure that we have sufficient glycogen stores available for us during the race.
Experiencing “The Wall”
I had my first encounter with the dreaded Wall in Tokyo Marathon 2017. I started out too fast thanks to being in the sub-elite corral along with some really fast runners. I began to pay for all that initial enthusiasm after 30km. My legs were cramping and my pace became slower and slower. I had to dig deep and really push to finish at the same time as Mumbai Marathon 6 weeks ago, which is pretty bad considering the nicer weather in Tokyo. It was a good lesson for me and made me realize that even after 10 marathons, I had a lot to learn. There are myriad reasons why one hits the wall between 30 and 35 km and one of them is starting out too fast. Also, the glycogen stores are totally depleted by then and if the race nutrition has not been systematic then there is no energy left for the final push.
Here is why runners hit the wall –
Lack of proper nutrition:
We need to consume carbs regularly and from the initial part of the race. It is not right to wait till one feels thirsty or hungry because then it’s already too late. The body needs to be hydrated and supplied with fuel from the beginning so it’s good to try and ensure that you get some sports drink or simple carbs at every aid station. Initially one does not feel like drinking water or consuming anything because it feels unnecessary. One has to remember that waiting till later will not help but hinder the race performance for amateur runners. I am not talking about the professional runners who are used to a very hard training regimen and different conditions. Even the professional runners have their race nutrition planned in advance and always remember to consume sufficient amount of calories to ensure optimum performance. A race is not the right time to worry about sugar intake but work at getting those simple sugars so they hit the bloodstream quickly. Candies, chocolates, juice, dates, sports drinks, bananas, oranges, potatoes… anything which can be eaten easily and digested quickly is good. Gels are popular amongst runners as a quick source of energy but we have to remember to consume water so it can be absorbed by the body.
Running at a fast pace:
Starting out at an unrealistically fast pace which is not sustainable for the entire distance is a common amateur mistake and even the best runners are not immune to it. A consistent pace during a marathon is desirable but not always easy to manage. Enough of us have made that mistake during races thanks to the initial excitement during the event. It is difficult to hold back but we must if we want to manage the entire distance without bonking. I have realized this after so many marathons that we can’t bank time for the latter part by running fast in the beginning. It will almost always have a negative impact on the finish time. It is hard but one has to control the pace during the initial part of the marathon to ensure that we perform well at the latter stage. It helps to do training runs at a progressive speed so one gets used to it. If we start slow and finish fast during the training runs, it helps us train mentally for the race.
Our brain is there to protect us from harm and can trick our body into feeling tired even when we have enough energy to go on. Our brain is a big consumer of glycogen and also needs to be supplied with energy. A sports drink is the savior in this case too. Also, there are various mental strategies runners use to distract themselves during the race and it would be good to practice a few of those during long training runs. Reminding oneself to stay in the present and repeating positive statements is extremely helpful and can help one push through the wall. Positive dialogue, when practiced regularly, becomes a habit and can help us during the race. Mentally breaking down the race in smaller parts and dealing with them separately also helps in managing the distance without feeling overwhelmed.
Hitting the wall is not the end of the race and we can push through it with some simple strategies. Firstly, consume simple sugars regularly during the race to ensure we have enough energy to sustain the pace we want to maintain. Second, maintain a steady pace as starting out too fast will burn up all the glycogen stores very quickly leaving us feeling drained of energy. The third and most important part is to stay positive and have a never give up attitude because it will help us through the ups and downs of the race and keep us motivated.
- Carb load before a race.
- Stay hydrated.
- Stay positive.
- Start slowly during the race.
- Remember to consume enough simple carbs during the run.
- Listen to your body.