Hitting the Wall
It strikes fear in the heart of veteran marathoners and newbies alike, discussed in hushed terms as though it were some mythological creature. They call it “the wall”.
Originally, the term was used to describe the feeling a runner often gets during the last 10 kilometers of a marathon. When you hit the wall, it feels as though you’ve collided with an invisible roadblock and you simply cannot continue at your previous pace. And take it from me – when you hit the wall, you’ll know it!
Hitting the wall affects runners both mentally and physically. You literally feel like there’s something limiting you from moving. An easy pace now feels unbearable; your legs are like lead, and you’ve got no mental strength left.
Veteran runners often share their wisdom about how to “beat” the wall with newer runners, who can often be heard expressing their fear of the wall. They also express their respect for the few runners who’ve managed to run that perfect wall-free marathon all runners dream about. These stories are one of the ways runners bond within the running community, and they also help runners appreciate the marathon as a pinnacle achievement – completing a 26-mile race.
So why is “the wall” so common in marathons?
Although I’ve hit the wall during shorter races, it’s more common in the marathon because most athletes don’t run the entire marathon distance during their training regime. When running a marathon, people usually hit the wall around the 30-35 kilometer mark. This is because the longest run called for in most training planks is 32 kilometers. Capping training runs at 32 kilometers help to ensure runners – especially the less experienced ones – don’t get mentally and physically worn out during training.
For first-time marathoners, once they hit the 32-kilometer mark during the race, they’re running in uncharted territory. Running a distance you’ve never run before calls for huge psychological and physical willpower. Speaking from experience, the uncharted nature of this stage of your first marathon is simultaneously unbelievably scary and extraordinarily exhilarating.
That’s not to say that veteran marathon runners don’t hit the wall, either. I’ve completed nine marathons, and only one of them has been wall-free. More experienced athletes can hit the wall due to poor hydration, poor nutrition, lack of training, weather conditions or unrealistic pacing during the first section of the race.
A perfect race is more challenging to achieve than non-runners can imagine. The marathon is such a long race that there are lots of moments where things can go wrong, and lots of time to second-guess and mentally convince yourself that you can’t possibly succeed in reaching your goal.
Tips to avoid the wall
- Practice proper nutrition and hydration during training runs. Make sure you race with whatever nutrition products you use in practice. Learn how to properly pace your hydration and nutrition needs during the longer training runs so you won’t have any stomach or dehydration problems on race day.
- Incorporate negative split long runs. To do this, run the second half of your long run faster then the first half.
- Try to do a large portion of your long runs on terrain similar to where the race will be run. For example, if the race is hilly throughout, practice on a route with rolling hills. If the race is flat with a large hill at the end, try finishing some of your long runs by surging up a big hill.
- Once in a while, do your long run on tired legs to mimic the last 20 or 30 kilometers when your legs are already exhausted.
- Incorporate speed and tempo work. I suggest speed intervals of longer durations. For example, do five to ten sets of four to ten minute speed intervals. Want to really get ready for the wall? During the second half of your long run, include two to five sets of five minutes at your ten-kilometer race pace. This will get your legs used to working at a faster pace when they’re tired.
Additional food for thought
Personally, I don’t just battle the wall when I run a marathon. I think of the inner battle that occurs during a marathon as a metaphor for life. There are often times when I feel I lack the ability, or am simply too tired, to overcome daily life challenges. Within the marathon, as within life, you have to reach inside and use your mental energy to will your body to complete the task.
Even when I reach as deep as I can, the task won’t always be achieved as perfectly as I desire. I’m not going to get a marathon personal-best every time I race. What I try to remember is that beating the metaphorical wall doesn’t take place during a single moment in time; it’s about the entire process. If I can’t beat the wall during one marathon, I analyze my training protocols and my race day actions to figure out where I went wrong and how I could have done better. The wall you face during the marathon – as with the hurdles you face in life – is really just a lesson about self-reflection and personal growth.