Even before becoming a runner, you might have heard the term “hitting the wall” and wondered what it was all about. It is a very common expression when it comes to long distance running, especially the marathon.
As runners register for their first marathon, they often wonder what this infamous wall is and what it will feel like.
So, what exactly is the wall?
The main source of energy during a long run is stored up glycogen in your muscles. This is why runners will often “carb load” prior to a long distance race – they are topping off the glycogen levels in their muscles so they have a good source of energy for their race.
It is important to note, however, that our bodies can hold enough glycogen for roughly 18-20 miles during the marathon. After this point, our body will then need to shift its fuel source and now use stored fat as fuel, which is not as efficient as using glycogen.
Once your body runs out of glycogen, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain your pace and to continue with a high level of energy. Runners will resort to walking and even running a half of a mile feels tough – the body feels depleted of all energy.
How can a runner avoid hitting the wall?
One must wonder, then, if there is any hope in avoiding this dreaded wall. Well, there is! Here are a few things that you can do to prevent hitting the wall and to sustain enough energy to run the entire 26.2 miles:
1. Eat and drink on the run.
One of the best ways to maintain your glycogen levels is to consume some kind of carbohydrate during the race. This can be a favorite gel of yours, to a banana, to Fig Newtons. But whatever you decide to eat, make sure you test these foods during a long run to ensure that it settles well with your stomach.
You definitely don’t want to be experimenting with gels and food during race day. One rule of thumb is to eat one gel pack every 40 minutes during a race to keep your glycogen levels adequate.
2. Make sure you are getting all of your long runs in.
The best way to get your body ready for a long race is to practice running long. We all know that life gets busy and we might need to skip a run here or there, but if that is the case, skip one of the short midweek runs and find a way to always get the long run in.
3. Avoid starting the marathon too fast.
As we can all get caught up in the excitement of the start of a marathon, it is key to start at a slower pace and to be aware of how fast you are starting off in that first mile or two.
If you run faster than your typical pace, you will ultimately feel it down the pipeline and you will tire out faster than if you had maintained your typical pace at the start. If you need to error on one side, error on the side of caution and start off slower than what you normally would.
The best piece of advice for a long run is to be prepared for it and to practice those runs and make changes if you feel depleted of energy at the very end. Some of these changes can include slowing down your pace, drinking more water or Gatorade, consuming enough carbohydrates during the run and practice, practice, practice! Good Luck!