Hitting the wall is a fairly evocative phrase.
It speaks of coming to an absolute dead stop, a solid thunk into an immovable object, and all the physical and emotional turmoil that comes with it.
Marathon runners will typically agree that the phrase is accurate to the feeling.
Hitting the wall in a run is the moment when your body seems to come to a dead stop.
When you’re drained physically and emotionally, and it feels like you’re trying to run through brick.
In this guide, we cover what hitting the wall actually means, and how you can prepare your body for it.
What Does “Hitting the Wall” Mean?
Hitting the wall is a term typically used to describe the feeling when you run out of energy entirely and have nothing left to give.
Marathon runners often use the term to refer to the moment in a run when they feel they can’t go on any longer.
For some, hitting the wall can feel like literally running into a brick wall.
The body is tired and in pain, and energy just disappears. Putting one foot in front of the other becomes a serious effort, and a steady running pace drops to a walk.
Hitting the wall typically occurs around the 18- to 20-mile mark during a marathon. This is when glycogen levels are depleted, and the body begins to run out of energy.
Glycogen is the main energy source of the body, and carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the muscle tissue and liver.
When the glycogen stores run low, the body has to use other, less effective, fuel sources. Energy isn’t being accessed as easily, and the body just can’t keep going in the same way.
Not every marathon runner will hit the wall, but most will have some experience with it. And when you’ve been through it once, you want to do everything you can to avoid the full-body drain again.
Careful training and preparation can help a runner to avoid hitting the wall.
How Can You Avoid Hitting the Wall?
To avoid hitting the wall, it’s all about preparation.
In advance of the marathon, the body needs to be prepared to tackle long distances. Longer runs help to improve the body’s ability to store glycogen in the muscles, giving you access to more energy over longer distances.
When you do run out of glycogen, the body is better prepared to access other energy reserves.
Longer runs will also teach you to recognize the signs that you’re running out of fuel. Experiment with taking nutrition on longer runs, so you can understand how much fuel you need.
In preparation for a marathon, you should try to work up to a run of roughly 20 miles (ca. 32 km). With that long-distance behind you, you’ll be much better prepared for race day.
Nutrition is also an important part of preparation.
For the week before the race, eat as if you were training while cutting downtime spent exercising.
Eat plenty of carbohydrates to replenish your energy stores, but avoid one big carb load the night before your race. It can lead to an upset stomach and poor performance.
- Set an achievable goal. Give yourself something to work towards, so that you can accurately measure your progress.
- Start off slow. Many beginners make the mistake of going as fast as possible, finishing in pain, and quitting the next day. Instead, take it slow, and gradually build up pace. You’ll learn to tune in to your body, and your surroundings, and really enjoy running.
- Focus on form. Everyone recognizes the importance of good form in the gym, but we can’t forget form when running, either. Keeping your arms moving front to back, strike on the ball of your foot, and focus on stride length.
- Set a schedule, and stick to it. If you only run when you feel like it, you may never end up running. Build a schedule around running, until it becomes an integral part of your life.
- But don’t forget your rest days. Rest is so important for your body to be able to heal and recover. Schedule your rest days in the same way you schedule your runs.
- Add some strength training. Good runners understand the importance of keeping the body strong. Strength training can also reduce the risk of injury. Incorporate exercises such as ankle and hip extensions into your routine.
- Eat healthy, and stay hydrated. Your body is a complex machine, and you need the right fuel to keep it going.
- Invest in some good shoes. Your feet will thank you for it.
How to Cope with Hitting the Wall During a Run
Good preparation is the best way to avoid hitting the wall. During the run, replenish fuel regularly with carb drinks and gels. Use these in preparation training, to avoid unwanted stomach issues on the day.
Even with the best preparation, you may still find yourself hitting the wall. If that happens to you, there are a few things you can do to try and get through it.
Start by slowly taking on additional fuel. Take slow sips, to gradually boost your energy.
Find something to focus on, internally or externally. Focus on your breathing, or on maintaining form. Think positively, and distract yourself from thoughts of the wall. Avoid negative thoughts, which will slow you down further.
Slowing your pace might feel necessary, but try and avoid going from a run straight into a walk. Adjust your focus to shorter running periods — run for one more minute, and then another. If you do need to slow, cut down your running pace. You’ll find it harder to start running from a walk.
It isn’t always possible to work through the wall. The lack of energy can cause runners to become disorientated, and push through when it isn’t safe to keep going. If you’re struggling to think clearly, it’s better to step out and try another day.
Hitting the wall can be painful and frustrating, but with good training, you can prepare your body for a marathon.
Schedule longer runs, experiment with nutrition, and think positively.