The Wall

by Karl Gruber
So you’ve paid the registration fee and signed up for your very first marathon? Good for you! 26.2 miles is a long way to run. With proper training – and hopefully staying healthy and injury-free – you should be able to cross that finish line. But as an experienced marathoner, I am going to be totally upfront with you about something you might come up against during your race. Something you might run into head first – speaking figuratively, but it will feel very literal. It’s called “The Wall.” 

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about hitting the wall: “In endurance sports such as cycling and running, hitting the wall or the bonk is a condition of sudden fatigue and loss of energy which is caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles.”

The best analogy is when you are driving and your car runs out of gas. It doesn’t matter how much you cuss at it or even push it, it is just not going to go anywhere unless you put more fuel in it. The same holds true with your body during a marathon. You need more fuel – now! With your body, however, it may or may not get back up and running right away once you hit the wall and then put some more carbohydrate calories – or fuel – in it. 

I am guessing that almost everyone who has run a marathon has at some point in time hit the wall. Because hitting the wall during a marathon is like nothing you have ever experienced before, it is not the most fun subject to discuss – but it’s even less fun to deal with it. Unfortunately, I can relate to hitting the wall all too well, so let’s discuss why something so figurative can be experienced so literally or physically.

When you plan to run 26.2 miles, there are many things you must first take care of.  Number one is proper training. As I have previously discussed, running a high number of miles during your training period is one excellent way to steel your body against hitting the wall, but it’s still not a guarantee. 

The demands on your body during a 26.2 mile race are quantum. Not only must you gauge the right amount of hydration your body needs, but you need to keep your body fueled with the correct number of calories and the right type of nutrition. There are also other variables like weather, running conditions, enough sleep, mental and physical fitness, your pace per mile, and more.
Here’s what happens to cause you to hit the wall. 
Remember, you burn approximately 100 calories per mile of running or 2,620 calories during a marathon. So more than likely, you underestimated the amount of calories your body needed to endure 26.2 miles of running. 

Once you deplete the carbohydrates stored in your muscle fibers, your body then resorts to its back-up fuel storage of carbs in your liver. Once that store of carbs is gone, you are in deep doo-doo. 

Your legs start to feel like wooden pegs, your visual and auditory perceptions can become distorted, and you are reduced to a walk and simply cannot muster enough energy to keep running consistently. Any runner who has hit the wall will tell you this is not fun. The finish line may be only one mile away, but it seems like an eternity until you get to it.

Here’s how to avoid hitting the wall during your marathon. 
First off, chow down on some serious carbohydrate calories a couple days prior to your marathon. This is one time when you can make a pig of yourself and not feel guilty. I usually eat so much I feel like my golden retriever who eats so much at one time he bloats up to where he can hardly move! By doing so a couple days in advance of your race, this gives your body plenty of time to digest, assimilate and store those carbohydrate calories as glycogen into your muscle fibers and also fully store your liver, the reserve fuel tank.

Another key to avoiding the wall is to stay properly hydrated during your run. By having the correct amount of liquid in your system, your blood will flow smoothly and efficiently so that it can deliver more oxygen and carbohydrate calories to your muscles. Think of it as the fuel line that runs from your car’s fuel tank to the engine. Once you become dehydrated, your blood becomes thicker, causes your heart to work harder and slows the delivery of the much-needed fuel to your muscles. It’s a vicious cycle of calorie and liquid deficit that, once it begins, is hard to overcome.   

Practicing proper nutrition and hydration during the weeks of training prior to your marathon are critical. Find out what your body likes, and what amounts of nutrition and hydration seem to work for you. Yes, training is all about running lots and lots of miles, but it’s also about experimenting with nutrition and hydration during that time – not on race day.

Hitting the wall during your marathon does not have to happen. Take the time to get all of the necessary variables right, and here’s hoping you run well and cross that marathon finish line feeling strong.

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