Hitting the runner’s wall is a peril for every distance runner, from beginner to elite.
It's something we discuss all the time with our customers and there are all sorts of reasons behind why, how and when it can happen, but importantly the most common reason we come across is the result of people not fuelling properly - often because they dislike the experience of consuming the typical synthetic products available on the market or because they dislike the common side-affects (tummy troubles) these can cause.
So, we spoke with marathon runner and elite duathlete Fiona Carter to help us break this problem down and explain what it is and how to avoid it.
What does it mean to hit the wall?
Hitting the wall means you feel you have reached a dead end and can no longer go on. It’s the sensation of physical and mental fatigue that distance runners can get toward the end of a long race or long run.
Fiona describes it as “your legs just won’t go, no energy at all, even though your heart and lungs feel ok you just can’t get the power out”.
Why do you hit the wall whilst running?
1. Your body is running out of glycogen
Your body’s stores of energy, in the form of glycogen, are limited to approximately two hours at the most. If you start a run 'glycogen depleted', or do not top up your energy levels with a carbohydrate source during the run, then your body slows down dramatically.
Your body runs on two fuel systems; glycogen and/or fat stores (glycogen is made in the Liver from the food you eat). Glucose is by far your body’s preferred source for high intensity exercise - your body can produce glycogen quickly and effectively, burning fat as a fuel for energy is a significantly slower process.
Even though everyone has enough body fat, even the skinniest of runners, to fuel ten marathons without needing carbohydrate, the energy from fat cannot be fully liberated. Run out of glycogen, or glucose, and you hit the wall.
2. You’re fuelling with synthetic energy food
Another reason for hitting the wall is that your body is unable to process and absorb the energy from the fuel you're putting in.
If you are chugging down loads of high energy gels and processed energy bars, your stomach and gut may be unable (and unhappy) to digest it, so even though you are putting fuel into your body, its' energy isn’t being released fast enough to give you what you need. Synthetic energy foods can be hard for your stomach to digest for several reasons:
Let’s start at the mouth...
Energy foods like this often taste terrible and have sticky, gloopy or even dry textures that are hard to swallow when running hard and are certainly not enjoyable to eat.
The first part of digestion happens in your mouth when it starts to water with anticipation at the delicious food coming its way – this anticipation normally occurs when we sense (see and smell) delicious food - our bodies automatically prime themselves for consumption, but synthetic foods aren't delicious, nor do they smell great, nor do we 'eat them' - instead they are often gloopy syrup-like pastes that we squeeze urgently down our necks, largely by-passing our mouths and nose in order to just get them down as quickly and painlessly as possible!
Carter, who despite only running competitively for five years has already clocked up a 3.05 marathon PB and an age group 3rd place in the Manchester Marathon agrees, “personally, I don’t like to chug down synthetic food, I prefer to eat real food before I run. If you are into your nutrition you don’t want to eat those gloopy, gunky flavours. It's the reason I'm so happy with my Veloforte, it's one of the freshest tastes and fuelling experiences I’ve ever had in a bar.”
Heading down to the stomach and gut...
Synthetic energy bars are often very dry (made from large amounts of compressed powders). This allows them to be more cheaply produced and gain a long shelf-life.
Without moisture it is hard for your stomach to digest them, so you need to take in more water, often contributing to bloating and cramps. Your body may even try to divert blood and fluid from your system to your stomach to aid digestion which then has a negative effect on your hard-working leg muscles.
Additionally, many of the artificial sugars used in synthetic energy bars can lead to stomach upsets, bloating, wind or the runners’ trots - all far from ideal mid-way through a race.
Most problematic of all is that there are now numerous studies citing artificial sweeteners as a direct cause of gut damage, disruption of our natural healthy gut biome and exacerbating gut-wall perforation.
However, there is a better way... Natural energy bars, such as Veloforte, avoid these nutritional pitfalls by providing fuel in a format your body wants, recognises and is easily able to process.
The bars taste delicious so you actually look forward to eating them, instead of putting it off as long as possible, helping to make sure you take the right amount of fuel on board.
Containing plenty of fruit also means they are naturally high in fructose – a natural energy source (from fruit) that when combined with glucose allows you to increase the amount of carbs your body can absorb per hour. In addition to that, they are moist (naturally hydrated) so aren't robbing your system of much needed fluids in order to digest them.
Running a marathon requires huge mental strength so anything that provides motivation, such as looking forward to a tasty bite of Veloforte every twenty minutes, can make a real difference. Carter reminds us that timing is everything, “I take on board food and water before I get hungry or before I get thirsty.”
Eating solid food while running can be difficult if you are at the sharp end of a fast-pace race, as Carter often is, “runners tend to want softer and smaller amounts of foods because they need things that are easy to chew or swallow quickly. Breathing and swallowing can be tricky when you're really going for it!
However, off-road running or ultra-marathons can mean there're more opportunities to eat on the go, “In ultra-marathons and trail races the pace is often more varied making it easier to eat along the way, like walking into feed stations, changing your socks or walking up hills. If you're taking any kind of break you have more time to eat solid foods, but remember the amount of food you need is also dependent on your running intensity,”
Quite right, if you are taking it steady you don’t need to consume as many calories per hour.
It's often the case that if you're doing light training runs or focussing on weight-loss (rather than performance) that you may only need nutrition before or afterwards.
Natural Nutrition - another discipline
It is tempting to pin all of your running success on your training and fitness, but no matter how hard you train, your preparation before and on the day can make or break your race.
Nutrition needs to be considered as carefully and consistently as your training is, as Carter puts it “nutrition is the third discipline for me on top of running and cycling. Nutrition and sleep for recovery is very important if you are pushing your body in training.”
How to recognise the early warning signs of hitting the wall
You have a dry mouth, feel weak and fall off the pace
It’s early in the race, but a dry mouth and feeling of weakness means you are showing the first signs of dehydration. Drinking water or an energy drink now will help you to get back on track.
You’re over whelmed by all the miles you have to cover
Running is mental as well as physical, so finding ways to control your mind and manage discomfort are key skills.
Break the run into bite size chunks focusing on one section at a time, use visualisation techniques or recite affirmations to yourself. Remind yourself you have done the work in training, now you are reaping the rewards.
Your hamstrings, quads or calves hurt
As the race goes on your muscles start to complain, its normal, long distance running hurts. At this point you can associate with the pain, focus on it and work with it, seeing it as a sign you are pushing yourself or try to distract yourself from it with external thoughts and visualisation such as how you'll reward yourself when you finish!
You start telling yourself this is impossible
As you start to fatigue, negative thoughts creep in – now is the time to unleash the power of your mind and positive thought.
Visualisation can work wonders, see yourself crossing the finish line feeling strong and in control. Draw strength from the crowd and the other runners around you, they are suffering too, so keep going.
The end is near, but you're exhausted and ready to stop
The closer you get to the line the harder it is to maintain your pace and your focus, this is the time to really dig deep.
It is your mind that needs to be engaged to eke out your last remaining ounces of energy that will propel you to the line. Play games with yourself, break up the remaining distance into manageable chunks, lamp post to lamp post, sign to sign.
Focus on your form rather than how you're feeling. Make sure you stick with your positive affirmations; you can do this, you are doing this, every step taken is bringing you closer to the finish.
7 tips to avoid hitting the wall in a marathon
If you want to run a marathon avoiding the wall starts in training, not on race day.
“Do your weekly long runs”
There is no substitute for longer runs when it comes to training your muscles, your mind and your body to metabolise energy. Practice your visualisation techniques and your nutrition strategy so you can train your body to be efficient at storing and using carbohydrate.
"Run at least one 20-miler”
The 20-miler is a key part of training your body and not one to be missed! Mentally and physically you need this session to prepare yourself. Remember to plan in enough recovery time after so you arrive at the start line fresh and ready.
“Train at marathon goal pace”
You cannot realistically expect to run at marathon pace if you do not train at marathon pace. This is a classic error! Make sure that you run marathon pace sessions at least twice a week to train your body and mind for those sensations.
“Don’t go out too fast”
Pacing is absolutely vital to ensure that you have enough energy to see you through the final stages of the race. It is very easy to start out too fast with all the excitement of event day, make sure you plan your split times meticulously and stick to them.
You may feel fresher and stronger than you did during training but keep your powder dry and save that feeling for the second half when your training will really pay off.
“Take walk-breaks during the marathon”
Walking breaks can actually help you reach your target time, even though slowing down feels counterintuitive. Use them to focus on stretching and relaxing your leg muscles and taking on board natural energy and water.
"Fuel with carbs during your race"
Start taking on fuel in the form of easy to digest, tasty natural energy such as Veloforte bite size from the start of the race to top up your stored carbohydrate.
This will prevent you depleting all of your glycogen stores and running out of fuel early on. Plan and practice your nutrition strategy in training and stick to it on race day, it’s a tried and tested formula that will see you through to the very end.
Your mind is the most powerful muscle you have. Even with hard training, perfect nutrition and strong legs you will not perform to your best unless you can get your brain on board as well.
Use positive visualisation, recite affirmations to yourself and keep focused on your pacing strategy throughout the race. Practice in training how you will cope with pain, fatigue or negative thoughts so you are ready for them if they happen.
While you cannot out think the realities of glycogen depletion or hitting the wall it can help you cope with it and carry on. If you believe you can, you will.