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Runner hitting the wall

Got pre-race nerves? Here’s how to avoid hitting the wall when it matters most

Have you ever seen the film Run Fatboy Run? Simon Pegg runs the London Marathon, and there’s a famous scene where an ominous metaphorical brick wall appears, blocking his way. His friend gasps and whispers, “he’s hit it!” Well, this is a slightly dramatised version of what runners refer to as hitting the wall.

It isn’t just a concept that the director (David Schwimmer!) thought would look cool on camera; there’s real scientific evidence behind it. It’s all about your glycogen – the carbohydrate that’s stored in your liver and muscles for energy. Runners hit the wall when this runs low, making them feel so excessively fatigued that their brain wants to quit.

The running wall often appears in longer races, such as a marathon. Not all runners will hit the wall, but those who do commonly find it happens about 18-20 miles in. With this in mind, it’s understandable that you might be nervous about
running a marathon. Will you hit the wall? What happens if you do? Luckily, there are ways to prevent the likelihood of this happening.

Diet

Seeing as hitting the wall comes down to your glycogen levels, what you eat and drink is very important. However, there isn’t just one quick fix when it comes to hitting the wall. The digestion system is complex, and it requires a lot of care and consideration when you’re doing high intensity exercise. So, what can you do to help? 

Eat well

Most people will struggle to train for a long race if they’re regularly overloading on junk food. But, if you’ve continued to eat a healthy diet, you’ll be less likely to hit the running wall. To run faster and further, you’ll need nutrient-rich food that helps your muscles maintain optimal levels of blood sugar. Think foods that are high in carbs, moderate in protein and low in fat and fibre. It’s especially important to eat the right things one week before the race, so your body is well prepared. Here’s what running champion Mo Farah eats when training.

Try energy drinks and gummy sweets

Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic potion that will instantly stop you from hitting the wall. However, energy drinks and gummy sweets are probably the closest you’ll get. If, during the race, you feel like you’re about to hit the wall then stop for a moment to catch your breath, and sip an energy drink, slowly. The best contain glycogen – which your body is running low on – alongside electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. To prevent hitting the wall entirely, try bringing fuel along with you and eating and drinking along the way.  

Train your gut

While energy drinks and sweets can help, they can also create bigger issues if your stomach isn’t used to them. You might gain a bit of energy, but you could also gain stomach cramps and the need to hit the bathroom – which isn’t ideal during a race. So, if you plan on using them on race day, it’s important to train your gut and use them throughout your training process. Practise taking them while running and see what your stomach can manage before overloading on race day.

Have a good breakfast

While eating the right things in the run up to race day is important, what you eat for breakfast still matters. Most runners avoid eating huge meals before a run, otherwise they may experience bloating, cramps or other gastro issues. However, it is important to fuel yourself well. Paula Radcliffe’s staple is porridge, banana and honey, whereas other runners recommend bagels with peanut butter. When I ran a half marathon, I had scrambled eggs and avocado, which served me well.

Training

When it comes to hitting the wall, it’s not just about what you eat and your training plays a big part in how you can cope with the long distance. When training for a marathon, it’s important to cover long distances before the race and most runners who have already done a 20 mile run prior to their race will find that they’re less likely to hit the wall during the real thing. On top of this, it’s important to keep up your core exercises and strength training, but here are some other tips:

Training programme

While some runners enjoy going with what feels natural, following a training programme is beneficial, especially when you’re training for your first significant race. Training programmes help cover the right distances while allowing your muscles to rest and recover. This means you can perform optimally in the race and know what to expect. We’ve got you covered here, and our free marathon training plan includes schedules, tips, circuits, and inspiration.

Join a running group

While hitting the wall is about your glycogen levels, it always helps to have people motivating you when a run gets tough. Running groups are great, as you develop a sense of teamwork and camaraderie that you don’t when running solo. Running your marathon with other keen runners will spur you on and ensure that you all cross the finish line. That extra level of competition always helps, too. 

Learn how to mentally distract yourself

Training isn’t all about the physical aspects of running. In fact, many runners would argue that mental strength is equally as important as physical strength when it comes to putting the miles in. Seeing as hitting the wall is all about your brain telling you to stop, training will help you learn how to distract yourself during challenging runs and coax yourself out of a negative mindset. Taking in your surroundings helps, as does listening to a good podcast, focusing on how good it’ll feel to cross the finish line and even thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner!

Feeling less nervous about hitting the wall? Sign up for a marathon today.

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Briony is a writer currently living in London. While she spends a lot of time hunched over a desk trying to craft sentences, her other passion is running. She enjoys setting her own goals and is currently training for her second half marathon.

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