The Marathon “Wall”: Myth or Reality?

The Marathon “Wall”: Myth or Reality?

Coach Jim bio squareby Coach Jim.

Any of us that have done any long distance running have heard of “hitting the wall” from our teammates and friends. Those that have done marathons have experienced it at some point during the race. The question everyone asks: is it inevitable or something we can control to a degree?

What is the wall? The wall is a time in the marathon where things start to unravel and your effort quotient goes from a 5 effort to a 10 in just a matter of minutes. Where it happens is different for all of us based on a multitude of factors from fitness level to nutrition to how you slept the nights before the race. It becomes a point where the simple task of computing how many miles are left to go in the race becomes difficult and your body is at such a fatigue level you’re not sure you can keep going. It’s actually the perfect storm happening right in front of you and all those goals and plans you made pre-race are swirling out of control. If we can control how we handle this moment it could mean the difference between a successful outcome or derailment.

No matter how fast you run, the wall will almost certainly come at some point in the marathon because, come on, 26.2 miles is a long way to go. So the mind games begin before the race, maybe during your long runs. Very few of us actually experience the wall during training so it becomes an unknown element of the race. We can try to prepare for it but if you’re training for your first marathon, how do you prepare for something you have never experienced? And even if you’re a seasoned marathoner I’ll bet you’ve hit the wall at different times in every marathon you’ve done.

So how can runners properly prepare for something they have never experienced in training? During all those weeks of training we run our long runs at a certain pace, known as our “should” pace for our marathon. However we all remember that one perfect run during all those weeks and know within ourselves we might actually be able to run that pace during the marathon. This is known as our “could” pace. So the mind games begin well before the race is even in sight. We even talk with our fellow athletes about our “could” pace and while we know inside this is a stretch goal, it actually becomes our goal pace and what our mind thinks we should attain to have a successful race.

So how do we combat these mind games both before and during the race? Before the race we need to be honest with ourselves on how we’ve performed in our long runs and equate that to our “should” pace. Having a coach that mentors you through your day-to-day training, gives honest feedback, and helps you develop a winning race strategy can be invaluable. One of my most successful marathons to date is where I followed my coach’s strategy almost to perfection. I still hit the wall during the race around mile 24 but with only two miles left in the race I was able to recover long enough to finish with a PR that still stands today. In other words setting correct goals is as critical to your success as your training.

What can you do during the race to prepare you? Starting smart is one way to push the wall out as far as possible. The marathon is really a 10K with a 20 mile warm up before the actual race begins. If you can run those first five miles of the race in control and not let your adrenalin, tapered legs, the crowd, or your “could” pace take over, you’ll experience much more energy during that last 10K to fight off the wall as long as possible. Focus on what you can control during the race rather than those factors you can’t, such as the weather. When you find yourself losing focus and about to “bonk,” reach for a drink, a gel with caffeine, or whatever power food you have available. This could give you that little boost you need to get you over the feeling of helplessness. Be mentally prepared for the time when your mind is going to tell your body that, “You’ve had me out here for hours so far, I’m tired and just want to stop and lay down!” This is where a mantra comes in handy. Maybe you’re running for a special cause, special person, or just finishing at your “could” pace. Whatever it is, remember that your mind will quit before your body will. It helps to practice in your mind to overcome these feelings during training. Know that at some point in the marathon you’re going to encounter some sort of difficulty or issue you’ll have to contend with. You may not know which difficulty you’ll face, but if you’re mentally prepared, you’ll be in a much better position to handle it and overcome it.

Lastly, don’t fear the wall! Hitting the wall gives us a chance to overcome it, learn from it, and be even better prepared the next time we encounter it. Should we give it the respect it deserves? Absolutely we should, but the more we understand about the wall the more resistant and resilient we’ll be.

While you can never totally eliminate “the wall” from your marathons, the key is to utilize these tactics to cut it down to size and make it something you can overcome.

Is “the wall” myth or reality? That depends on you!

Jim Riga is a USA Certified Triathlon Coach with Experience Triathlon. As leaders in the endurance services industry, Coach Jim and the Experience Triathlon team help athletes of all ages and abilities achieve success in training, racing and life. Learn more about Coach Jim and Experience Triathlon at www.expriencetriathlon.com

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  • Excellent article, Jim! Great insight into the mental game and how critical it really is to success in training, racing and life. Thanks for sharing!!

  • Bill Koss

    A great reminder of the importance of race pace and “staying in the box”! I’ll be concentrating on this as I run the Bay Shore Marathon five days from now and hope to say “What wall?” at the end!