Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Breaking Through the Wall

If you've never experienced it, you've most likely heard about it—the Wall. That invisible barrier that many runners slam into somewhere around the last 10K of a marathon. Sometimes it's referred to as "bonking." Either way, it's no fun. Bonking is not just normal slowing from being tired and it's not having to stop due to leg cramps. Bonking is an overwhelming sense of fatigue and sometimes confusion that can completely defeat even the best of runners.

What causes bonking? Well your body supplies energy to the muscles by metabolizing fats and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are metabolized much easier and quicker than fats, so that's what the body uses first. Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the liver and in the muscles. So what's the problem? Well, the amount of glycogen that the body can store is limited. Actually it can store up to approximately 2000 calories. Guess what? That's enough calories to provide energy for about 20 miles of running. Once this supply is depleted, the body starts to burn fat. Sounds like a good backup plan, but the problem is that the body takes longer to metabolize fat for energy.

What does this mean? Your body begins to slow down because it's running out of fuel. Both your brain and your muscles use glycogen for energy. Your brain is the master control center of the body, so when the glycogen supply starts to run low, the brain gets the remaining glycogen and the legs are left to fend for themselves. Your legs become fatigued and you begin to slow down. When your levels of glycogen plummet even more, your brain starts to become fatigued. Runners often describe this stage like being in a fog. At this point, some runners begin to experience confusion, become very emotional, and some even hallucinate. Hitting the wall or bonking is how your body protects itself. Your body needs glycogen to properly run your brain and muscles. When your glycogen stores get dangerously low, your brain takes over making you slow down to protect itself.

So how do you avoid the wall? Well, it sounds obvious, but a good training plan, race management, and good nutrition can help keep you from hitting that wall. All marathon training plans contain long runs. They're crucial to building endurance. More and more research is showing, however, that not only should runners do their weekly long runs, but they also need to have some at-goal-pace long runs. At some point the body needs to be conditioned to running the longer distances while maintaining the desired goal pace. Also, avoiding getting caught up in the thrill of the race start will also help keep the dreaded wall at bay. In other words, don't start out too fast. Starting out too fast is going to burn up some of that highly prized glycogen you're going to need later in the race to avoid hitting that wall.

Nutrition also plays a key role in avoiding the wall. If you're on a no-carb or low-carb diet you might as well hang up your running shoes. Complex carbohydrates are fuel for the runner. Because your muscles and liver can store only a certain amount of glycogen and because you're constantly using up those reserves in your training, you need to be consuming a steady stream of good, high-quality, complex carbs. Carb-loading the week before a marathon is a common strategy for runners, but runners need to be fueling and refueling the body with carbs long before the last week of training.

What? You've done all of that and you still hit the wall? It happens. If you still hit that wall, there are some things you can try to push you through it. First, if you can muster up the strength, try speeding up. Sounds crazy, but you'll actually use different muscle fibers to speed up. These fibers (or fast-twitch muscles) may still have some energy left to propel you forward while at the same time actually letting the exhausted muscles rest.

Mind over matter, the art of distraction, or putting on your game face can also help you avoid or get through the wall. There are two different approaches you can take—inward or outward. A more experienced or elite runner may take the inward approach—focusing on the needs of his body, taking note of how his body is feeling, monitoring his stride, pace, hydration needs, etc. A less experienced runner may take the outward approach by diverting his attention to something other than his body such as mile markers, water stations, other runners, landmarks, etc. (Personally, counting mile markers has the opposite effect on me. Marking a runner to catch up to works better for me.) The outward approach could also involve the runner using imagery—imagining he's chilling on a beautiful beach—to help him disassociate from the race and the fatigue. Putting on a game face is another outward strategy that's good to use in the last miles of the race. Getting mad or angry and determined to catch that runner ahead of you or to cross that finish line ahead can help you override your central nervous system trying to shut you down. May only last a little while, but it could help you gain a mile or so. It's best to keep the outward approach for later in the race. If you're not aware of your pace or your body's needs earlier in the race, you could find yourself hitting that wall even earlier than expected.

Another strategy to help avoid hitting the wall is to consume carbohydrates while running. This can be done by drinking sports drinks like Gatorade and/or eating carbohydrate gels, jelly beans, or shots such as GU, Power Gel, Accel Gel, Jelly Belly's Sports Beans , GU Chomps, etc. The trick in using these products is ingesting them before you begin to feel fatigued. It takes some time for the carbs to get into your system. You need to be supplying the carbs ahead of the onset of fatigue so when your glycogen stores run low, there's more on the way to replace them. Golden rule of running...never try something during a race that you've never tried in training. So, find out ahead of time which sports drink and sports gel will be provided along the course. If it's not the brand you're using, you'll need to pack your own.

The best depiction of hitting the wall I've seen is in the hilarious movie Run Fat Boy Run. With only three weeks to train, Dennis, the main character, decides to run a marathon to prove to his former fiancé that he can follow-through with something in hopes of winning her back. I won't spoil the scene; you'll have to rent the DVD to see what happens. It's humbling, humorous, and right on the money in its depiction.

30 comments:

Gina Harris said...

Thanks for your great, informational posts. I enjoy them AND learn from them. I'm definitely going to try the Greek yogurt.

Gina

RunnerDude said...

Hey Gina! Thanks for the feedback! I think you'll really enjoy the Greek yogurt!

NoMeatAthlete said...

In my experience, your advice of consuming carbohydrates during your run is very helpful. Since I've starting eating gels continuously througout my marathons, starting about 15 minutes before and taking small 'sips' every 2 miles or so, the walls I've hit have been far smaller and easier to break through!

RunnerDude said...

Hey NoMeatAthlete! That's great news! I myself need to be better about not waiting too long before using them.

Jeff P said...

Your posts are all great but this one takes the cake. As my training progresses and my long runs get longer I am already experiencing some fatigue and play a few mind games, some not so succesfully. Eating ahead of time and drinking Powerade instead of water should help also.
Great post and timely for me considering a failed attempt earlier this week.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Jeff! Glad the post may help ya! Remember that wasn't a "failed attempt" earlier this week...it was a "learning experience." (Okay, you can punch me. LOL!)No really, like you said yourself, learn from it and move on. Sounds like the time of day, unsual heat, and hydration are what bonked ya.

ShutUpandRun said...

Thanks so much for this great info! I find it so important to fuel correctly, but have to be careful about my stomach issues. Any advice on how to do that? Just smaller amounts at a time?

runnerinsight said...

Thank you for this post! Your posts are very informative thus they are able to help us in any way. Keep then comin! : )

Patrick said...

This post could NOT have been any more timely!!!

I am running a half marathon this Sunday-- and sooo needed this advice.

I went for my last long run before the race last night-- 10 miles. I slammed right into the dreaded wall. In hindsight and after reading your post-- my two biggest problems were not hydrating enough before -- and not eating enough complex carbs.

Question: I'm now about 4 days away from the race-- what should I be eating the days leading up-- should I start to carbo-load now?

acey said...

Run Fat Boy Run is one of THE funniest movies I've ever seen. surprisingly inspirational at the end :)

i've tried the speeding up thing, it really does work!

RunnerDude said...

Hey ShutUpandRun!(love that username. LOL!) I deal with stomach issues too. It's kind of trial and error because what may work for one doesn't work for another. My biggest problem is with sports drinks. The sugar doesn't do well with me. I've found that Accelerade does better. It has protein mixed in and I think less sugar. Recently tried Powerade Zero. Has no carbs but it does have the electrolytes and salt. It worked great. Also didn't give me that dry mouth feeling that some sports drinks do. Only thing with Zero is that since it has no carbs I'd definitley have to take the sports gells to get in my carbs. I've read where if you use the gels you should drink water because you'll get an overload of carbs if you drink theh sports drinks too. Many of the gels now include the sodium. This might be something you play with. Hope this helps!

RunnerDude said...

Thanks runnerinsight! Your support is very motivating! Thanks!

RunnerDude said...

Hey Patrick! I wouldn't increase the quantity of the food your eating, but you may want to swap out some of what your eating for extra complex carbs. Like maybe skip the salad and have some more whole-grain pasta.(I love Mueller's Whole Grain pasta.)Try snacking on fruits, vegetables, nuts, or seeds; they're all good sources of complex carbs. Beans are good too. Could have some chili with ground turkey. The pinto or kindney beans will provide the carbs and the lean turkey will provide recovery aiding protein. Might not have that the nigth before the race LOL! But maybe a few day prior, or take some Beno. LOL! Hope this helps!

RunnerDude said...

Hey Acey! You are right on the money about Run Fat Boy Run. My 17-year old son rented it for me thinking I'd like it since it was about running. We had the best time watching it. Funny, funny, funny, and so true both in the running aspects and the life aspects.
I've done the speed up thing too and it does really help, just need to be atuned to your body and use it before you get too depleated. Helped me through the last 4 miles in Baltimore a few years ago.

Jessica Lane said...

Thanks for posting that. I have not ran my first marathon yet but the nutritional information is something I can apply at any distance. I want to see Run Fat Boy Run! It looks really funny. Oh British humor.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Jessica! Yep, the nutrition info can be used anytime. That's what I'm hoping lots of readers are doing...picking and choosing what applies to them. That's what I do from all the great if ya'll share with me. All of us runners sharing tips and strategies is good stuff!
Yep, you gotta see that movie. The fiance is played by the actress from ER that married Dr.Carter on the show. The Fiance's new boyfriend is played by Hank Azaria.

Michele said...

Hey Runnerdude! I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy your blog. I’ve been following you for a couple of days now. Thanks for all the great tips. I’m training for my first marathon and all of your information is greatly appreciated. PS: I tried the Greek Yogurt with some fresh berries last night and it was fantastic. Thanks again.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Michele! Thanks for the feedback! And thanks for reading the blog. Glad you're getting some useful stuff! Your first marathon. That's awesome! Which one are you running?

Anonymous said...

If you've never "hit the wall" in 6 marathons (at a pace between 10 to 11 mins per mile) does that mean you are not trying hard enough and could go faster?

RunnerDude said...

Hey Anonymous! Good question. And a tricky one. All depends on your goals. If you're happy with your marathon time. I don't think you should change anything. But if you're pondering if you could decrease your race time some, I'm thinking you could. My reasoning is, if you have never hit the Wall or never even have come close to hitting the wall, that means you've never severely depleted your glycogen reserve. If that's the case, seems like you'd have the ability to act on those reserves and kick it up a notch. May be worth experimenting in a race sometime. Maybe(if you're feeling good)try increasing your pace during the last 10K or 5K of the race and see if you reduce your time. I'm thinking you've got some steam left you could act on. Keep me posted if you try it out!

Mark said...

Great article!

Having run eleven marathons my best was the one in which I ingested the most calories - by far. With tremendous support from friends I took-in TEN Crank EGels, i.e. about one every 3 miles, amounting to ~1500 calories. While at first glance this seems excessive I had absolutely no gastro issues. Fully agreed though that fueling strategies should be verified in long - ideally at MP runs - to avoid experimentation during a Marathon!

Marathon Maritza said...

GREAT read! Especially 11 days before my marathon! Thanks for all the info.

Also, that ad for Gatorade is a little....LOL I don't know. I'll get my mind out of the gutter now.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Marathon Maritza! Glad the post was timely for ya! Oh yeah, the Gatorade pics been replaced. ;)

RunnerDude said...

Hey Mark! That's great the gels worked for you! did you carry them all or did you have family stationed along the course to hand them to you? I found a cool little belt that holds your race bib in front and all along the back are little bands that hold your gell in place. I've used it several times and works really well. Think I bought it at one of the marathon expos

TokyoRacer said...

I really like that advice also. I start taking gels at 6 miles and take 3 or 4 and...my legs totally give out at about 21 miles. Taking MORE gels MORE often sounds like a very good idea.
Got to get one of those belts.

RunnerDude said...

Hey TokyoRacer! Yep trying more gels might do the trick, but do like Mark suggested and test it out on one of your long runs to make sure the extra gels don't upset the ole tummy. Here's the link to that race belt I was talking about. It hold the race bib and has loops for 10 gels. http://www.greatracenutrition.com/Fuel-Belt-Gel-Ready-Race-Number-Belt-p/fb_racegelrdybk.htm

Tony said...

I hit the wall bad in my last two marathons. Thank you for this post a lot of great stuff.

RunnerDude said...

Sure thing Tony! Glad it was helpful. What's your next marathon?

Tanya said...

I've noticed a definite improvement in my ability to finish a long run since I started using Clif Shot Bloks and Cytomax during my run and starting early on. It's made a world of difference for me! Thanks for your great blog. You've become one of my favorites to visit on a regular basis!

RunnerDude said...

Hey Tanya! I've gotta try the Cliff Shot Bloks. I keep hearing they're pretty good. Thanks for the feedback and support!