You hear about it, you read about it. Eventually, you probably will experience it. Hitting the runner’s wall is an experience no runner wants, but most feel. To understand hitting the wall first, you need to realize there are ways to avoid it and to combat it.
If the wall is a physical one, there are clear tactics to hopefully never run into that wall. Mental walls are a completely different challenge, but there are also ways to bust through those.
TJ Theis (trail racer, ultra-marathoner) states, “With enough food, determination, and stubbornness, any wall can be smashed through. Don’t get into your own head when it happens.”
Pace: Have a plan, stick to it
It’s race day. You feel fantastic. Energetic music is blasting in the start corrals, and you find yourself swept away by the sheer energy and adrenaline of the people around you. As you hear the bang of the starting gun, everyone starts to move forward. All of the runners around you are moving fast. You get swept up in the excitement and adrenaline and hype of the group.
Next thing you know, you pass the first-mile marker much too quickly. Your brain knows you can’t maintain that pace for the duration of the race, but your heart tells you to keep going.
Does this sound familiar? How do you avoid it the next time you lace up for a race?
The first rule of racing to prevent hitting the wall is to have a solid race plan. You know how you practice, make race day the same. Listen to your body. Start at a pace, you know you can maintain. Focus on you, not everyone around you.
One way to accomplish this is to join a pace group. These runners are often practiced and accomplished pacers. If you know you want to hit a 2:00 half marathon, join a group. Especially if the race’s pace groups are run by local running groups. These pace groups tend to have experienced runners heading up the pack.
Another tactic is to avoid surges. If that same person keeps passing you, then you pass them, then they pass you, let it happen. Sure, if there is a downhill, use the downhill, which may mean speeding up a little.
But for the most part, maintain a solid and steady pace through the race. Consistency is important, and if you do speed up, try to do it later in the race. Negative splitting is a great tactic!
You hear it all the time, “Carb load! Spaghetti feast!” It’s not that simple. Carb loading starts in the days leading up to your race. It is truly in the best interest of the athlete to focus on adding carbohydrates two to three days before the big day.
Runners should take in 70-85% of their food intake from carbohydrates in these days prior. This will set you up for success. It’s like priming the pump! While carbs are important the night before, a giant plate of spaghetti and a side of bread may be too heavy for some athletes. Many runners find it helpful to consume the biggest meal earlier in the day, then eat a carb-heavy but a lighter meal for supper.
Next, how to eat on race morning is the next important thing to consider. Again, a breakfast rich in carbohydrates is important. However, make sure this is something you typically eat on a long run or race morning. Remember: nothing new on race day is about food, shoes, and clothing.
Adequately fueling yourself during the run is just as important as what you eat on race morning. A good rule of thumb is to take in fuel approximately every 45 to 60 minutes of time racing. Also, many athletes find it helpful to eat breakfast two to three hours before race time, have a small “snack” consisting of something small or whatever fuel they will use on the course a few minutes before the start, then start fueling forty-five minutes into the race.
The exception to this is sometimes that people won’t fuel at all for races shorter than ninety minutes. Please note that every person is different.
It is also important to mention that you should avoid eating anything on the racecourse that you have not practiced with. Experimenting with food or beverages on the course could lead to gastrointestinal disaster!
If you wait until you’re thirsty to drink, it’s too late. Hydrating properly is a good way to help prevent the runner’s boink. Your body is a machine that needs water (or your sports drink of choice) to keep going. This is especially crucial in hot and sunny weather.
If you are fueling, take in some type of hydration. You may find you need water more frequently than you need fuel. Practice taking in food and water while running. Add in some Gatorade or other sports drinks. Again, avoid taking anything new on race day.
If you don’t carry your own hydration, read up on what is offered on the racecourse. If it is a product, you are unfamiliar with, purchase some. It is even recommended to go as far as using the same flavor they will be offering on the course if , you can find that information.
Weekly Long Runs
From a physical perspective, staying vigilant to your weekly long runs is an essential component to building a strong aerobic base.
If you need to cut out a run one week due to an exceptionally busy schedule, don’t make it your long run. You need to do these to ensure there are no surprises on race day.
Run Above or Close to Race Day Distance
If you are training for a shorter distance such as a 5 or 10K, consider running further than the distance you plan to race. In preparing to run 3.1, completing runs of five or six miles will have you feeling like three miles is a cakewalk!
On the other hand, most people don’t actually run the entire distance prior to racing 13.1 or 26.2. Most training plans have you run ten miles before a half marathon, but some go as far as twelve. If you investigate marathon training plans, it is common to peak somewhere between twenty and twenty-two miles for a long run.
The closer you get to your race day distance the better you will be prepared mentally.
Practice Mental Discipline
Breaking up your run into segments is a good way to stay focused. For example, look at a half marathon as four 5Ks plus a strong finish. That is not to say that you should race a half marathon like a 5K; rather, just that dividing it up can make it more manageable.
You can also use your training runs for this purpose. This is why coach (or your training plan) has you incorporate tempo runs, fartleks, etc. into your workouts. Tempo runs at a certain pace helps you to hone in on the correct pace at which you should race.
Also, race pace should be challenging. Working through the paces where the magic happens gets you physically and mentally stronger.
Coach Mark Sekelsky of On Your Mark Coaching says, “You don’t train so it doesn’t hurt. You train so you can run faster, but run-in hard is always going to hurt. Visualize the clock with one second over your goal time. How bad is that going to feel? Don’t let that happen.”
Sarah Wiliarty, athlete coached by Coach Sekelsky, says, “I think about the one-second thing. And then at Boston, I knew I would BQ again with less than a five-minute cushion. I BQ’d with exactly the necessary time. Zero seconds to spare. Every second counted.”
There are two excellent ways to refocus yourself if you hit that mental wall during your race. Many athletes find they can recalibrate and refocus. Also, runners often use mantras to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
When you recalibrate you are reassessing where you are at, and changing up your pace and goal. This is one reason many athletes choose to have an A and B goal, or even A, B, and C goals. That isn’t so you can take the deal and just give up when things get hard; however, it is realistic to realize that things happen. If things go awry, you can shift your focus and get back on track.
Mantras assist some people when the wall they have hit is entirely mental. “I am strong,” is an example of a positive mantra that can help keep you moving forward. “Forward motion” is another. Whatever you say, it needs to be positive and result in the desired effect.
Some runners report specific mental tricks that will keep the brain busy. One person stated that counting footfalls helps her keep moving. She counts to two hundred then starts over again. Another runner tries to do complicated algebraic equations in her head. Yet a third runner stated she will count telephone poles or runners wearing pink shirts.
Ingrid Sell-Boccelli: If the problem is mental and physical, you may find you need both a mental and physical break. Sell-Boccelli says she will tell herself to run to the next telephone pole, then take a quick walk break. Then she finds another focal point, runs again, and repeats the process.
Daphne Matalene – Coach: New York Road Runners – “You never have to get anywhere near hitting the wall if you fuel properly; because if you do hit the wall, it’s too late. No amount of mental toughness will make your body miraculously start producing glycogen.”
“If, however, your “wall” is 100% mental, I find the most helpful trick is to break the remainder of the race down into small chunks. If I have checked all of the boxes regarding nutrition, hydration and pace, I can usually count on the last mile of the race taking a little over 7 minutes, or 420 seconds, which is really no time at all!” Realizing this number is different for everyone, the tactic is the same.
Body, Brain & Heart
There’s a quote in the running community, “Run with your legs to be fast, run with your mind to be faster, run with your heart to be unstoppable.”
Those, my friends, are the essential elements to avoiding crashing into the wall. The perfect balance of mind, body, and heart coming together for an epic race.