Almost every runner has hit the wall at least once in their career.  It’s one of those experiences that sticks to you forever, a dreaded memory that you hope never repeats itself in all your life.  Your legs turn to fragile Jello toothpicks and nothing you do can possibly help you gulp the breath you feel you need to sustain life.   It’s a horrible experience you wouldn’t wish on even your worst enemy, but it happens and the best way to overcome it (or even make its onset less likely) is to know what it is in the first place.

Defining the Wall

First of all, the wall (also called a running plateau) is no myth.  It’s totally and completely real, and the result of a struggle for both brains and brawn.  Researchers have narrowed down the causes of hitting the wall to central and peripheral fatigue.  Central fatigue is related to the efforts of your central nervous system (CNS) to maintain a chemical and physiological homeostasis.  The purpose here is to prevent damage to your muscles

Peripheral fatigue, on the other hand, is the brawn part of the equation.  It’s result of a hydrogen ion build up, accumulation of extra cellular potassium, muscle damage, and hypoglycemia.  Hydrogen ion and potassium accumulation are usually the result of 5K and 10K race paces as opposed to marathon running fatigue.  When it comes to hitting the wall in a marathon, this is mostly the result of muscle damage and hypoglycemia.

The energy to power your muscles during physical activity comes from adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is formed from the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates.  Your body prefers to use carbohydrates when its running, and so it burns carbohydrates that are stored as glucose in your body and glycogen in your muscles and liver.  Most runners are only able to store about 2000 to 2200 calories of glycogen in their liver and muscles at any given time, but as it turns out, this is enough to energize about 20 miles of running.

After your body is out of glycogen it’s forced to rely almost entirely on fat metabolism to supply energy.  Fat supplies more energy per gram than carbohydrates, but your body is not very efficient at converting fat to energy.  When runners run out of glycogen they become hypoglycemic, and that’s when you hit the wall.

What The Wall Feels Like

Hitting the wall is pure Hell.  Your brain takes what little glycogen is left and your muscles are forced to fend for themselves.  When your glycogen levels plummet your brain takes a hit as well, and in addition to feeling like you’re hardly moving despite every effort in the world, your brain starts to feel like it’s in a fog.  You become emotional, confused, and seemingly helpless.

For a long time scientists thought peripheral fatigue was the biggest contributor to hitting the wall.  As it turns out, central fatigue is the main culprit.  The Central Nervous System is the part of our brain that helps us pace so we don’t fall to the floor in exhaustion.  When your CNS senses that you are starting to damage your muscles or becoming hypoglycemic, it cuts off signals to your muscles so that you slow down and protect your body.  This causes the wall effect, but it’s also said that the CNS can sense upcoming requirements in your body so when it knows your running a marathon it lets you finish without catastrophic muscle failures.

Avoiding the Wall

The best thing you can do to avoid the wall is to train properly and intelligently manage your race.  If you don’t care about your time you can manage a race without ever hitting the wall.  If you’re interested in running a PR though, you want to hit the wall at mile 26 and no sooner.

Your weekly long run is the best way to avoid hitting the wall.  Progressive long runs train your body, condition your muscles and build up your endurance so you’re more injury resistant.  Training with goal paces helps you become more efficient and learn your body for the big day.

Another important contributor to avoiding the wall is to train yourself mentally.  Diet is also imperative to your training mix and carbohydrate loading is important prior to races.  For more information on diet, check out our Optimum Diet for Runners.

Breaking Through the Wall

You may have heard stories about runners experiencing an out of body Zen like “breaking-through-the-wall” experiences, but a lot of scientists think this isn’t possible.  Instead people suggest you deal with the wall to get through the finish line.

Some people suggest that the best way to get through a runner’s high is to speed up.  This seems counter intuitive at first, but by switching to the muscle fibers you haven’t been using at your pace you activate the fast twitch muscle fibers that still have some glycogen store left over.

Another wall shattering strategy involves tricking your CNS into performing through the last couple miles.  Figure out what psychs you up and use it to your advantage.  Whether it’s imagining a rhino chasing you or anything else, this could be the very thing you need to push through the last mile or so.