“Hitting the Wall” in a Marathon?

Runner collapses just prior to the finish

Marathon runners can train for months to condition themselves for the  big race, yet struggle to finish if they exhaust stores of carbohydrates too quickly, a phenomenon known as “hitting the wall”.

“About 40% of marathon runners hit the wall,” according to a study done by Benjamin Pappoport ,  a student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.  That means the runner has burned up all of the carbohydrates stored in his liver and leg muscles, forcing him to slow down as the body starts to burn fat.

Carbohydrates that a runner eats are converted by the liver and muscles into glycogen for storage.  Glycogen burns to provide energy.  Runners can store glycogen in their bodies for about 18-20 miles of running.  When the glycogen stores run low the body them must burn stored fat for energy.  When this happens, the runner will experience fatigue and has “hit the wall”. Runners train their bodies to burn glycogen and fat early on in the marathon to prevent hitting the wall.  The number one reason a runners “hits the wall” is they ran the beginning to fast.  It is inedible that the runner will start to burn fat.  The smarter you run the beginning part of the race the closer to the finish you’ll be as you hit the wall.

Runner walking and getting encouragement at Mile 25 of the Boston Marathon

When a runner hits the wall they will start to walk and no matter how many times you tell yourself to run you legs will not run.  Imagine your car running out of gas no matter what you do it is not moving until you add more gas.  Your body is the same way when it is out of gas you will have to walk.

Carbohydrate based energy gels are used by runners to try to avoid or reduce the effect of “hitting the wall”.  They provide and easy to digest energy source during the race.  Energy gels usually contain sodium and potassium and some contain caffeine.  They are best if consumed with water.  This will make it easier on your stomach.  Runners usually try the gels during training runs to determine what works best for the individual.  I have known friend that tried a different flavor during a race then they take in during training runs and have gotten sick at their stomachs.  This is why it is very important to try then before the race.

“Hitting the wall” is not fun but you will learn a lesson from the experience and be better prepared when you run the next marathon.  Personally I have experience “hitting the wall” once.  I ran the first 16 miles one minute to fast per mile and by 16 miles I was walking and was very upset that the last 6 months of training came down to walking/ running the last 10 miles.  The next year I ran the first 16 miles one mile per mile slower and finished 42 minutes faster and didn’t have to walk.  When you race a marathon the littlest things will affect the final time.

Next weeks marathon Monday will be about what to expect after the marathon.


One Response

  1. Can’t recall how I came across your blog but you are so right.

    I just posted my first marathon race report and that wall came upon me at mile 18.5. I reviewed the race report and found out I didn’t eat breakfast that day b/c mainly I was trying to get in an extra 2 minutes of sleep.

    I have been bothered by that ever since and now come December and looking at going from 4:29 to 3:40 and I know I can do it. I have trained and I have my hydration/nutrition figured out for this race.

    Thanks for posting this blog. Great stuff.

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