The Wall

In endurance sports, particularly marathon running there is a lot of talk about The Wall. Athlete's talk about it, non-athlete's talk about it and the media just love it. After all, how impressive does it sound to tell the story of when someone hit the wall hard and suffered severely in a race. Stories of suffering seem to be lapped up by the masses. Maybe take it over to the positive side and talk about the time you broke through The Wall to triumph in your event. It can be good drama.

I won't get into all the different possible causes of The Wall, instead I'll define it as
The point where not only continuing at the same pace suddenly becomes extremely
hard, but the ability to continue at all seems almost impossible.

Dramatic? Of course, but that's the beauty of sport. The simplified reasoning behind hitting the Wall is that it is the point at which the body uses up its accessible stores of glycogen resulting in being unable to meet a good portion of its energy demands to sustain exercise. The are a number of other factors which may include hypoglycaemia, neurological fatigue, mechanical fatigue in the muscles and many others, but all that is not my point. Instead I am really interested in the concept of breaking through the wall.

The prompt for this topic was my long run yesterday. The original plan was to head out over the hills at a moderately low heart rate for 3 hours 15 min. The weather had decided the change this plan by heating things up to 36-38 degrees Celsius. That put a strain on my temperature regulation and as a result, doing anything above walking put my heart rate well above its intended range. So I went by pace, ignored heart rate and reduced the time down to 2 hours 40min (I love being able to cut a run by over half an hour and still call it long).

Now I can typically run for about three hours at below 75% HRmax and not have to take in any carbohydrate. Today was not one of those days. With all the increased stresses, I was burning through my carbohydrate quickly, and at about 1:50 in, I Hit the Wall. It was dramatic, all strength, power and movement suddenly vanished from my legs. I felt nauseous, my head hurt, and I simply wanted lie down and go to sleep. Continuing on wasn't even a hard option, my mind was simply not responding with any opinion at all on the subject.

So I had to break through. With nearly an hour still left of running, I had to smash this wall. This is where I disagree with the whole concept of breaking through the wall. It just doesn't happen like that. Instead I think it more appropriate to think that we really just keep pushing the wall back a little bit at a time. Now this does take a lot of effort, but if we start feeling good again, it doesn't mean we are now home free.

So what did I do? I consumed a carbohydrate gel and slowed down for the next ten minutes. I made sure I had a reasonable intake in fluids, plus I did all I could to get my core temperature down, which involved staying in the shade and pouring a few litres of cold water over myself. This worked and I was soon able to bring my pace back up, albeit with an even higher heart rate. For the rest of the run I had to keep my carbohydrate intake up, I required a couple of stops at taps to try to cool down. The last part was simply one tough grind. I definitely didn't feel like I had broken through anything.


  1. My experience with training 'walls' is that they're fairly soft (compared to the wall in a marathon race). Usually I get a fairly sudden jump in HR and an overall feeling of tiredness.

  2. Have only had the wall you desribe once - was me (then) longest training run of 26k, and occurred at 23k, just over 2hrs. UNlike yourself, didn't manage to push it back or crash through. walked the rest home and lay down. tried to stand up and fell etc. managed to hold down a gatorade despite feeling sick and then craved a beer of all things, which was great!. Have had that feeling of total depletion after other runs, which is fine of course.


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