Every year hundreds of thousands of runners will have the opportunity to “hit The Wall.” The Wall is defined as that period in a marathon when things transition from being pretty hard to being really, really hard. It is the point where your body and mind are simultaneously tested. It’s the perfect intersection of fatigue and diminished mental faculties. Or as you most likely remember it, it’s the exact point where all your pre-race plans went out the window.
How you handle The Wall can literally make or break your marathon. Read on to learn more about why the wall happens and how you make sure it doesn’t derail your next big race.
How The Wall Works
Much like the Bermuda Triangle, The Wall is a simultaneously mythical yet very real space. You can’t actually put yourself there on purpose, but you’ll arrive there during your marathon. It operates as much on fear as it does the real world challenges that accompany covering 26.2 miles, which means you’ll need to have your A game in place if you are going to surmount it.
Distance Disorientation: Let’s face it. Twenty six point two miles is a really, really long way to go. Doesn’t matter how hard or fast you run it, it’s still 26.2 miles. Most runners never cover the full distance during training; the closest you might come is 21 or 22 miles. In other words, very few runners actually encounter The Wall in training. Seeing something for the first time on race day makes it significantly harder to prepare for and eliminate.
Great Expectations: The Wall feeds off of the games your mind plays during the taper period. As you negotiate your race pacing plans based off of what you plan on running, there are two types of race paces: your Could Pace and your Should Pace. You remember that one long run in week six when you just flew along and everything was perfect — based on that day, plus perfect race day conditions, you “could” run 7:45s on race day.
And then when the gun goes off and fully tapered, that 7:45/mile pace quickly becomes a few 7:25s until things really go badly later on. Every “could” mile split you run brings The Wall that much closer and makes it that much bigger.
Mind Games: As anyone who has run a half marathon race or longer can attest, it’s almost impossible to do simple math at the end of your race. We’ve all tried to figure out what our target finish time will be with 3.1 miles to go while running 8:30 pace…but few actually can. This is because at some point in your day, your body switches priorities from delivering oxygen/nutrients to your brain and directing them to your muscles.
Running is not a complicated mental activity, which means your brain can go on cruise control while your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and heart need more and more resources each mile. In other words, your mind is at it’s weakest just when you hit The Wall and you need it the most! It helps to be mentally prepared for your race, but sometimes you need more.
Turning The Wall Into A Molehill
Now that we know why The Wall happens to us on race day, here are a few strategies you can use to make sure that when (not if) you encounter it, you are ready to leave it in the dust en route to the finish line.
Target Your “Should” Pace
As I mentioned earlier, you have two race pace options: the Could and the Should. The Could pace is what you talk about with your training partners, “Based on that run on the downhill course with a tailwind and assuming the perfect taper, I could run a sub-3:30 marathon!” It’s a fun exercise for sure, but given all of the assumptions and outliers in the equation, more than a few things would have to be perfect in order for it to work out…and we all know that race day is usually anything but perfect.
In contrast to the Could pace is your Should pace. This pace is the average pace of your long runs for the last eight to ten weeks. It is the pace you have demonstrated you can run consistently in your training. If you have been fortunate enough to d0 a 5k or 10k run test, you can use that value to predict a marathon time — ideally you’ll corroborate this with your actual training paces as well.
The marathon has often been described as 20 miles of hope and six miles of reality. We can take the sting out of The Wall by improving how we pace the first five miles of the race. Years of coaching and racing shows that the vast majority of runners over-perform in the first five miles of their day. Excitement, adrenaline, tapered legs, crowded roads…whatever the reason, most runners simply start out too fast. Aside from planning to not have a fast finish, what can you do?
Instead, I recommend that you run the first five miles slower than your goal race pace by about 15 seconds per mile. So if you are hoping to average 8:00/mile, you’ll target 8:15/mile. Since most runners aiming for 8:00/mile will actually run between 7:30 and 7:45 pace for the early miles, anything over 8:00 pace is bonus time and will help ensure you don’t waste critical energy so early in your day before it really matters. You can learn more about building a solid race plan here.
Boost Your Blood Sugar
Remembering the mental aspect of The Wall, it’s important to note that sometimes what seems insurmountable is actually not so bad. We’ve all had a tough race, gutting it out, only to cross the finish line and think that we could have done better. It’s not just post-race bravado speaking, it’s actually the fact that we have stopped running and are re-fueling.
You don’t need to wait until your race is over to seek clarity; should you find yourself bonking or losing a step as you near The Wall, consider reaching for some food. It could be a gel or maybe some jelly beans you’ve saved. It might even have some caffeine, assuming you have trained with it before. Whatever you consider to be your power food, make sure you have some handy as you near the end of your marathon so you are ready.
Use Technique Cues
When the wheels start coming off of your race and the pace starts to drop, it’s easy to be overcome with a general feeling of helplessness. You wanted to run 8:30/mile, but staring at your watch the best you can muster right now is 8:42/mile, and you know that’s not going to cut it. You are already on the gas, so what else can you?
Focusing on what you can control at this stage of the game is a great way to fight the sense of powerlessness. Since your overall pace isn’t in your control as you fatigue, refer instead to some technique cues to improve your running form. If you can regain your form, you’ll be more efficient (and more likely to see an improvement in your splits per mile!). Some good running technique options include high hands, relaxed shoulders, quick feet, forward lean, good posture/chin up, push off with your toes, etc.
A Mission for Your Marathon
Whether or not you believe in a higher power, there’s no doubt that overcoming The Wall sometimes requires more than just fitness, pacing or food. The Wall is often a result of the conversation your Body is having with your Mind. You Body says, “Mind, you’ve had me out here for hours, running hard and feeding me strawberry banana gels and green sports drink. I am really, really hurting right now and want to go lay down on the side of the road because things aren’t going my way.”
It sounds silly now, but truth be told it’s a very convincing argument in the heat of the race. In order to be ready for this challenge, it helps to have a mission or a higher goal that you can call upon to trump what your Body is suggesting. It could be finishing in a certain time or a vision of the finish line or a promise you made to yourself. Whatever it is that has kept you training for weeks and months, now is the time to bring out that secret weapon and use it to keep The Wall down.
Embrace the Challenge
Keep your friends close…and your enemies closer. Every time you hit The Wall is another chance to learn more about it — and yourself. Like a superhero and her nemesis, you and The Wall are once again set for a showdown. What will the nemesis bring this time? A cramp? A heat wave? Overwhelming fatigue? It only has so many options, and eventually you will learn to beat them all just like your teenager can beat that evil boss on level five of their favorite video game. So don’t fear The Wall, know that this is just one of many chances you’ll have to conquer it, and every encounter makes you stronger!
What Do You Do?
While you can’t actually eliminate The Wall from your next big race, these are some of the most effective means of reducing its impact on your overall performance. If you have any additional ways of handling the inevitable race day challenge, please let us know in the comments below.