Top Ten Ways to Avoid Hitting the Wall

By Rick Morris

Many athletes believe the marathon wall is like an ominous presence always lurking somewhere in the final six miles of the marathon, just waiting to pounce on some poor unsuspecting marathon runner. There’s no doubt that the fatigue associated with the marathon wall can be like a big bear jumping on your back and making the final miles of your marathon a not so pleasant experience.  Is running into the marathon wall an inevitable experience? Most marathon runners will have an unfortunate encounter with the wall at some point in their running career, but you can take steps to avoid your own confrontation with the dreaded wall. Here are out top ten ways to avoid hitting the wall.

Go Long

This may seem like a no brainer but many marathon runners tend to under train when it comes to their long runs. For some reason it’s become a common practice to only extend the distance of your long run to 20 miles. That leaves a full 10K that you have not prepared your body for. Extend the distance of your long run up to 23 to 24 miles. That leaves you with a very manageable 2 or 3 miles in your race. Some experienced marathon runners will take their long training runs as far as 30 miles. An over distance long run really isn’t necessary for most runners but in my opinion the standard 20 mile distance isn’t enough to prepare you to avoid hitting the wall, so try to extend your long runs to 23 miles or more.

Train Specifically

Make sure you training program is specifically designed to meet your marathon goal. If your goal is to run the entire distance you should perform your long runs in the same way. Performing long runs using walking breaks has become very popular recently. That type of training is fine if your goal is to include walking breaks in your marathon. But if you want to run the entire 26.2 mile distance you should train the same way. If you have a goal finishing pace or time you should also include a lot of goal pace running in your training program. A good way to include goal pace running is to do a portion of your long runs at goal pace.

Speed It Up

Many marathon runners make the mistake of doing all of their training at slow, easy paces. Those long, slow distance runs to a good job of improving your endurance but they do very little for increasing your speed and stamina. Is speed and stamina important for avoiding hitting the wall? Yes, they absolutely are. Speed and stamina training will improve your vVO2 max, tlim at vVO2 max and your lactate turn point. As a result you will be able to run faster with less effort – you will be able to run your marathon pace at a smaller fractional percentage of your lactate turn point and VO2 max. You will run using less energy and will avoid the marathon wall.

Hit the Hills

Hill running will help you avoid hitting the wall. Strong, powerful leg muscles are efficient muscles. They are more elastic and are able to produce power using less effort and energy. One of the best ways to improve your running strength and power is with consistent hill running. Running hills consistently will not only improve your running strength but it will also make you a more energy efficient runner.

Stride Right

The secret to avoiding the marathon wall is running efficiency and economy. You want to use the least amount of energy when you run as possible. That means eliminating any wasted energy or effort. One of the easiest ways to conserve energy is to make sure you aren’t over striding. If you over stride and land heavily on your heel you are “putting on the brakes” with every step you take. That is a huge waste of valuable energy. Make sure you are landing either flat footed or slightly ball of your foot first, directly under your center of gravity. Use very light, quick and fluid strides. That will insure that you aren’t wasting any energy with the dreaded “braking effect” that not only wastes energy but places excessive stress on your knees, hips and muscles.

Don’t Fear the Carbs

Carbohydrates are the “high test” fuel for your body. It is the depletion of this valuable energy source that is one of the primary causes of hitting the marathon wall. Unfortunately, in today’s society, carbohydrates have gotten an undeserved bad reputation. The multi-billion dollar diet industry has tried to portray carbohydrates as a dietary evil that your body doesn’t need. Nothing could be further from the truth. Carbohydrates are the energy source that your body prefers and needs for proper performance. Without a sufficient amount of high quality carbohydrates in your diet you will without doubt run headlong into the marathon wall. So don’t fear the carbs, embrace them and they will help you avoid the marathon wall.

Don’t Forget the Taper

One of the more important ways to avoid hitting the wall, be sure to taper down. Marathon training takes a toll on your body. The weeks of marathon training placed a lot of stress on your muscles and joints. That stress is actually a good thing. It’s what makes you and your muscles stronger. The stress actually breaks down your muscles. During times of recovery your muscles then rebuild to new stronger levels. You want to be sure that you begin your marathon with muscles and connective tissues that are completely recovered and rebuilt to new high levels. Your two week taper is where much of that rebuilding takes pace. If you want to avoid hitting the marathon wall in your race, don’t forget the taper.

Hone Your Management Skills

Marathon training strengthens both your body and your mind. It conditions you physically and mentally for your marathon. But there is one more important skill you need to help you avoid hitting the wall – your race management skill. The marathon is like a game in which the object is to conserve just enough energy to get to the finish line without smashing into the wall. The perfect marathon would actually be one in which you don’t necessarily completely avoid the wall, you just delay it until exactly 26.2 miles. You attempt to do that with race management. Carefully manage your pace, especially during the first 15 to 18 miles when you are feeling very strong. If you run too fast in those early miles you may be emptying your tank to quickly and you will pay a price in those final miles. So use the pacing skill you practiced during training and run a smart, wall free race.

Change It Up

For most marathon runners the best pacing strategy is to run even pacing or even effort in which you maintain roughly the same pace throughout the race. I agree that even pacing is usually the best strategy but there is one major problem with very strict even pacing. When you run at exactly the same pace for the full 26.2 miles you are using the same muscle fibers, in the same way, for thousands of successive contractions. Eventually those muscle fibers are going to suffer from both mechanical fatigue and energy depletion. If you change your pace at various point throughout the race you will engage some additional muscle fibers and delay muscle fatigue. You do want to follow an overall plan of even pacing but throw in some frequent higher speed surges so you distribute the load to some additional muscle fibers. This will help you avoid hitting the wall.

Fuel Up

To avoid hitting the wall you should fuel up. You already know that a sufficient supply of carbohydrates are critical for avoiding the marathon wall. Your liver and muscles can store approximately 2000 calories worth of carbohydrates. You will burn somewhere between 110 and 125 calories per mile, so that is not quite enough to get you to the finish line. Since your body can’t store enough carbs for you to avoid the wall you need to consume additional carbohydrates during your race. Hydrate with sports beverage at every aid station. Take advantage of any food that is available to you on the course. Begin fueling in the early miles.  Don’t wait until the final miles to start eating. Taking in carbohydrates consistently along the course will help you conserve the carbs stores in your liver and muscles and will help you avoid the marathon wall.