Hitting THE WALL: Part 2

Quiz time! Before you dive into this post, I want to make sure you have a grasp on the topic. (If you haven't yet read Part 1, now's the time!) See if you have what it takes to pass my quiz by answering the question below:

What was Hitting the Wall: Part 1 about?

A) How much running a marathon sucks

B) What it feels like to hit the Wall during a competition

C) What the Wall is, physiologically

D) Game of Thrones is a cultural touchstone with fantastic production quality and a plot that just won't quit

E) All of the above

If you picked E) All of the above, congratulations! You're ready for Part 2 of my series on hitting the Wall, where I shut up about how much I hated the one marathon I ever ran and actually give some concrete advice about how to avoid bonking altogether. Using "the Wall" of ice in HBO's Game of Thrones as my pop-culture metaphor for running out of glucose/glycogen during an aerobic endurance event, let's talk about how we can bust through it. (Although, if we're being true to GOT, we probably wouldn't want to break through the Wall, as it guards against the army of undead White Walkers. But that's another post for another day.)

IS THE WALL THE SAME AS THE LACTATE THRESHOLD?

A quick recap: one time I ran a marathon in Portland, OR, in the pouring rain, and around mile 18 I wanted to cry/die/cry some more/die again. Looking back, I now know that the pain and depression I was experiencing is referred to as "hitting the wall," which occurs when your body runs out of carbohydrate fuel, causing an abrupt and unhappy decrease in performance.

So now that we know more about what “the wall” is from Part 1, we should talk a bit about what it is not.



"The wall" should not be confused with the lactate threshold (LT). They are both physiological states that are measured in relation to a change in performance, but they measure different chemicals. While “the wall” refers to the point at which, during exercise, the body runs out of glycogen, the LT refers to the point at which the body can no longer clear lactate from the blood at the same rate it produces lactate. Athletes do not “bonk” because they hit the LT—they bonk because they ran out of carbs. And so, “hitting the wall” deals with the physiological and psychological symptoms of running out of glycogen fuel during long-duration exercise. The LT, on the other hand, refers to a relative exercise intensity—it’s the highest intensity you can exercise at before accumulating lactate in the blood, which causes a rise in pH (acidity) and that hot, burning sensation you feel in your quads during a tempo training run.

Your lactate threshold usually occurs at a pace just slightly higher than race pace—and can be a useful measure of your anaerobic fitness, which can, in turn, affect how your body performs on race day. As you train for your distance sport, your LT should improve, essentially lowering the energy cost of maintaining a given pace. And if you can lower the energy cost of that pace, you can maintain it for longer before hitting the wall.

But this begs the question: can you train to avoid the damn wall altogether?

HOW CAN I AVOID THE WALL?

Most marathoners who hit the Wall do so at around mile 20 (I hit mine around mile 18) and there’s a reason for this. The body can only store about 2,000 calories of glycogen in your liver and muscles at any given time—and since most athletes burn about 100 calories per mile of running, that makes mile 20 the magic “bonk” spot.

So if the carbohydrate math is working against you, can you really avoid hitting the wall altogether?

The simple answer is yes, you CAN train and prepare to avoid it. Here are 5 tips to help you survive the Wall.

1. Train Properly.

Training for aerobic distance sports should include a mix of protocols: long, steady-pace work to improve your aerobic capacity; medium-length work at near-race pace to improve your LT; and short, high-intensity interval work to improve your final “kick” in an endurance event. These protocols will not only ensure that your bones, muscles, and connective tissues are prepared for the stress of long aerobic events, but will also improve your exercise economy—delaying the point at which you’ll hit the Wall.

Here are some examples of long-, mid-, and short-distance training protocols, as adapted from the governing body of strength coach certification, the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Each protocol has its place in an aerobic endurance training, and should have a place in your training program.

Here are some examples of long-, mid-, and short-distance training protocols, as adapted from the governing body of strength coach certification, the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Each protocol has its place in an aerobic endurance training, and should have a place in your training program.

Training properly for an endurance sport should also involve a pre-competition taper in exercise volume and intensity. In the week or two before a big event like a marathon, you can drastically reduce the volume of running (or cycling, skiing, swimming, etc.) in your training plan WITHOUT seeing any decrease in your race performance. This taper, especially when combined with carb-loading (see below), is an effective way to increase the amount of available fuel in your body when you get to the starting line.

2. Eat Carbs.

As I hope I’ve made clear in my bioenergetics lecture from Part 1, carbs are super important for athletes! If you don’t fuel your body with carbohydrates before, during, and after training sessions or competitions, you’re setting yourself up for failure. While every athlete’s needs are different, the National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends 8-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight for aerobic endurance athletes. That’s a lot of carbs!

Increasing your daily uptake of slow-digesting (low-GI) carbs 3-7 days prior to an aerobic endurance event will help ensure your body's glycogen stores are fully topped off to prevent bonking.

Increasing your daily uptake of slow-digesting (low-GI) carbs 3-7 days prior to an aerobic endurance event will help ensure your body's glycogen stores are fully topped off to prevent bonking.

But you can't just down two bowls of Quaker oats before an endurance event and expect to do well. The body requires time to break down food into its chemical components, and so it's important to get carbs into your system long before the morning-of. Carb-loading, when done right, is a great way to increase the amount of stored carbohydrate fuel your body can use during activity, especially when used in conjunction with a taper in exercise. Starting 3-7 days before your event, increase the amount of carbohydrates you consume—until carbs total up to 70% of your daily calories. Choose carb-rich foods like whole-grain pasta, fruits, and veggies, which are lower on the glycemic index and will replenish muscle glycogen stores without spiking your blood sugar unnecessarily.

The time for fast-burning carbs is mid-race, BEFORE your brain shuts down and you start seeing stars. Carbohydrates higher on the GI are absorbed as glucose into the blood stream faster than low-GI carbs, so the brain can use that energy right away. This is important for combating the psychological effects of the Wall resulting from a lack of brain energy, which can include anxiety, anger, depression, and despair. Experiment with a sports drink containing carbohydrates and electrolytes (or any glorified gummy bear labeled a "sports bean," or whatever they're selling you nowadays) during a long training effort. Because remember, during an event is NEVER the right time to test out a new carb drink or gel. There are porta-potties on marathon courses for a reason, and you don’t want to find out why. Choose carb-rich foods that your tummy can tolerate—especially during competition.

Save fast-digesting carbs for mid-race, when your blood glucose levels need a boost. Just remember to experiment with different products during your training runs—mid-competition is NOT the time to try out a new (and potentially tummy-irritating) gel or sport drink.

Save fast-digesting carbs for mid-race, when your blood glucose levels need a boost. Just remember to experiment with different products during your training runs—mid-competition is NOT the time to try out a new (and potentially tummy-irritating) gel or sport drink.

3. Don't Start Off Too Fast.

This is the classic endurance sport mistake that even elites sometimes make. If you start off your event at too fast a pace, your body will have to work harder to maintain it, utilizing more glycogen and bringing the Wall ever closer. Practice starting—and maintaining—a conservative pace in your longer training sessions to help you notice when competition adrenaline or a cheering crowd cause you to subconsciously increase your pace. It is better to start off too slow than too fast.

My personal favorite method for starting at a conservative pace is to use music to help keep me calm—because when a thousand runners are frantically jockeying for position, it's easy to get swept up in the energy of the race. I structure my running playlist to start with light, happy songs (I save the hardcore rap for the final miles). Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" was my choice for 2013 Vancouver USA Half-Marathon; "Hurt Me Tomorrow" by K'NAAN was the 2014 Victoria BC Half. Find some upbeat (but not too fast) songs that put you in your happy place—you can even practice using those songs as a "slow-down" cue for your training runs! Lil Wayne and Big Sean can wait until the crowd thins out, and you're ready to settle into your goal race pace and kick some @$$.



4. Drill with Hills.

Your body uses different muscles when running uphill than when running downhill. If you train and race on hilly terrain, you will be able to use glycogen from all working muscles—and the more muscles you use, the more glycogen you can pull from them. Choosing a course with even conservative changes in elevation can help maximize the amount of glycogen used by working muscles, and delay the Wall.

I am lucky enough to live in Seattle, where you pretty much can't avoid running hills no matter where you are. But if you don't live near hilly topography, you can duplicate the stimulus of a hill by finding a set of stairs. Stairs in your house, stairs at your school stadium, old stairs, new stairs, red stairs, blue stairs! Stair sprints and even longer, medium-intensity stair efforts definitely have their place in your training plan. Andbonus!they can function as cross-training for our cyclist/skiier/swimmer friends! Yay! Just don't run stairs in the dark. I speak from experience...

5. Get Your Mind Right.

Researchers have found that runners who use associative cognitive strategies—thinking about breathing, muscle soreness, pace, strategy, or anything to do with individual performance or the race itself—are faster, in general, than those who try to distract themselves during a race. So my mid-marathon strategy of daydreaming about Chipotle burritos and a nap that lasts a thousand winters, as it happens, probably wasn’t the most useful. Focusing my mind on my body, my posture, my pace, and other intrinsic factors relating to sport performance would have done more for my mental state at mile 18 when my brain ran out of glucose.

Getting in the right frame of mind for an aerobic endurance event is crucial in the battle against the Wall.

Getting in the right frame of mind for an aerobic endurance event is crucial in the battle against the Wall.

The reasoning behind associative thinking is that it keeps your mind focused on your body, and therefore more aware of your pace, hydration levels, and other factors that can affect you hitting the wall. Elite runners are constantly thinking, “When was my last hydration break? How is my running form? Is my pace too fast? Are my shoulders relaxed? How can I conserve my energy for the final kick?” etc. Developing the inner awareness to check in on yourself during competition can be your biggest ally in the fight against the Wall.

THE TAKEAWAY

Five hours after I crossed the starting line, I finished that miserable marathon. With my soggy race medal and silver foil space blanket wrapped around my shoulders like a damn cape, I shuffled through the finish chute with the rest of the survivors. Looking around at the others shakily eating bananas and bagel halves, I noticed that everyone, without exception, looked as if they’d seen battle. Their eyes pained, their faces weathered, these tired, wet runners were soldiers to me—the true Night’s Watch. As I sipped my chocolate milk (which I later threw up), I drank to the health of those of us who had fought the Wall—and won. Next time, I'll train better, eat more carbs, slow down my starting pace, run more hills during training, and be more mentally aware of my body during the race...if there IS a next time.


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Christye Estes, CSCS, ACSM-CPT, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is a CSCS-certified strength coach, a certified personal trainer through the ACSM, and a Sports Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye