Hitting the wall in a marathon is an experience that takes most runners by surprise. While just about everyone understands that completing a full marathon is a challenge, the marathon wall is an obstacle unlike any other.
What does hitting the wall feel like?
The phrase hitting the wall when running describes a moment of both physical and mental struggle. In a marathon, hitting the wall is when you feel as if you just can’t take another step. It’s the moment when your body is hurting and you start to tell yourself that you can’t go on.
As the pain increases, most runners start to question their abilities. The marathon wall is usually not encountered during training, even during the longest runs. When your body starts to hurt more than you’ve experienced during months of preparation, the mind can start to play tricks on you – causing most runners to wonder whether they can actually complete the race.
What causes hitting the wall in a marathon?
Hitting the wall in a marathon can be caused by a variety of factors. However, most runners are surprised to discover that they encounter the marathon wall even after the most consistent, dedicated season of training.
The following might increase your chances of hitting the marathon wall:
- Inconsistent training
- Low quality or lower mileage long runs
- Poor fueling on race day
- Lack of sleep or recovery during taper
- Overtraining or too high mileage
- Lack of support or mental strength
While many consider hitting the wall inevitable during a marathon, these factors can really increase the challenge of conquering the wall. If your body is worn down, un-trained or your mental game is off, it’s likely that the marathon wall could really get the best of you on race day.
What are the symptoms of hitting the wall?
Many first time marathoners want to learn how they’ll know when they hit the wall. The simple answer is: you’ll know. Hitting the wall is a feeling that is hard to miss. Many runners describe the wall as the beginning of the actual marathon – even though it doesn’t often occur until the last 6-10 miles.
Here are a few signs that you’ve hit the wall:
- A feeling of overwhelming tiredness
- Pain or soreness that seems insurmountable
- Feeling unnaturally tired
- Struggling to think positively
- Wondering why you signed up in the first place
- Feeling tempted to quit or give up
- Being overwhelmed by emotion
- More tiredness, soreness or pain than you experienced during training
While hitting the wall is never a pleasant experience, it often serves as the defining moment in a marathon. The feeling you get from conquering and overcoming the marathon wall usually makes all of the struggle worth it.
Running a marathon is no easy task – but there are a few things you can do during training and on race day to set yourself up for success.
10 to Overcome the Marathon Wall
Hitting the wall in a marathon often comes out of nowhere, even with the best training and support. Luckily, there are a few strategies you can put in place early on to minimize the marathon wall and help yourself overcome it with ease.
Start fueling early.
Aim to begin taking in fuel after no more than one hour of running, and continue to fuel in regular, shorter intervals afterwards. If it’s difficult to consume an entire gel or fuel pack all at once, try sipping or taking small bites every few minutes until it’s complete. Continue to do so about every 30 minutes or so during the race.
A simple trick to take in extra calories during a marathon is to alternate between Gatorade and water at each aid station. The extra sugars in the Gatorade help make up for any missed calories, but be sure to continue hydrating with water whenever possible.
The golden run for successful marathon fueling: if you’re feeling hungry, you’ve waited too long.
Start out slowly.
The excitement on race day might help you stay motivated, but it has a sneaky way of making runners start out too fast in the first mile. No matter how eager and prepared you may feel, don’t let the excitement of the crowds trick you into running faster than you’ve trained.
Start a little further back in the corrals to avoid going out too fast. Most runners wind up behind their pace groups, which means you’ll be passed by many if you start right with your goal pace. It’s always better to be the one doing the passing in the beginning than to have runners whizzing by you.
Recite a mantra.
My favorite mantra for the marathon wall is “pain is temporary”. It reminds me that the pain I am experiencing in the moment will not last forever. This is so easy to forget when we are hitting the wall, feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.
Find an encouraging mantra to recite in your head during training to create a habit for race day. At the start of the marathon, begin reciting your mantra. If you hit the wall, rely on your mantra to keep your thoughts positive and help your mind stay focused.
Stay present in the moment.
Embrace the suck.
Don’t get so caught up in the pain that you forget to notice everything around you. Take notice of the crowds, the other runners, the energy, the course, and everything else you encounter. Remind yourself that this is truly a once in a lifetime experience, and try to focus on what is around you instead of any pain you might be feeling.
Remember why you signed up for this experience: why you chose this particular race, why you chose the marathon distance, and what you hoped to gain from the experience.
Meet the people around you.
Running a marathon is more social that one might think. While most embark on the journey alone, it’s rare that you’ll run the race without coming in close contact with another runner. Make an effort to smile, nod, make small talk, or even get to know those who are running near you.
Just about every runner will encounter the marathon wall on race day, and a great way to power through is to rely on the support and camaraderie of those around you. Suffering seems much easier when it is not done alone.
Take advantage of this opportunity to meet people from around the world who all share a common goal. It will make hitting the wall feel more meaningful and manageable.
Eat enough breakfast.
Most runners find that there is quite a large gap in time from when they wake up to the start of the race – especially for bigger races with more logistics. Eating breakfast back at the hotel might mean that there is a 2 or 3 hour break before the start of the race.
If this is the case, it might be beneficial to pack a smaller, light breakfast or snack to take with you to the start. Try to time the consumption of this snack with when you had been eating prior to a long run during training.
Adequately fueling yourself before the start of the marathon will help minimize the angst of hitting the wall later in the race.
Walk if you need to.
Most runners set specific goals for themselves when it comes to a marathon, but underlying all of these goals is one and the same: finish the race.
When things get really hard, remember that you can walk if you need to. Walking a mile still counts when it comes to getting you closer to the finish line.
It’s so hard to predict the conditions on race day: how you’ll feel, what the weather will be, if you’ll get enough sleep, etc. If you hit the wall and really find yourself struggling, remind yourself that it’s okay to walk if you’re desperate.
Dedicate each mile.
There’s hardly anything more motivating that running for someone or something meaningful. A simple way to add purpose to your pain is to dedicate each mile to a different person or cause. During each mile, think specifically of this person or cause. Every ounce of pain you experience is helping you pay tribute to them.
When things get hard and you find yourself hitting the wall, remind yourself that you need to stay strong for someone else. Determine a few people you’d like to honor during your run and focus on them when things get tough.
Remember why you started.
When all else fails, keep a clear vision of why you are running.
When you’re hitting the wall at mile 20 of a marathon, the excitement from your first week of training is easy to forget. Remind yourself of all the work you’ve put in to get this far – and how close you are to completing your goals.
Nothing tricks your brain more than forcing yourself to smile.
No matter how hard you’ve trained or how prepared you may feel, the marathon wall will bring a challenge. Stay strong, remain committed, and remind yourself how close you are to your goal. The reward that comes from conquering the wall is always well worth the struggle.