How to avoid the wall (and cope if you hit it)

Illustration by Meg Hunt

The Americans call it ‘bonking’, and by any name it’s a pretty awful experience. When you hit the wall, it feels like you have run face-first into a stack of bricks. Your legs start feeling like concrete posts, every step is a triumph of will and you seriously doubt that the race actually has a finish line.

What’s going on?

The prevailing notion is that hitting the wall is a purely physical phenomenon. The theory goes that the overwhelming fatigued feeling and leg heaviness is the result of muscle failure; the muscles and liver have wrung every last drop of glycogen, the body’s preferred source of fuel, from their stores. With no more in the tank, you are forced into a survival shuffle. But there is a more recent theory – one that takes the brain’s contribution to your performance into account.

Noted exercise physiologist Dr Tim Noakes agrees that runners feel the wall physically, but he doesn’t consider it a purely physical phenomenon. The brain, Noakes believes, tells the body it’s time to hit the wall whenever it feels the body has gone too far, too fast. When the brain determines you have reached what it considers your breaking point, it increases levels of the chemical serotonin. This reduces neural control to recruit muscle fibres, which, in turn, triggers the sensation of extreme fatigue. Although a voice may whisper in your ear that you’ve given all you have to give, Noakes says in reality you can dig deeper and give more.

READ: What makes runners hit the "wall" in marathons?

How to cope

Distract yourself: Investigations into which brain strategies work best for non-elite runners have found external disassociation (focusing on scenery, crowds, things not directly tied to the race) appears to be the most effective wall-avoidance strategy and results in a later onset of fatigue. A cheering crowd, a spectator’s sign or a band playing in the distance may be just enough to distract your brain from the punishing bodily sensations of running, but without causing you to lose focus on pace and water stops.

Mentally hurdle it: Positive self-talk and visualisation play a huge part in avoiding the wall. Before the race begins, do some visualisation exercises in which you hit the wall and picture yourself dealing with it effectively. If you believe you will dominate the wall, you are more likely to make those beliefs a reality.

Face reality: If you do hit the wall, sip some sports drink to get carbs into your system, but don’t overdo it. And it’s best if you have a running partner who can help encourage you through the worst and run with you to the finish. Please remember, however, that hitting the wall can affect your ability to think. I have seen plenty of runners disorientated and slurring their words, then being taken into a medical tent for treatment. I feel concern when I see them wobbling on the course, trying to make it to the finish. There is a point of no return that you need to accept. Going beyond that can be dangerous. If it’s not your day, it’s not your day. There will be others.

READ: How to beat the marathon bonk


Excerpted from The Runner’s Brain: How to Think Smarter to Run Better by Dr Je­ff Brown, with Liz Neporent (Rodale)