No matter what race distance you have signed up for, in order to be able to get through the race without “Hitting the Wall” takes some training to learn to break down the barriers between yourself and your running goals. When we think of “that Wall”, when suddenly our energy levels drop, our legs get heavy, our body feels empty and we feel like giving up, this is not just an experience for ultra-runners, it has to do with any runner pursuing new goals, new distance and running into that wall ¾ into the race.
Hitting that road block along the way can be triggered by different issues; injuries that flare up when you run extra mileage, gastrointestinal issues halfway along the race, loss of motivation a week before the race, or simply lack of mental strength.
- Injuries: As runners, we all have a weak link, recurring injuries or biomechanical weaknesses. Up to 79% of runners get injured every year. When training, stress accumulates, many runners will have injury issues. In order to avoid “Hitting the Wall” due to injuries, runners have to look after their body at the start of their training program or season, you can’t wait until your injury stops you from running to start focusing on treating any niggling feelings or nagging injuries, otherwise you will get an injury that will force you to take months off running. Classic runners’ injuries include Achilles tendons, knee injuries, upper hamstring injuries, calf strains, or plantar fasciitis. The plan to avoid getting injured when setting up new running goals is to focus on fixing our running form, stride and running cadence. If you have any light pain or muscle issues, you need to see a sport physiologist, especially a physio who is also a runner, who can diagnose the cause accurately and create a proper healing and prevention plan. The plan should include deep tissue and muscle release, stretching, some strength training, core strengthening and specific therapy exercises. It is very important to remember not to increase your running distance more than 10% per week to prevent injuries.
- Gastrointestinal issues (GI): Experiencing stomach issues during long-distance races affect up to 90% of the runners. Whether it is nausea, stomach cramps, gas, any digestive issue can make you “Hit the Wall”. Especially during long-distance races, the constant pounding irritates the digestive organs, the more intense or the longer the distance, our oxygenated blood travels to the muscles and the basic organs like the heart or lungs that require the most blood flow in order to survive. The oxygenated blood travels away from the gut, ignoring the blood-starved stomach lining so vulnerable to irritation. Many issues cause all the GI problems.
- Not hydrating enough which slows down the movement of food through the digestive system and leaves undigested bits in the stomach.
- Consuming too many gels can affect the stomach. For some runners, consuming more than 60g of carbs/hour can draw fluid into the gut causing diarrhea.
- Stress and nerves can also shut down the gut. Whether it is caused by the adrenalin at the start of a race or the stress due to the long-distance or intense run.
Training our digestive system should be part of the training program. Every couple of weeks you need to include mini race stimulations; pretend you’re at the start of a race. Two days before a race, runners should reduce their consumption of high-fibre foods, nuts and seeds, healthy fats, which all leave more residue in your gut and takes longer to digest and clear the stomach. Focus on more simple carbs, not too high fibre fruits and veggies. The morning of a race, make sure you allow at least one hour to digest before the race start, and consume plain and easy to digest carbs, like bananas, some plain bread with nut butter or honey. During a long-distance race, you need to make sure you eat easy to digest foods and when consuming gels, wash it down with plain water, not sports drinks or electrolyte drinks. Make sure you don’t take any anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) during a race or training which can cause some serious GI issues. Include your nutrition in your training sessions to get your stomach used to the race nutrition.
- Loss of motivation: When we sign up for a race we are all excited, then the closer the race gets to, the more stressed or demotivated some runners get. Usually it tends to happen about halfway until the race. The culprit could be overtraining and feeling some fatigue, which can affect some hormones like sterotonin (feel good hormone) and melatonin (sleep-promoting hormone) which can cause some depression or insomnia. For others, it could be due to some remorse, signing up for a race and all the training affects the daily life, decreased time with family and friends. To avoid demotivation, make sure you don’t overtrain, research shows that athletes who overtrain suffer from mood swings. Often this is due to low protein intake and amino acids. To increase your protein intake during intense training weeks can help maintain proper mood and stamina. Another way to avoid demotivation is to take a few days off training, or include a new running route, run with some friends so you can enjoy your run, not feel like it is something you have to do. To be motivated and positive will also be very helpful in avoiding “Hitting the Wall”.
- Mental strength: When we get to the point where our body feels tired, our legs feel heavy, our energy levels are crashing, our brain is trying to shut down our body to look after it. But we know that if we remind ourselves that our brain thinks we have reached the limit even though it isn’t the truth about the body, we will be able to get over that mental limit. We want to stop and “Hit the Wall” because we feel as if we cannot keep going, but research shows that from a biochemical point of view, our body can still keep going. How can we avoid “Hitting the Wall” mentally? We need to focus on mental rest and self-belief. When runners are mentally fatigued due to life stress, work stress, they tend to “Hit the Wall” earlier than runners who are mentally relaxed. Another great way to stay mentally strong is to include some self-talk while running, which can help to overcome mental bonking. Find some great mantra that you can repeat once you start to get mentally weak. Include these self-talk strategies into your training sessions to make sure you improve your brain strength, not only your muscles and cardiovascular system.