Break on through
If you’ve hit the wall, you’ll know how it feels. If you haven’t experienced it, here’s how to make sure you never willWords: Simon Creasey Illustration: Dylan Teague
Dean Karnazes vividly remembers how it felt the first time he hit the wall. “It wasn’t pretty. Every molecule in my body was screaming in agony, from my joints and ligaments to the tip of my nose. My ears were ringing. A foul, acidic taste filled my mouth – it was as if I was chewing on lemons. I felt that if I kept going I’d collapse – I wanted nothing more than to sit down.” Having raced and completed hundreds of marathons and ultramarathons around the globe, Karnazes admits that since that first harrowing experience he’s hit the wall more times than he can remember. Karnazes isn’t alone. Most long-distance runners, both elite and recreational, will hit the wall at some point, either in their training or in the heat of a race. It usually occurs around the 20-mile mark, which is when your body’s glycogen levels – essentially fuel derived from carbohydrates that is stored in the liver and muscles in the system – are so depleted that hypoglycaemia kicks in and your body starts using fat reserves as a fuel source. As a result, your legs start to feel like concrete, you stop thinking straight and it starts to feel as if you’re going backwards, not forwards. However, it needn’t spell the end of your race. With a mix of mental tricks and strategies, runners of all levels can smash the wall.Don’t stopThe first and most important rule to adhere to when the pain starts to kick in is to “beware of the chair”, warns Karnazes. “Don’t sit down because you may never get back up. Winston Churchill said it best: ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going!’” Easier said than done when you’re 20 miles into a marathon dragging a heavily fatigued body over cobbled stones with your brain screaming, “Stop”. Combating these thoughts is incredibly difficult, but if you’ve entertained the possibility of this situation occurring beforehand and devised a coping strategy during training runs, this will give you an important head start, according to Sarah Cecil, performance psychologist at the English Institute of Sport (EIS), who works with UK Athletics and Fencing.Remaining non-judgemental at this stage is crucial, says Cecil, because if you’re over-critical of your performance and your predicament, it can be self-defeating. “What people tend to do is judge themselves and beat themselves up very quickly,” she says. “In the same way that feeling physically fatigued has an impact on your mood, if you’re thinking negatively it will have an impact on how you physically feel.” So when fatigue kicks in, it’s time to start giving yourself a pat on the back. “Every 50m you should say, ‘Great. Well done. Good job’,” adds Cecil. “If you’re running your first marathon you should congratulate yourself for running the furthest that you have ever run.” Breaking the race down into these sort of manageable chunks is a tactic that’s employed by Scottish ultramarathon runner William Sichel, who earlier this year completed a 1,000km race.“You need to divide any distance up into small achievable units,” says Sichel. “It sounds so simple and basic, but it’s hard to do it with discipline. On a shorter run it might mean one lamp-post to the next – in a marathon it might be to the next feed station or the next 20 minutes. It’s difficult to not think about the 20 minutes after that and the 20 minutes after that, but if you can discipline yourself to do this it’s a very useful skill to have.” Simple mental tricks can also be used to help runners disassociate from the pain. Paula Radcliffe uses counting strategies when the pain kicks in, according to David Fletcher, lecturer in sports and performance psychology based at the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. “She counts up to a hundred with each plant of the foot,” explains Fletcher. “What she’s trying to do is crowd the worries out of her mind, such as ‘what if I don’t finish?’ or ‘this pain is really bad – I can’t move anymore’. All these cognitions and thoughts that run through your mind are clearly not particularly productive for performance, so you need to try and think about something else. That’s easier said than done, because our minds are not good at thinking about two things at the same time.” These disassociation techniques can involve anything, as long as it distracts you from the negative thoughts you’re experiencing. “A lot of people who are running a race for charity like to dedicate every mile to somebody important in their life,” says Cecil. “You could also sing a different song for every mile, because music can change your mood.” Brick by brickOf course, the best way to deal with the wall is to avoid it all together. Sichel claims he’s never hit it and one of the reasons for this is that, unlike most runners who adhere to the ‘pile on the carbs’ school of thought, he isn’t over-reliant on carbohydrate metabolism. Instead he’s trained himself to run on his fat reserves.“I heard someone saying they were going to fuel up for a 90-minute jog, but you don’t need to. People should learn to use the energy they’ve already got stored in their muscles.” However, most runners are not as disciplined as Sichel and will inevitably find themselves coming up against the wall at some stage. The important thing is to find a strategy that works best for them. “My guidance to others is always ‘listen to everyone, follow no one’,” says Karnazes. “Try new things, experiment, take chances during training. Determine what works for you. Then put it into practice on race day.” If you heed this advice then you’ll soon be bringing down the wall.