How Not to Hit a Wall in Your Next Marathon

How Not to Hit a Wall in Your Next Marathon

Prevent fatigue late in the race by understanding why it hits.

By  | Article Featured on US News

All runners – and, heck, even many non-runners – know of “The Wall,” that infamous barrier that looms 20-plus miles down the road in a marathon. Legend has it that “The Wall,” as its name implies, is an obstacle of such proportion that it can reduce even the swiftest among us to a dead stop. But here’s the catch: This wall doesn’t really exist.

There are, however, a number of things that runners do, or fail to do, that lead to them to run out of gas late in a marathon. Here are four of them – and how to avoid them.

1. They go out too fast.

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood principles among runners is that the speed (or pace) they can sustain declines by about 15 to 20 percent as the race distance doubles. Put another way, if a runner can run a 5K race at a particular pace, his or her 10K pace will be 15 to 20 percent slower. The same runner will slow down a similar amount going from a 10K to a half-marathon, and then again from a half-marathon to a marathon, and so on. Without understanding this rule of thumb, most runners don’t know how much they should slow down in a marathon as compared to shorter races. As a result, they inevitably go out too fast in the first half of the race.

Coach Joe’s Tip: An easy way to understand your true marathon pace is to run a 5K race and then use a race result prediction tool to calculate what your goal pace should be for the marathon. After figuring out that pace, practice it during training and then run it from start to finish on race day.

2. They haven’t trained enough at the right pace.

Understanding your target marathon pace early on is important because it gives you time to practice running that pace. Doing so forms the muscle memory needed to repeat that action over and over again. On race day, you want your goal pace to feel natural, rather than foreign. Keep in mind that varying your running pace by just 15 to 20 seconds a mile requires big changes to your step rate (or cadence), stride length and gait – patterns you don’t want your body to default to during the race.

Coach Joe’s Tip: Spend time practicing your target marathon pace in training. Each week, aim to complete one progressively longer run (increasing the distance by 2 miles every other week until you get to 18 miles) and one shorter run (4 to 6 miles) at your marathon goal pace. Try to also run 18 consecutive miles at that pace at least twice while training for the race.

3. They don’t eat and drink enough.

It’s absolutely critical for marathon runners’ muscles to have sufficient fuels and fluids. When denied what they need, muscles have a hard time functioning properly and will eventually stop working altogether. Because of this effect, I often refer to marathon running as “the ultimate eating and drinking game.”

Sadly, many runners don’t embrace the critical nature of fueling and hydrating as a part of their race plan. Taking a few sips of fluid at an aid station and nibbling an energy gel or a cookie simply doesn’t provide enough of what the body needs when performing for hours on end. Your body is like a race car that’s consuming a lot of fuel while speeding around a track. It’s your job as the driver to keep the fuel tank from running dry.

Coach Joe’s Tip: Runners typically burn about 115 calories per mile, meaning they burn almost 3,000 calories in a marathon. It’s impossible to replace all of that fuel, but aiming to take in around 300 calories per hour will go a long way in getting past “The Wall.”

4. They haven’t trained to run through fatigue.

Think about doing pushups: They start out feeling pretty easy and then quickly get harder and harder. Your body feels heavier with each pushup, even though you’re not getting heavier. That’s called muscular fatigue – and the same thing happens when we run. It’s not fun, but it’s critical to push your body to the point of fatigue in some of your workouts so you know what it feels like and how to push through it.

Coach Joe’s Tip: Try to incorporate one to two strength-focused workouts into your running program each week. Speed workouts, hill workouts and workouts that incorporate high-intensity exercises are among the best to induce fatigue. If you weather them now, you’ll thank yourself later. When fatigue hits late in the race, you won’t call it “The Wall” – you’ll call it conquerable.


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