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Runners during a marathon, about to hit the wall

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6 Expert-Backed Tips to Avoid Hitting the Wall During a Marathon

And what to do if it happens.

By Jen Ator March 27, 2024


It’s a fear that looms over the minds of many marathoners. In the early miles of your race, you feel great—everything is going according to plan. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, your legs start to feel like bricks. Your body and mind tell you to quit. You don’t know if you can make it to the finish line.

“Hitting the wall” is an all-too-common experience for endurance athletes. In fact, research estimates that more than two in five marathon runners experience this dreaded phenomenon during their race. 

However, there are tools and strategies that can help you not only get through the wall, but  avoid hitting it altogether. Here’s what to keep in mind. 

What Does “Hitting the Wall” Mean? 

Just like a car requires gas to drive, our bodies require fuel to run. And what happens when a car runs out of gas? It breaks down and can’t move any further. 

The same thing happens with your body. Hitting the wall is the sudden onset of severe fatigue and exhaustion that happens when the body has nearly depleted its carbohydrate stores, says Laura A. Richardson, PhD, clinical associate professor of applied exercise science and movement science at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology. 

In a 2008 study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, researchers identified some of the signs of hitting the wall as: 

  • Fatigue

  • Unintentional slowing of pace

  • Moving to a walk

  • A focus on “survival” 

Certain factors may also increase your likelihood of hitting the wall: A 2009 survey published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise examining 324 marathoners found that:

  • Non-elite runners are more likely to hit the wall than elite runners

  • Male runners are more likely to hit the wall than female runners

  • Runners with a lower training volume are more likely than runners with a higher total training volume to hit the wall

However, the researchers found that the biggest predictor of hitting the wall was actually having the expectation of hitting the wall. This is important. Hitting the wall is not inevitable. Your mind, along with the right training and fueling tactics, has a powerful impact on your outcome.

Is Hitting the Wall the Same Thing as Bonking?

Among endurance athletes, including distance runners, cyclists, triathletes, and long-distance swimmers, exhausting the body’s carbohydrate reserves is commonly referred to as hitting the wall—or bonking.

While the two terms are often used interchangeably—bonking is to cyclists and triathletes as hitting the wall is to runners and swimmers—some experts view hitting the wall as the limit of a person’s physical (or mental) endurance, while bonking is a depletion of hydration or nutrition (or both). Simply put: Hitting the wall is often viewed as a mental state, while bonking is a physical one. 

“I define hitting the wall as the subjective, psychological effects that happen as a result of bonking, which is the objective state in which the body's energy stores are depleted,” says New York City-based exercise physiologist and ultrarunner Michael Ryan. “Hitting the wall can be kind of a 'black hole' mental state where your mind is consumed by negativity, you grow increasingly pessimistic, and your end goal becomes a speck of light at the end of a long tunnel that you begin to believe you will never reach. Every long-distance runner will come face to face with this 'wall' inevitably at some point in their running career.”

How to Avoid Hitting the Wall

While nothing is guaranteed over the course of 26.2 miles, there are a number of factors that can be controlled to help mitigate your risk of hitting the wall. “In the end, the power that hitting this wall will have on an individual will come down to training and preparedness—physically and mentally,” Ryan says. 

1. Give Yourself Time 

Proper training is the groundwork to any successful marathon, says Susie Chan, a Peloton instructor. Progressive training—that is, gradually increasing your distance and speed over a period of weeks and months (and even years)—can help reduce your odds of hitting the wall. “Having steadily built mileage and endurance training will enable you to get to the finish,” she says. “The more consistent your lead-up training, the better it will go on race day.” 

2. Mix It Up

Don’t complete all of your training runs at the same pace. “The best way to reduce chances of hitting the wall is to use a variety of protocols that improve your lactate threshold,” Richardson says. Your lactate threshold (also referred to as your anaerobic threshold) is the fastest pace you can perform steady-state aerobic exercise at without fatiguing. “Training at near-race pace, using high-intensity intervals, and adjusting the duration and intensity of your weekly runs all have the ability to strengthen your endurance performance.” 

When you reach the point of exhaustion will vary based on how much glucose is stored in your body before your run. To perform your best, you need to be well-fueled. If you’re training more than eight hours per week, make sure you have a daily diet that’s high in carbohydrates—approximately 8 to12 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day—to maximize your glycogen stores. 

4. Pace Yourself

It can be tough to manage your excitement in the first few miles of a marathon, but it’s crucial that you do. A 2020 observational analysis published in the Journal of Athletic Training  underscored that pacing is a “fundamental determinant of competitive endurance performance.” If you push too aggressively during your marathon, you may inadvertently increase your risk of hitting the wall by burning through your energy stores too quickly. 

Woman eats breakfast before going on a run

mikroman6/Moment via Getty Images

5. Fuel Up 

A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that, on average, a group of non-elite runners completed a marathon almost 11 minutes faster by applying a scientifically-based nutritional strategy compared to a self-guided nutrition regimen. 

When you’re racing, aim to consume 240 to 360 calories from carbohydrates per hour. Additionally, make sure you’re drinking water every 10 to 15 minutes to stay hydrated. And don’t just leave the nutritional planning to race day: “You need to know what works best for you,” Susie says. “There is a lot of time in your race build-up to get that part nailed so [that] on race day it all goes to plan.”

6. Have a Game Plan

There’s no getting around it: The later miles in a marathon feel tough. As your effort increases, you have to work harder at suppressing your brain’s impulse to quit. “The right mindset can get you to the finish,” Susie says. “However, if your head is not in the right space, it will be much more difficult.” One way to keep your mind strong is preparing what experts call “implementation intentions.” This if-then action plan allows you to automatically initiate a behavior that will help keep you moving toward your goal—even when things get hard.

What to Do When You Hit the Wall

Here’s the thing: The best laid plans can—and often do—go sideways. Sometimes, the weather conditions on race day will be vastly different than what you anticipated. Maybe you haven’t slept well the past few nights, or your GPS gets wonky mid-run, and you lose track of your pace. 

A million little things can alter your plan and lead you to hitting the wall. If that happens, here are a few easy things to focus on, according to Ryan:

  • Don’t panic. “And don't give up,” Ryan says. “Know deep down that this too shall pass.” Remind yourself that this is a physiological response to your glycogen stores being depleted—not an indication that your body isn’t capable of finishing.  

  • Remember your nutrition strategy. Speaking of glycogen: Hitting the wall is a reminder that your body is low on fuel. “Keep your favorite candy or gel in reserve for when you start to feel 'the wall' looming,” he says. “You'll be surprised how fast your mental state turns around when those calories flood your system!” 

  • Find a positive focus. “Most of the time, negativity and thoughts of quitting creep in when you are bonking,” Ryan says. Look around at the crowd cheering you on, or think about the people in your life supporting you. 

  • If you run with music, fire up that power song. Even better, strategically order your playlist ahead of time so that your favorite pump-up songs start playing later in the race. 

Regardless of what method you turn to, just remember: You got this. 


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