Why Runners 'Hit The Wall,' And What To Do About It

Here are the psychological roadblocks endurance athletes should look out for.
Forty-three percent of marathon runners hit a wall during a recent race, according to an estimate from the Stanford University School of Medicine.
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Forty-three percent of marathon runners hit a wall during a recent race, according to an estimate from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Distance runners often worry about “hitting the wall” during training or races ― that dreaded moment when negative thoughts become so overpowering they make it difficult to continue.

Hitting the wall typically happens around 20 miles into a marathon, when the body’s glycogen supplies become exhausted. At this point, many runners feel exhausted and discouraged, slow their pace, have trouble focusing and want to quit or walk.

“Generalized fatigue, unintentionally slowing their pace, the desire to walk, and shifting focus to just surviving the marathon appear to be particularly common features of it,” said Dr. Alistair McCormick, an exercise psychologist at the University of St Mark & St John in England who co-authored a new study published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. “A marathon becomes a real mental battle when runners ‘hit the wall.’”

Psychological blocks are an extremely common and often performance-inhibiting experience for recreational endurance athletes, according to the study. To learn how they affect people, sports psychologists asked 30 recreational runners, cyclers and triathletes about the psychological demands of training, preparing for and participating in competitions.

“A marathon becomes a real mental battle when runners ‘hit the wall.’”

- Dr. Alistair McCormick, University of St Mark & St John

The athletes described a number of common experiences. They reported struggling with the amount of time they invested in training and their lifestyle sacrifices leading up to an event, as well as things like staying focused during a competition, optimizing pacing and committing to training sessions.

“Recreational triathletes, runners and cyclists found it stressful trying to find the time to train,” McCormick said. “What was also interesting was the number of potential banana skins encountered before and during competition ― adversities that could cause the athletes to lose their focus and their motivation to keep persevering.”

These roadblocks included difficult environmental conditions, punctures and equipment failure, problems with nutrition and hydration, or making a mistake, the study reported. The athletes in the study said they felt these obstacles affected their motivation and concentration, negatively affecting their overall performance.

Breaking Through Mental Blocks

According to the Stanford University School of Medicine, 43 percent of marathoners are likely to hit the wall during a race. Finding ways to move past those kinds of experiences, then, could have major benefits for an athlete’s performance and well-being.

“There’s good evidence that saying motivational things to yourself can benefit your running, cycling or swimming performance,” McCormick said. “Planning what to do if you encounter various problems can also be very valuable.”

This technique is referring to by sport psychologists as “if-then planning” ― for example, if you hit the wall, then you’ll use a visualization technique to help you imagine yourself getting through it.

If you’ve been finding yourself coming up against mental roadblocks in your training, here are a few other sports psychologist-approved techniques to try.

1. Make a motivational playlist. Distracting yourself with some great tunes can help you make it to the finish line faster. A number of studies have shown that athletes run, bike and swim farther and faster when listening to music.

2. Try the buddy system. A running partner can keep you motivated and on-track, and might even improve your performance, research shows.

3. Visualize achieving your goal. A study on weight-lifters found that mental practices can be as effective as physical practice, resulting in actual muscle increases. Visualizing your if-then plan, for instance, could improve your chance of success, according to McCormack.

4. Try “attention narrowing.” Runners who focus their eyes on an object in the distance get there faster. Last year, an NYU study found that focusing on an object on the horizon makes the distance feel shorter, and leads runners to go faster and exert themselves less than those who let their minds wander.

With these helpful strategies, your next personal record might be just around the corner.

Before You Go

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