What to Do If You Hit the Runner’s Wall in Your Marathon

If you hit the runners wall during your marathon, finishing the race can feel impossible. These tips will help you overcome the wall and finish your marathon!

If it has ever happened to you, you know exactly what the runner’s wall feels like: you struggle to move forward. Your paces slow drastically, often by one minute or more per mile. Your form may fall apart. You may question just how you are going to even finish the race. This article answers the question of what to do if you hit the marathon wall (or the wall during an ultra). 

What is the runner’s wall?

The runner’s wall is a metaphor for the drastic slowdown in a marathon (or ultra) that occurs due to fatigue, glycogen depletion, and muscle breakdown. Whatever the cause, it’s a brutal experience – you feel like you can barely keep running, much less maintain your marathon pace. 

Prevention is the best approach to a marathon. Your training, pacing strategy, and race nutrition plan will all aid in avoiding the dreaded marathon wall. But sometimes, things go sideways in a race no matter how well you prepared. If you find yourself hitting the runners wall, there are steps you can take to salvage your race. 

Signs of bonking in a race

Hitting the wall when running is a distinct feeling – there is no mistaking it. 

Signs of hitting the runners wall include:

  • Your pace drastically slowing while effort remains high
  • Struggling to maintain good running form (loss of coordination)
  • Loss of concentration
  • Fatigue and a feeling of weakness

If you bonk so severely that you feel lightheaded or disoriented, it is recommended that you stop running and go to the nearest medical station on the course. 

Strategies to overcome hitting the wall mid-race

Once you hit the wall, it is difficult to get back to how you felt earlier in the race. You cannot completely reverse bonking – but you can help yourself feel better and reduce the severity of your slowdown. What matters most is a quick response, rather than letting yourself dig deeper into a hole.

Take More Gels

I recommend to my marathon runners that they carry at least one extra gel on them during the race. If you start to feel like you are bonking, the first course of action is to take an extra gel (or sip on sport drink, take chews, etc.) It does not matter if it has only been 10 minutes since your last gel – take another one. 

As discussed above, the primary culprit of hitting the marathon wall is low glycogen. If you have sugar (glucose) available in your bloodstream, your body will use that first. So, if you are hitting the wall, give your body more glucose to use as energy. 

After you take the intial extra gel, adjust your fueling strategy to have your remaining gels sooner. Maybe instead of every 30 minutes, you take them every 20 minutes. This is also the one scenario where using the gels or sports drink available on the race course is recommended, even if you aren’t familiar with them – anything to get in extra carbohydrates. 

Get Some Fluids Down 

Dehydration is a known performance impairment. Even mild dehydration can cause your pace to slow down during a marathon. In addition to taking in more carbohydrates via fuel, focus on getting in more fluids with electrolytes. Replacing lost water and sodium will help you rehydrate, which could help you rebound from the runner’s wall. Importantly, do not chug large amounts of fluid, as this could cause GI upset. 

Adjust Your Pacing

Sometimes, the wall slowly creeps up on you. Your pace may slow a bit at mile 20 of the marathon, and then progressively worsen over the next couple of miles. Some runners worsen their slow down by pushing the effort to try to keep the pace, only to bonk worse. 

Instead, if you start to feel like you could be about to hit the wall, adjust your pace as soon as you can. Even a small pace adjustment of 15-30 seconds per mile could help delay fatigue by keeping your intensity under control. A minor slowdown earlier could save you a more drastic slowdown later. Plus, this will help you get your breathing under control enough to take down some fuel and fluids. 

Replace Negative Thoughts with Action-Oriented Thoughts

It’s true that you can’t simply outthink your way from hitting the marathon wall. However, as you are making other adjustments, it can be beneficial to also focus on your thoughts. Negative thoughts will only worsen the situation. Part of how to push through the pain barrier when running comes down to your mindset. 

Instead, focus on actionable, positive thoughts. Keep your focus on what you can control and what you can do next. Use thoughts such as “I am in control” or “I can keep moving forward,” instead of negative thoughts such as “how will I ever finish this race.” 

Tips for avoiding the runner’s wall altogether

As noted above, actions that prevent you from hitting the runner’s wall are the most effective. Once you hit the wall, it is very difficult to get back on course for your original goal (even if the above steps help you salvage your race). Always remember the above-listed steps in case you do hit the wall, but do not rely on them as your first course of action.

Strategies to avoid hitting the marathon wall:

For a more detailed approach, read this full article on how to avoid slowing down during a marathon

Overcoming the marathon wall, recapped

While you may not be able to get back to your original goal pace, there are actions you can take during a marathon if you hit the dreaded wall. Adjustments to pacing and nutrition will help you minimize your slowdown – and hopefully finish the race without feeling horrible. 

Want more marathon training tips? Tune into the weekly episodes of the Tread Lightly Podcast on your podcast app of choice! 

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