What Does it Really Mean to Hit The Wall

One of my favorite pro runners is Kara Goucher, she's a great role model, mother and a very talented runner.  Sunday, she didn't have her greatest run, she hit the wall for the first time in her career.  To most of us, 14th place in the NYC Marathon would be incredible.  But after Hitting The Wall it is even more impressive and really inspiring!

When people find out I am a marathon runner the most common question I get is.  Do you hit the wall?  I tell them, I have a much better chance of hitting a rare Runner's High, than Hitting the Wall.
Why?  Well believe it or not, despite how popular the term is.  Actually Hitting the Wall is exceptionally rare.  Most runners go their entire lives without having it ever happen!

Many have this assumption that if you run a marathon, you get tired in it and getting too tired means "Hitting the Wall".  Well I have news for you, it doesn't mean that, and you probably wont.  So don't let those little three words bother you in the least!

In fact, most people, even those who think they have hit the wall in a race, really haven't.  It's true, and I don't say that to offend anyone.  In the several dozen I have run, I have only "Hit the Wall" twice. Once when I was completely healthy with no other factors involved.

So before I go off offending anyone let me explain.  I have talked to many, many runners through the years, even those you'd call pro's and experts.  I love to hear peoples experiences and thoughts on the subject.  So my thoughts on this are in a combination with what I experienced and what has been the result from those previous conversations with others.


Why do most people think they have hit the wall, when they really haven't?  There are several I will name a few:

Maybe they have a cold or flu or stomach pains and get extremely tired at a certain point of the race or were tired to begin with and maybe shouldn't even be running. Or over ate the night before and are having stomach pains and just feel awful that day or even dehydration.  Most will likely agree when I say, this rarely brings on Hitting the Wall, this is just having the bad luck of being sick and being sick just makes you more tired to begin with.

Many runners under train, they don't really put in the work ahead of time.  Then they get tired at some point in the race and just start shuffling or walking.  This isn't Hitting the Wall, this is just what happens when you don't train correctly for a marathon.  When your under trained chances are you'll get really tired and slow down long before Hitting the Wall would have the chance to occur.

Over training, this happens a lot.  Runners will try to cram everything into the last few weeks of marathon training.  You can even add incorrect tapering to this.  Their legs are tired before they even begin the race, so they get overly exhausted early and stop and walk or shuffle through, this most likely isn't really Hitting the Wall either.

They start out too fast, maybe ran with a pace group that was too fast for what they trained for.  They get exhausted early on, or have to stop and walk and feel like they never get the energy back.. This isn't really Hitting the Wall either, this is more like getting burned out.  However, if your not careful I have heard this could potentially lead to it depending on your training level.  But I have had a few coaches tell me that most people burn out when they do this long before they ever get to the Hit the Wall point.

Also lets not forget, the runner who is complaining loudly telling everyone in the race their exhausted and they Hit the Wall.  If you've ran into these type you know what I am talking about.  Trust me, they aren't Hitting the Wall.  If they were, they wouldn't have the energy to be complaining.  This runner is just tired and a complainer!

There are lots of factors like these above that can make you tired and give you a miserable race, but generally most of these things rarely mean your Hitting the Wall.
The best part about everything I listed above (aside from having a cold or flu) they are all preventable.  If you listen to you body and use your training runs to learn how to run a race, and how your body is going to respond to different situations, then generally you can prevent rookie mistakes like those above.

So maybe your asking, well then what is Hitting the Wall??  What does it really feel like?  Who does it really happen too?  What causes it to happen?

The answer is, kind of vague.  No one really knows, exactly.  It can happen to top athletes (take Kara Goucher's NYC Marathon on Sunday for instance.) it can happen to beginners and it could wait to happen until your 101st marathon.  It can happen to even those who do absolutely everything right in training and preparation!


There is a BIG difference between Hitting the Wall and experiencing being really tired in a race. Unless it happens to you, you won't really be able to understand what it does to you.

What I have found is for those who have really "Hit the Wall" their opinion is pretty much right in line with my own.  When you hit that point, your body stops, its finished.  You hurt, true pain from head to toe, your legs have no gas left in them, the thoughts of continuing on are as painful as distasteful. 

What happens:
Your done, so beyond spent that the actual impact of pushing your strides takes more effort and pain than you could ever imagine it could.
Your body and mind begin to shut down.
When hits it can be quite sudden. Bam... Which is why the term "Hitting the Wall".
You literally feel like you just ran into a wall, and yes a solid wall.
It playing with your mind and emotions and tears you down.
Thoughts of quitting, thoughts why am I doing this, how am I going to push into my next step pass emotionally through your mind.
Even if your not an emotional person you'll likely start crying, or tearing up.
Anyone around you, can see it on your face, it's not something you can disguise or would have the energy to.

(Going off my experience and many others I have spoken to.) Generally if this is going to happen to you, it seems it generally happens around or after mile 22ish. Although I once heard it happened to a guy around miles 19 & 18, I'm sure even more rare but what a nightmare that would be!


How to you finish a race at this point?  Well this is when all your pre-training comes in.  You've probably heard the term running a marathon is 60% mind and 40% body (or some variation of that).  Well, as you train your body to get ready for a marathon, you should also be training your mind.  If you do, and if the rare "Hitting the Wall" does in fact happen to you, you'll be ready for it!

How do you get passed it?  
Well some runners don't, its just a fact not everyone is cut out for what it does to you.  The ones that give up, you won't find them walking to the finish, because if you hit this point and you let your mind take control and give up, your done, you really wouldn't be able to walk to the finish.  The only option would be the swag wagon.

First, if this does happen the absolute worse thing you can do is stop to rest or start walking! You actually should to do just the opposite.  You have to find that part inside of you, that is the heart of the love for running.  You have to want it, and you have to want to finish bad.  You take that desire, and then you force your brain to push your feet forward.

Second, as soon as you can (sooner the better) you need to grab a hold of your thoughts and shift your focus.  You tell yourself, this is going to hurt bad, but you are trained, your body can take it. Use pure motivation to push forward and get yourself to the finish.

Third, you go faster, even if its just the slightest increase in stride.  It will hurt horribly, but you pick up your pace.  Get mad if you have to, and use any anger at having this happen to you to help you push the strides forward.
(I can't even describe the pain that calls for do do that at this point, but doing this really does help.)

Fourth, hopefully you already know how to use your brain to let go of the pain.  Hopefully you practiced this in your training runs.  It's a form of self meditation.  It is possible to push that pain the the back of your mind.  Shift your focus on what you want, that finish line.

Fifth, believe in yourself, believe you can!  Bite back the sheer pain your legs are experiencing ignore any burning and exhaustion in your lungs.  Block everything out around you if needed, the other runners, the crowds. Ignore the comments, especially those few people that for some reason are always their saying your okay or your almost there.  You can curse them your next race:), don't spend your thought energy on how annoying that comment is now.  Let your mind and determination take complete control and want that finish!

** This may sound like a lot to do or think about, but from the time you Hit the Wall, between shifting to focus on the finish this all takes place in minutes.  This isn't a set of things to slowly start to work on.  When you Hit the Wall, you have a short amount of time to find the endurance and motivation, or stop and get a DNF. **


Occasionally, if you can push on it could wear off a tad and you might be able to have some of the hurt lift a little.  But even if that does happen, it's still going to be a very painful finish, one you'll never forget!  But if you in shape for it and are prepared mentally, even if you don't get any relief, you WILL get to the finish line!

But like I said above, Hitting the Wall is very rare.  I know runners who have ran 10-50 marathons in their lifetimes, and have never had it happen.  Even met a guy who's run over 600 marathons in his lifetime and only hit it a couple of times.

I'm sure they've had some very exhausting races and days, (everyone does).  If the marathon was easy, then everyone would be doing it, instead of just the 1% of runners out there.
The important thing to remember is, the chances of it happening to you are pretty slim.  So don't let the term "Hitting the Wall" distract you from signing up for a marathon!

More than likely if you train correctly, and put in the work ahead of time, you'll end up having a great enjoyable race!  Don't put all the work in ahead of time, and you may feel tired and sluggish during the second half and might not enjoy it as much, but even then you probably still won't Hit the Wall!

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