Whether it’s at mile 20 of a 26.2-mile marathon or 70 miles into a 100-mile cycle, at some point most long-distance athletes will experience ‘hitting the wall’, or ‘bonking’ as it is known in endurance sports. If you’re lucky enough to not have experienced this phenomenon, hitting the wall is extremely unpleasant and something that long-distance athletes dread. It is a feeling of extreme weakness and exhaustion where the legs feel as if they have been filled with concrete and the pavement looks as good a place as any for a nice lie down.
This sensation comes about because of the way our bodies produce energy. When running, the body prefers to convert glycogen into glucose, rather than the much slower process of metabolising fat to provide energy. The average person is able to store between 1500-2000 calories of glycogen and it is when this store is depleted and we turn to using fat stores that extreme fatigue sets in and we ‘hit the wall’ and each step forward now becomes a vicious battle of mind over body.
But what strategies can we use to break through the wall and keep pushing towards the finish line, or even better, to make sure we never hit the wall?
The best way to break through is to move the wall and never come near it, by ensuring your glycogen stores don’t deplete whilst you are running, cycling or partaking in any endurance event for that matter. Following a precise and progressive training plan in the build up to a long event will increase the amount of glycogen that the body can store and in turn will increase the amount of time you can keep going without even reaching breaking point.
However, at some point or another you are going to be testing the limits of your endurance and exercising past the point of your natural glycogen stores. In this instance we can use a practice known as ‘carb loading’ to saturate our muscles and liver with glycogen and ensure that we have as much of it stored as possible before starting a run, bike or swim.
Our body converts carbohydrates into glycogen so eating platefuls of carbs up to three days before a big race will ensure glycogen stores are maxed out. You can also stave off hitting the dreaded wall by replenishing glycogen stores on the go and taking on simple carbohydrates, normally in the form of energy gels, sports drinks and even sweets.
Both strategies so far assume the body has given up before the mind and would normally only occur in very long endurance sessions. But what about when you’re exercising in shorter, more intense sessions (think a 5-10km run or a monster burpee finisher in your PT sessions) and your brain is telling you to stop and you feel like you can’t carry on? Here are a few techniques to keep your mind focused and keep pushing hard:
Think of the hardest workout you have ever completed.
Thinking of previous times where your legs and lungs have been screaming but you managed to get to the end of the workout will remind you just how strong and capable you are. Knowing that you have pushed through the pain before will help to focus the mind on completing the task at hand. Also, think of how great you felt after previously pushing through the pain and completing tough workouts – a little reminder of this post workout euphoria and you will be pushing through the pain and moving with strength and purpose once again.
Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”
Rather than focusing on how much pain your body is currently in, remind yourself why you are training. We often lose sight of our goals, and mid-workout is no better time for a little reminder that will put the pain out of mind and have you striding forward to the finish line.
Repeat a mantra.
Replacing negative emotions while experiencing pain with positive ones can help to reduce the feeling of pain and distract the mind. Ultra-runner Scott Jurek uses the mantra “this is what you came for” to push through the pain while Paula Radcliffe takes a much more simple approach and simply distracts her mind from the miles ahead by repeatedly counting to 100.
Am I injured? No, push harder.
Assuming the pain you are trying to push through isn’t being caused by an injury it will be only a fleeting feeling that will soon disappear. Remind yourself of this when you think you can’t do anymore – it may be a little clichéd but the pain you are experiencing is only temporary.
Take it one step at a time.
Breaking any type of workout into small, easy-to-manage chunks can turn climbing Everest into nothing more than climbing a flight of stairs (albeit around 3000 times). Concentrating only on what is immediately in front of you is a great way to keep the mind focused as you push through painful moments in training. Take for example running, if you focus solely on each stride that you take and ignore everything beyond that, you will always be able to move forward. Why? Because you can always take one more step. This is a method that I personally use and encourage others to use when undertaking a particularly grueling and painful workout.
Ultimately, there is no easy way to push past the pain of training but try using some of these techniques when things start to get uncomfortable in your next session and see which one works best for you.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Og Mandino:
“Always will I take another step. If that is of no avail I will take another, and yet another. In truth, one step at a time is not too difficult… I know that small attempts, repeated, will complete any undertaking.”
Favourite film: Jarhead
Favourite food: Panang Curry
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