Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Breaking Through the Wall

We've all been there. You're out on a run. Things are going okay. And then everything falls apart. Sometimes it's gradual, like pieces falling off an old rusty car until it no longer runs. Other times it hits you like a Mac truck. Regardless of how it happens you have "hit the wall", the point at which you can run no further. Or can you? 

Science defines hitting the wall, or "bonking", like this

A condition caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles, which manifests itself by sudden fatigue and loss of energy. 

It is also generally accepted that these stores are completely depleted at or around 20 miles of running. But runners know that you can hit the wall at any distance. So, are runners who bonk at 3 or 6 or 15 miles just imagining it? I have read that the reason some runners hit the wall earlier is that they simply had not done a good job making sure they had eaten right and started with full reserves but I think there is more to bonking than Glycogen. Accomplished marathoner and Runner's World writer Jeff Galloway tweeted that, "Your wall is normally the length of your longest endurance session within the last two to three weeks." In my experience, regardless of the distance you are used to running if you are training to go further, runner faster or any combination of that, you will hit the wall.

So, here is how I define hitting the wall:

When you reach the point at which your body says "I can run no further" and your mind agrees you have hit the wall.
  
Let me explain. We see on a fairly regular basis that if your mind tells your body it can do something, there is virtually no limit to what the body can do. A few weeks ago Max King ran the JFK 50 Miler in a record setting 5:35.25. That means he ran 50 miles at a blazing fast 6:42min/mi pace. In his race report he states that he felt confident because in training he had had "some good 20-25-milers on the road at below race pace" but on race day he was able to maintain a consistently fast pace well beyond even his furthest training run. So while hitting the wall may be unavoidable breaking through it is certainly possible.

So what does it take to break through the wall?

When it comes to breaking through the wall I think there is no better resource than the ultra-running community. Ultra-running (completing any distance further than 26.2 miles) is a sport built around hitting the wall and breaking through it. But while these tactics are used by runners seeking to reach 50K, 50mile or even 100+ mile race goals many are also applicable to the runner pushing toward 5K, 10K or half marathon finish line.

Recruit Some Friendly Faces
There is no doubt that having some friendly faces strategically placed around the course can give you the little boost in motivation you need to keep running. Nobody wants to be seen walking especially by their friends and family! Seek out people who will yell and cheer for you and then ask them to be waiting at or around the mile markers you normally find yourself walking. Sometimes that little encouragement is all you need.

Me being paced at mile 26 of the Buckeye Woods 50K
Get a Pacer 
A pacer has a two fold job. First, to run alongside the runner offering support and encouragement. And Second, to give the runner someone to follow so that they aren't burdened with the mental task of considering route or pace and can simply focus on moving forward. Often, a pacer does not run the entire route or course with a runner but accompanies them during the most difficult portions of the run. So while you may not be able to find a runner willing to go the whole distance, if you plot an "out-and-back" route they may be willing to run the "back" with you and get a ride back to their car.

If you are considering recruiting a pacer for a race it is important that you check your specific race's rules about pacers (sometimes referred to as "rabbits") Some races require your pacer to be registered as a designated pacer. Others have rules prohibiting "rabbits" (Which are generally only enforced for runners winning cash prizes). And still others have no rules whatsoever. If you are running a race that has no rules regarding a pacer then you should assume that your pacer needs to be registered as a racer and run the whole distance, from start to finish. Needless to say, if that is the case then you should seek out a runner who is both more experienced and faster at your desired race distance than you are.

Experiment with "Bonk Runs"
The concept behind a bonk run is simple. Deliberately underfuel before a long run (with food and/or sleep) so that your body gets tired early and then push through. This is often used by ultra-runners to help them learn to deal, mentally and physically, with breaking through the wall. I really don't feel this tactic is useful to runners training for any distance less than a half marathon. Also, I would not recommend doing this alone. Running on empty, obviously increases the likelihood that something will go wrong. (After all, that is the point here) so it is even more important to have someone running with you in case something went horribly wrong. 

Draw Strength From Other Runs
During a race or hard workout, try to search your mind for a time when a run was harder, the weather was colder, the conditions were worse, or you hurt more than you do in that moment. Being able to say, "If I survived that I can survive this!" can be a tremendous asset when you are struggling.

These are just a few of the tactics out there for breaking through the wall. This is certainly not a complete guide but I hope that they prove useful to you the next time you find yourself bonking on a run.

So, until next time, train hard, eat right and live life to the fullest!       

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