’Hitting the wall’ has been considered a rite of passage for distance runners, triathletes and cyclists for years, but the reality is it’s not necessary to experience it at all…
Having coached many endurance athletes, and completed multiple marathons, ultramarathons and long distance triathlons myself, my knowledge here is from the real world school of hard knocks. In my experience, two factors result in ‘hitting the wall’
Why we hit the wall #1: poor nutrition
Nutrition quality and strategy is at the heart of ‘bonking’ and ‘hitting the wall’. Humans have an incredible ability to power themselves over vast distances - assuming they’re physically conditioned (more on that below) - but often it’s poor nutritional choices which result in the dreaded collapse after 2 - 3 hours of exercise.
Over the past few decades, the push for a high-carbohydrate diet has seen athletes consume more and more highly processed, sugar-laden energy gels which play absolute havoc with our insulin levels, not to mention our guts.
When sugar’s your only fuel, the wall’s waiting for you (as are the portaloos)
These ordinary gels can sustain you for so long, but the peaks and troughs - both physical and mental - which come as a result are hugely inefficient for long distance sports, making the already hard job of endurance competition unnecessarily harder than it needs to be.
Under this pure carb onslaught, eventually the body starts to shut down and we experience a severe lack of energy as our glycogen stores run dry. We can only store a certain amount of carbs in our liver and muscles - normally assumed to be about 90 minute’s worth, and when it’s gone, that’s when ‘the wall’ appears.
If glycogen depletion causes us to hit the wall, and we can only store around 90 minutes worth, why doesn’t this happen immediately on passing the 90-minute mark?
Because the human body is a) very bloody clever, and b) has two fuel sources - carbs, and fat.
Both are used during exercise, and when fat’s being burned the glycogen’s being conserved.
The best news here is even the lightest athlete has tens of thousands of calories (potential fuel) in fat which, when fat-adapted, can be used for fuel, saving those precious 90 minutes’ worth of carbs and letting them last MUCH longer, making resupply, energy level management and stomach happiness all much easier to manage.
It's a matter of working with what the body's got: the more ordinary 'sports nutrition' (ie, high sugar content stuff) you consume, the less efficient a fat-burner you become. But fear not, your body is no old dog - you can teach it new tricks.
All of which render the wall irrelevant when handled correctly.
I’m not advocating an overly extreme ‘low carb, high fat’ diet or a full-blown ketogenic plan, but my experience has shown the carb-fat balance absolutely needs to be redressed.
Endurance athletes who can rely on not only carbs but also fat as a fuel source perform much better over long distance - both in terms of consistent energy levels and a more settled stomach - than those who plump solely for a high sugar fueling strategy.
Take on highly nutritious, real food - and that can still be in ‘gel’ form when using 33Fuel’s ChiaEnergy Gels for example - and you’ll discover the distances you can run, ride and swim are much greater than you previously thought, with no wall to worry about anywhere.
Looking for the convenience of a gel, with the nutrient dense power of real food and a side order of good fats, protein, vitamins and minerals with your carbs? Our unique Chia Energy Gels are the gels you’ve been looking for
Knowing when to fuel can be made much easier by tuning into hunger - this blog post explains all you need to know.
Why we hit the wall #2: lack of muscular endurance and strength
The second half of the bonking/wall equation is being physically trained to cover long distances.
Too many athletes focus too much on their cardio systems when in reality this is rarely their limiter over long distances.
As an example, how many people do you see truly stretching their heart and lungs over an ultramarathon? Very few, save for the most elite of runners, and a handful who’ve paced well enough to put in a faster last mile or two.
Weightlifting isn’t just for gym rats and the swole brigade. Endurance athletes can gain big time - and avoid the wall - by building strength work into their routines. Beards optional
For 90% of us, the ‘hitting the wall’ experience comes as much from a lack of strength and muscular endurance as it does from getting nutrition wrong.
Beyond a core base of fitness, endurance sports are much more an exercise in strength than cardio ability.
As an example, even when running at a relatively slow pace, muscles take a pounding and are torn to shreds.
The stronger you are - with strength created through hill reps, gym work, plyometrics, eccentric load training, for example - the better you’ll run as your legs tire. You’ll maintain better form and efficiency and will tire at a slower rate than those around you.
This sort of training may feel like it goes against the grain but incorporating an hour or two a week in the gym, or even in your living room with a few weights, delivers real bang for your buck.
Why do we hit the wall - conclusion
Build your fat burning base, ace your race day nutrition, and hit race day with some real strength in the tank alongside your cardio and you’ll go a long way to never hitting that wall again.
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