Why Do We Hit 'The Wall'?

Why Do We Hit 'The Wall'?

Hitting 'The Wall' is considered a rite of passage for marathon runners, Ironman triathletes and long distance cyclists, but when you know why we hit 'The Wall', you'll realise it is, in fact, totally avoidable

Having coached many athletes to (and completed myself) Ironman triathlons, marathons, ultra marathons, multi-day cycling events and everything inbetween, the knowledge detailed below comes from both personal experience and that of coached clients. In my experience, there's two huge factors which result in hitting 'the wall’

Avoid hitting the wall with natural sports nutrition

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 ultra-processed, sugar-laden energy gels which play absolute havoc with our insulin levels, not to mention our guts.

why do we hit the wall - 1

When sugar’s your only fuel, this is what's waiting for you (as are the portaloos)

These ordinary gels can sustain you for a very short while, but the peaks and troughs - both physical and mental - which come as a result are hugely inefficient for anything longer than a 5k run, making the already hard job of endurance 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 60-90 minutes worth, why doesn’t this happen immediately on passing the 60-90 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.

why do we hit the wall - 2

Reduce your reliance on sugar during sport and you'll experience more stable energy levels

It's a matter of working with what the body's got: the more ordinary 'sports nutrition' (ie, ultra-processed 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.

Athletes who can rely on not solely on 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 Chia Energy 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 plus powerful electrolytes? Our unique Chia Energy Gels is what you're looking for  

Why We Hit 'The Wall' #2: Lack Of Muscular Endurance And Strength

The second half of the bonking/hitting the 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 (ie, cardio system) 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.

Why do we hit the wall strength

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 and eccentric load training - 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.

7 Best Strength Exercises For Runners And Cyclists

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.

When you introduce strength training, it's natural to experience muscle soreness afterwards. Combat this and speed recovery with a healthy, non-ultra-processed protein shake

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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