If you are a seasoned runner with a number of races behind your back, my guess is that you have probably found yourself in situations when you were ready to throw in the towel mid-race. I am quite familiar with the sensation of “hitting the wall” or “bonking”, as some runners like to call it: you know, when your legs are feeling as if they are made of cement, your stomach getting funny and losing your mental focus.
For most of us, quitting is not an option when our faces slam up against that invisible concrete slab. We runners like to tough it out and would only consider pulling out if our legs fall off, we get paralyzed or get bitten by a grizzly bear. However, the good news is that the dreaded “wall” can be overcome with the right combination of race strategy, nutrition, and strong mental and physical resilience. In this blog post I would like to share some top tips with you, drawing from my own experience.
5 ways to avoid hitting the wal
Be realistic with your training
My first rule of thumb is to train where my fitness is now and not where I want it to be! Leave your ego at the door. Make sure to mix in plenty of cross training sessions as well to keep your interest up and your chances of getting injured down.
Anticipate pain and low points especially in longer, more challenging races. Come up with a plan of action in advance for how you will tackle those kind of situations. This way when the pain finally arrives, you will be mentally ready for it and can physically persevere. For example, when I ran the Milton Keynes marathon, I felt fine during the first 30kms but I knew the pain was waiting for me out there. When I finally hit the pain, I was ready for it – I allowed myself to have a little pity party (but not for too long), then pressed my imaginary ‘reset’ button and put my ‘power song’ on to play on my iPod. Because I was ready for that kind of pain, I was able to continue pushing myself, because I knew that running a marathon was supposed to be very hard!
You should be able to avoid a complete physical meltdown with a proper nutrition and hydration strategy. Try different types of fuel during your training runs to find out what works best for you – whether it is energy gels, jelly babies, flapjacks or simply dates and banana. I personally like to stick to energy gels (I swear by SiS and Gu) because they are really easy to carry, they absorb quickly and give me an instant energy boost, and last but not least, I can stomach them. On the other hand, I know I can’t deal with heavy flapjacks, they make me sick (fortunately, I found out about this during a training run, not in a race event). Many runners pick up random stuff at fuel stations in a race which I personally would not recommend unless you have tried those products in training and you know for sure they work for you.
Look after yourself
Personally, I believe that active recovery and rest days should be part of your training plan. While it may feel like you are slacking and you may worry that you won’t build strength or increase your running speed, regular time off allows your body and mind to fully recover and you can stay excited to jump back into your training programme. Never taking a day off sets your body up for a breakdown as you become more susceptible to severe muscle soreness, a suppressed immune system, improper sleep, a decrease in strength and performance, and ultimately, injury. My favourite ways to actively recover include walking, yoga and doing really easy jogs that I use to take photos of myself, documenting my training journey for my blog and social media sites to motivate myself and others.
Set a flexible racing strategy
Check in with yourself in the lead up to race day and on the day itself, to see how you are feeling physically and what your stress levels are. You may have put in all the training, but your stomach or the weather may not be playing ball on the day itself, so it is good to have a flexible game plan. This could mean for example setting multiple goals for the race and making sure that at least one is not defined by the clock. This will ensure a sense of accomplishment come race day, no matter what happens. I personally like to have as one of my goals to beat my previous time if I have done the same race before already (which is not necessarily going to be a new PB time).
What to do if you do hit the wall…
Unfortunately, we have to accept that sometimes, no matter how much hard work we put into preparing for a race, sh*it just happens and we have to roll with the punches that race day throws at us. But despair not, you may still be able to salvage the situation and have a good racing experience. Here is how.
It’s perfectly OK to say ‘oh, crap’ a couple of times. You’ve earnt the right to cuss and feel a little upset.
Know that it’s all in your head – Believe that your mind will pull you through to the finish. Focus on what you CAN do to get through the race, even if it means you need to slow down or break into a walk. I remember starting to have massive stomach discomfort during the Valencia Marathon at halfway point – it was so bad that I could not carry on running, so I switched to a trot and then resorted to walking until I reached the finish. Guess what? I still earnt the same medal that I would have upon setting a new PB in that race.
Bargain with yourself – Tell yourself that the only way is through. Make a deal with yourself that you will carry on until the next mile marker. When you reach the mile marker, pat yourself on the shoulder and see if you can target the next one. Keep repeating this until you’re so close to the finish line that you can say ‘it would be ridiculous to pull out now that I have come so far’.
Get out of your head by distracting yourself – It’s time to put your power song on if you’ve got your running music with you, maybe even sing along or tune into the lyrics to get away from the pain and discomfort you are experiencing.
Get social – Engage with the supporters: give a high five to the children (kids tend to be the most enthusiastic spectators!), have a selfie with slower runners who are wearing a funny outfit, do a little dance when you pass a music band, wave and smile. Chances are that these quirky moments and the atmosphere will overwrite the memories of disappointment in your head if your race does not work out the way you had anticipated.
Put things into perspective – Let go of the pressure to finish the race in a particular time, and focus on getting yourself through the finish line instead. At the end of the day, this is not the only or the last race you will do in your life (hopefully!). I do find that putting things into a healthy perspective always helps – sometimes removing the pressure you put on yourself is like lifting a physical load off your shoulders, making you feel slightly lighter.
‘Fake it till you make it’ – For heaven’s sake, allow yourself to be the celebrated running hero that all those people on the side of the road have lined up for. Yes, you! Who knows, you may even get that spring back into your step once more, or catch a second wind of energy.
I hope these tips will help you climb over that wall if you encounter it at your next race. What are your top tips to avoid bonking in a race? If you have hit the wall before, how did you tackle it?