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How Hitting the Wall Works

Tips for Getting Past the Wall
Proper training can help you get past the wall.
Proper training can help you get past the wall.

Suppose you've trained sufficiently, given yourself the proper nutrition, and yet you still hit the wall. How do you get past it? This is where mental toughness, positive thinking and experience come into play.

There's a risk involved with getting better at marathoning. If your competition begins to pull away from you at a critical juncture in a race, you can't simply yell, "Excuse me, but I don't want to over-exert myself and hit the wall!" Even if you're simply racing yourself and the clock -- perhaps you want to attain a Boston Marathon qualifying time -- you may have to run anaerobically for a longer-than-ideal period of time. It's a gamble that sometimes pays off and sometimes doesn't. Bill Rodgers, who won the Boston Marathon four times, once remarked, "If you want to win a race you have to go a little berserk." He also said, "The marathon can humble you." [source: Will-Weber]

Your brain's sole fuel is glycogen. Without it, your concentration fades. Glycogen depletion also causes your body to produce more of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can make you feel tired. To make matters worse, the feel-good chemical dopamine -- responsible for excitement and motivation -- drops. [source: Latta] It's a perfect storm of mental and emotional trouble. But you don't have to yield to it.

Rather than daydream or think about places you'd rather be at the moment (a dissociative strategy), sports psychologists recommend staying in the present and using an associative strategy. Focus on the race, what's happening in your body and ways you might adapt. Ask yourself, "Have I had an energy drink or nutrition lately?" and "Can I vary my pace slightly?" You may discover that your decreased mental awareness has caused you to overlook an important physical key to overcoming the very problem you face.

Your internal dialogue is extremely valuable. Repeat positive, self-affirming statements to yourself. Olympic coach Bobby McGee also stresses to his runners that the subconscious does not judge, so you must avoid using words like "not." If, for example, you repeat the phrase "I am not weak and I do not quit" your subconscious will only preserve the heart of the message which is "I am weak and I quit." It's better to say "I am strong and I always finish." [source: Magical Running]

Such mental "tricks" are not truly magic, of course. Positive internal dialogue needs to be practiced during training until it becomes habit. Such habits can have a huge influence on the body. McGee says some of the best racers succeed by acting and believing in the opposite of what their body is telling them. They "fake it 'til they make it," says McGee.

Experience can also lessen the shock of hitting the wall. If you've been through it in training or previous races, you're less likely to succumb to it. As humbling and physically challenging as it can be, it is only temporary. That intrinsic knowledge alone can be enough to get you to the finish line and emerge from the shadow of the wall.