6 Tips to Avoid Hitting the Wall in a Marathon

If you're training for a marathon, you've probably heard about the dreaded "wall." The wall occurs somewhere around the 20-mile mark and it is the point when a runner's glycogen (stored energy) within the muscles is depleted. This forcing the runner to slow down considerably, sometimes to a walk.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to avoid hitting the wall. Here are some tips for beating the wall in a marathon.

Do Weekly Long Runs

girl running in the morning trought a country road
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Your weekly long run is the best training to avoid hitting the wall. By doing progressively longer runs each week, your body's capacity to store more glycogen within the muscles increases. By increasing your glycogen stores, you'll be able to maintain your pace and hopefully delay the onset of fatigue.

Also, long runs teach the body to utilize energy reserves from fat storage sites after the glycogen stores have been depleted.

But in order to take full advantage of those long runs without injury, it is important to plan them carefully. A general rule of thumb is that you should never increase mileage more than 10 percent each week. Some running coaches also recommend that you stay at your new mileage for three weeks before increasing again.

By increasing mileage slowly, you gradually train your metabolic systems, your muscles, and your mental endurance to tolerate longer distances.

Run at Least One 20-Miler

To make sure you're really getting the long run benefits described above, try to complete 20 miles as your longest training run. It's not necessary to run more than 20 miles because the potential negative effects of running longer than that in training really outweigh any possible benefits.

Follow your marathon training schedule and prioritize the long runs, making sure that they occupy a prime spot on your calendar so that you don't skip these key workouts.

If you need a marathon training plan, consider using this 22-Week Marathon Training Plan that gradually increases your mileage so that you complete one 20-mile run four weeks before race day. This gives your body a chance to rest and fully recover before your race day.

Train at Marathon Goal Pace

If you're shooting for a specific marathon time, you should focus on your goal race pace during training. You definitely don't want to run your entire long runs at marathon pace (MP), but it helps to run the last 1/3 of your long run at your anticipated marathon pace during some of your runs.

Not sure about setting a goal time? There are different ways to establish a number. You can use tables or formulas, but many people use the Runner's World Race Prediction Calculator.

Once you know your marathon pace, use it to guide your long runs. Try to run at MP towards the end of your run. This benefits your mental and physical endurance training because you'll be picking up the pace when your legs are already fatigued. Your body will become more familiar with and more efficient at running at your goal marathon pace.

Don't Go Out too Fast

One of the biggest rookie mistakes in racing is going out too fast at the beginning of the race. Most runners have at least one story about a race when they felt so great during the first few miles that they ran ahead of pace, only to crash and hit the wall during the final miles.

While going out fast might seem like a good thing, it usually backfires. If you go out too fast, you'll burn through your stored energy too quickly and your muscles will fatigue faster, leaving you feeling tired and depleted toward the end of your race.

There are a few things you can do to prevent going too fast too soon. One easy strategy is to run with a pace group. If you are part of a running team that is training for a marathon, they will most likely have a runner (or maybe a few) that have the assigned task of running the race at a set pace.

Pacers are usually identified by a set minute per mile and by a goal finish time. For example, you might run with a 9:30 pacer to finish in just under 4:10:00. These runners usually carry markers so that runners who want to run at that pace can see them.

Keep in mind that even if you don't participate in a running group, you can still follow these pacers if they are available at your event. However, you may not know in advance if they will be available for you to depend on.

Another strategy is to plot your pace, practice it during long runs, and follow the schedule your marathon. It's smart to plan to run your first few miles slightly slower than race pace. Then you can plan to pick up the pace as the course clears out slightly—usually around mile three or so.

For example, if your goal finish time is 4:10, you might plan to run the first three miles at a 10 minute/mile pace. Then plan to run the rest of your miles at a 9:20-9:25 pace to reach your goal finish time.

Take Walk Breaks During Your Marathon

Taking a walk break during a marathon may seem a bit counterintuitive when you're worried about your time, but the strategy can work to help avoid the wall. Some marathoners even find that they have faster times when they take short, strategic walk breaks during their races.

You can try taking a 30 to 60-second walk break at every mile marker during your marathon. You'll be amazed at how much better you'll feel during the last six miles than if you tried to run the entire distance.

However, walking can affect you in different ways. While some runners get a burst of energy, others get the opposite effect. For some runners, stopping to walk results in a huge decrease in momentum and motivation.

So how do you know which group you fall into? Test out the strategy during training runs. Keep notes in your training journal about how walking affected your mental endurance. You may decide to forgo the strategy unless you absolutely need it.

Consume Calories During Your Marathon

When you run for under 90 minutes, most of your energy comes from stored muscle glycogen. But if you're running for longer than 90 minutes, the sugar in your blood and liver glycogen become more important because your stored muscle glycogen gets depleted. Studies have shown that some carbohydrate should be consumed to replace glycogen reserves when running a marathon.

Fueling with carbs during your marathon will prevent you from running out of energy and hitting the wall, while also boosting your performance. There are different ways to provide your body with this fuel.

  • Gels are easy to carry and easy to consume on the go. But some runners don't like the sticky texture or taste of these gooey fuels.
  • Sports drinks are also easy to consume and most races provide both water and some type of sports drink at aid stations. However, these beverages cause stomach discomfort in some runners. It's important to make sure that you know which fluid will be available on race day and practice drinking that fluid during long runs.
  • Solid foods are a less popular option. Some runners prefer the taste of solid food when they run. They might carry gummy bears, jelly beans, energy bars, or even foods like pretzels or candy corn. These foods provide quick sugar and a burst of energy. However, chewing and swallowing on the run can be a challenge for many runners. Again, the key is practicing in advance.

It is reasonable to expect to need some kind of carbohydrate fuel on your run. Your best bet is to try different methods during training to see which option works best for you.

What to Do If You Hit the Wall

Despite all of your best training and smart training, it is still possible that you will hit the wall. Weather conditions may change. You may not sleep well before the race. Race-day jitters may get the best of you. There are dozens of things that may happen that may cause you to hit the wall.

If it happens, don't get too discouraged. It happens to even the best of marathoners.And most seasoned runners have had it happen at least once.

So what should you do? Consider one of these evidence-based options.

Shift to an Internal Focus

Researchers have studied distance runners and have found that runners who successfully complete marathons report having associative thoughts—or thoughts relating to their internal selves. They might focus on breathing patterns, running form, or they may even repeat a motivating mantra.

Runners who hit the wall reported more dissociative thoughts. These are thoughts focussed outside of yourself. For example, focussing on the environment, the crowds, or even listening to music.

If you feel yourself hitting the wall, try shifting your focus internally and use positive self-talk to see if you can motivate yourself back on track.

Recommit to Your Goal

Scientific research has revealed that there is a complex interplay of both physical (muscular) and psychological factors that come into play when you hit the wall.

For example, running with exercise-induced muscle damage increases your perception of physical strain, and then can decrease your perceived power. A typical response is for runners to unintentionally slow their running pace, increase their desire to walk, or a shift from initially set performance goals to a desire to just finish the race. These adjustments can have further negative implications.

One strategy to combat this cycle of emotional and physical strain is to bargain with yourself for short distances. For example, if you want to walk, commit to running for another minute or two before you walk. After the minute see if you can recommit to another few minutes of running.

Recalibrate

If all else fails and your body and brain are fighting you tooth and nail, start to recalibrate your pace and your goal. But don't completely throw in the towel. Take incremental steps to back off.

Slow your pace before walking. Try a walk/run strategy before giving in to a full walk. And finally, walk before dropping out (grabbing fluids along the way). Simply do what you need to do to cross the finish line.

It is possible that with a mile or two of walking your body and brain get back in the game and you finish the marathon with a run.

A Word From Verywell

Remember that most marathon runners who participate in regular events will hit a wall at some time. While smart training can decrease the likelihood of it happening, there are certain factors you can't control.

Prepare yourself mentally by coming up with strategies to use if it happens to you. And if you do hit the wall, don't beat yourself up. Every runner experiences ups and downs. Not meeting your goal time may give you another reason to sign up for a new race and try again.

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