How to avoid hitting the wall during a marathon

Does running a marathon mean hitting the wall? Not always and here's how to avoid it.

As I spend time recovering from the California International Marathon, I have time to think about what right and what went wrong.  I do know I hit a wall and hit it hard. Which brings up the question: do you have to hit a wall in a marathon? Ideally, no.

Let’s clarify this a bit–in a perfect marathon you will reach a wall, but not until about mile 26. That means that you will have meted out your energy and taken in the right amount of fuel to run at your fastest possible pace for 26.2 miles…and not a step more. That’s what you should be aiming for. And how do you get there? That’s the famous last question, but I’ll offer a few tips from marathons that have worked out for me:

  • Be realistic about your goal time. You may have a goal you’d love to hit, but make sure you are truly in that kind of shape before setting out at that pace.
  • Keep your starting pace in check–I can’t emphasize this one enough. You’re going to be feeling fresh and ready to go after a taper. Don’t ruin your race by going under your goal pace in those first miles. One thing I’d recommend is that if there are pacers and they seem to be doing a good job, keep your goal pacers slightly ahead of you at the start and don’t allow yourself to pass them until the final miles if you’re feeling good
  • When your energy drops, and it will a few times over, reach for a gel if you haven’t just had one. A gel or electrolyte replacement drink might be all that you need.
  • Consider slowing your pace a tad if you hit a low. Often the low will be short-lived and once you’ve made it through, you’ll be ready to pick up the pace again.
  • Pay attention to your fueling. My lesson from this past marathon is that, given the opportunity, you should take in carbs or electrolytes sooner rather than later. I had too big of a gap between my first two gels and I know that played a role in what happened to me last week. Know your fueling plan and stick to it.
  • Always remember that marathons will offer up good miles and bad miles. Ride out the bad ones and take advantage of the good ones. Don’t let yourself get mentally defeated the first time you start to fatigue–the odds are it will pass.

Hitting a wall is your body’s way of protecting itself from being pushed too hard. Your central nervous system goes into protective mode when you’ve depleted your energy stores and/or pushed your muscles beyond a pace they an handle for that period of time. I believe it doesn’t have to happen if you do things correctly.

Ever hit the wall? What has worked for you in preventing that from happening? 


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  1. says

    I hit a wall at about 35k of my marathon. I felt like I’d done the right thing with fluids and fuel but my big issue was that my gut had stopped absorbing anything. Everything just seemed to be sitting sloshing around in my stomach. I’d like to run another marathon one day and without that discomfort and I’m not sure how to overcome that issue. Maybe try a different gel?
    Char recently posted..Just Call Me CrazyMy Profile

  2. says

    I have hit the wall numerous times. Once at mile 8 in a marathon. That wasn’t a fun race to sloth through. I never thought about my body protecting itself when hitting the wall, but it makes perfect sense. It definitely gives me a different prospective.
    Hope that you feel better soon. Head colds and laying in bed all weekend are not fun things. :/
    Tasha @ Healthy Diva recently posted..A so-so week, a craptastic 9 miler & WINNINGMy Profile

  3. says

    The Wall and I were BFFs for a really long time; but once I learned to slow my pace down at the start – like WAY slower than race pace, then I had a lot more energy at the end and could make up that time. Some people can bank minutes in the beginning of a marathon, I learned I am not one of them. I think sometimes we have an idea of what we think we can achieve, too, but it’s not quite yet at our abilities and thus we start out at a pace we think we’re capable of – yet aren’t. This happened to me a few times too.

    Sorry you’re not feeling well but better now than before the race! :) Feel better soon!

    (and I won’t sign off with my signature “xo” since I saw your comment on Marcia’s blog…even though I’ve done that on blogs and emails for years for my favorite friends – haha). Oh what the hell, you’re worth it…. XO
    Jill recently posted..Moving Past Chicago: A New BeginningMy Profile

  4. says

    That first paragraph didn’t really make any sense…I had a thought and then got sidetracked by trying to get a kid to bed. What I meant was that we (at least ME) might think we (me) can achieve x race time so we out out at x pace to achieve it, but it’s too fast and we’ve used up all the glycogen we have before the finish – because it’s too fast – and no amounts of gels or electrolytes are going to help when you’ve hit that wall. The HR monitor can be one of your best friends at the start of a marathon!
    Jill recently posted..Moving Past Chicago: A New BeginningMy Profile

  5. says

    I hit a wall at mile 20. I never would have guessed it was there, I felt so good and then I didn’t. I have only done one marathon so far so that is my only experience with it. Good to know even really experienced marathoners find the wall too. I do intend to do another someday but I am still a little dazed from hitting it :)
    Christy @My Dirt Road Anthem recently posted..Thursdays ThreeMy Profile

  6. says

    Oh gosh such great advice. Yes I’ve hit the wall. Mine was due to going out too fast and just not having what it took to carry that pace through. Pacers are still my friend. There’s no shame in that right? xoxo haha!
    Marcia recently posted..Foodie FridayMy Profile

  7. Mick says

    I agree that being disciplined early as far as pace goes is very important. Being 15-20 sec/mile ahead of target pace early because you are feeling good could mean a minute or more/mile slower later in the marathon.
    One mantra I learned from friends about hydrating in the marathon is “early and often”. Depending on where the water stops are, I aim for a GU every 5M through the 20M mark.
    Hope you start feeling better. One silver lining is that the down time will let your body heal.

  8. says

    These are some great tips. I think the biggest reason so many people hit the wall is #2 – starting too fast. I hit the wall in my first marathon – but mostly b/c I hadn’t done a long run over 16 miles (whoops). I’m happy to say that I haven’t hit one since – sure, I’m exhausted and my pace slows a bit at the end, but there isn’t that feeling of not being able to go a step further. Starting slow and picking up the pace is what I try to focus on!!!
    Michele @ Nycrunningmama recently posted..Race for Recovery Giveaway WinnersMy Profile

  9. says

    Great advice! Proper carb management can certainly prevent bonking and will help you to maintain a higher level of intensity. This is also why its important to make sure you are practicing your nutrition on long runs, so you know how much & how often. Races are about execution, not fitness.

    Your brain runs on glucose, so if you aren’t replacing at a proper rate, its not so much that your body is protecting you as your brain is actually shutting down because it doesn’t have enough fuel. Your central nervous system is actually failing. Extremely critical to get your nutrition plan right.

    Hope you feel better!
    Michele recently posted..Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field #steelers #pittsburghMy Profile

  10. says

    This is great timing… I’m soaking it all up with the hopes of no wall in 5 weeks. I’ve learned the pacing strategy the hard way and am fairly conservative these days. Hoping I can get the fueling and everything else (weather!!) working in my favor!
    Laura recently posted..TriGirl Half Marathon RecapMy Profile

  11. says

    Sorry to hear that you are sick. Hope you feel better quickly. I I think like previous commenter, most of my walls are mental as well. It’s amazing the debate that can go on in your head during those last few miles of a marathon. Get better soon :)
    Robin recently posted..Imperial Glass Grey Cup 8KMy Profile

  12. says

    Sorry you’re sick. It sounds like a doozy of a cold.

    As for hitting the wall, your tips are all good. The best you can do is have confidence in your training and hope it all falls into place come race day. Sometimes our bodies are just not up for it on the day we have to run those 26.2 miles. I believe the best way to race and avoid the wall is 1. Train according to the pace you are able to achieve 2. Start slow and either go with even pacing or negative splits and 3…MOST IMPORTANT… pay attention to how you’re feeling during the race. Be patient and pick it up if you’ve got it come mile 18 or 20. Most of us won’t be breaking any tape so why completely beat ourselves up? Remember the quote “Run often and run long but never outrun your joy of running”… Gotta read aron’s post from the NF50 DNF.
    Joanne recently posted..His Longest and Treacle TartMy Profile

  13. says

    Feel better soon! It sucks to be taken out by a cold/flu, no matter the timing.
    Those are great tips! Luckily, I’ve never hit a wall during a race. However, I have seriously hit some at the beginning of my first IM training on long bike rides. I am a huge advocate for fuelling before you need it. It’s scary to really bonk when riding on the highway!

  14. says

    Thanks for those great tips. During my PR marathon, I let the 3:40 pace group pass me at mile 8; I passed them back at mile 21 and ran a 3:37. :) So sorry you’re not feeling well; I know my immune system takes a vacation after endurance events and I always seem to get sick, esp. if I take a plane trip – germ heaven!

    I find one other tip useful: if I feel a low coming on, I actually pick up the pace a bit. I think the change of pace is beneficial, and picking it up even though you think you should slow down can confuse the central governor so it stops telling you to quit!
    Alison @ racingtales recently posted..Cheribundi and Vega: A Match Made in the BlenderMy Profile

  15. says

    I’m so sorry you got the horrible cold too. At least I can’t blame myself since I didn’t actually see you. Can you give someone a cold via email/blog comments? Feel better soon. Lots of napping, and this weekend I finally felt normal.

    As for the wall….I’m still working on it. I did everything right and had no wall in Houston last January, but at CIM….I think I screwed everything up in that one.
    Terzah recently posted..Recovery!My Profile

  16. says

    I’ve only run two marathons…hit the wall in the first due to shitty pacing and didn’t hit the wall in the second due to realistic, even pacing. Finish time was 4 minutes different (faster in the wall-hitting scenario) but the aftermath was night and day. I’ve hit the wall in shorter races and in different sports. For me, it seems to result from poor pacing based on conditions and conditioning…and in the case of longer events, fueling and hydration issues.
    XLMIC recently posted..Getting properly decked out…My Profile

  17. says

    Ive only ran (well…….finished) two marathons, but I would have to say that if think if you fuel right, and do the training, then there really shouldn’t be a wall. I base that off of ultra marathoners. What if they were running a 100k, and hit the wall at the 39thk? not good. so based on diet, training, and rest, you can overcome.
    kenley jones recently posted..ALL SYSTEMS GOMy Profile

  18. says

    Really appreciate these suggestions. I know you have so much experience so it is well taken! One thing I’ve learned lately is the gel/electrolyte thing…even if you don’t “feel” like you need/want one, sometimes it’s exactly what you need and works like a charm! Thanks for sharing.
    Ericka @ The Sweet Life recently posted..Rehoboth Beach Marathon 2012My Profile

  19. says

    Ughhhh. I hate the wall. Yet, it is SO real. I have hit the wall a few times. Not so much on the ones I went out very conservatively and negative split. On the ones I pushed my pace I did pay for it. I’m torn though- if I hold back too much and don’t hit the wall I always wonder if I could have gone faster. I paced my last marathon a bit aggressive but realistic according to McMillan. The last 4 miles were ROUGH but if I would have slowed down my pace in the first 22 miles I’m not sure I would have run much quicker the last 4 and my time would have been slower. I don’t know… Every time I run a marathon I realize I still have a lot to learn. I like your tips though and maybe one of these days I’ll get it right.
    Tia @ Arkansas Runner Mom recently posted..Fit4Christ Christmas 5K- Race Recap!My Profile

  20. says

    I freakin run into that wall every single time I race. LOL. All of your tips? Ya, I WANT to do those and KNOW I’m supposed to, but never happens. I need to learn to race smarter. Actually, on my 50 miler, I never really hit the wall. Funny enough. I did have some “downs” and I slowed my pace to comfortable level (like your tips suggest) and I posted my first negative splits. Is the 50 miler the smartest race I’ve ever run? Maybe. I guess when you are running LONG, going out fast makes no sense.
    Pavement Runner recently posted..Road Runner Sports: Dress Up Your Man GiveawayMy Profile

  21. says

    I hit the wall tremendously hard at the VT City Marathon last spring. It was hot, I went out too fast, did not have enough fuel or electrolyte replacement. The last 5 miles were excruciating, i don’t remember finishing. It was stupid, at the beginning of the race I abandoned my race plan because I felt so good and ran at paces that I had no business running in the first half. The result, severe dehydration . . .BONK! I was able to redeem myself 2 months later and qualified for Boston because at my next marathon I ran much smarter and fueled appropriately and did not sabotage my own race.

    I hope you are on the road to recovery both physically and mentally. Hitting the wall can be challenging to overcome but you will be back soon and will race smarter!
    Sandra Laflamme recently posted..Trail Running Gear Holiday Gift Guide 2012My Profile

  22. says

    Hit the wall in Vegas last December. What worked for me was to vow to never run a stand alone marathon again.

    Since then I have run two at the end of IMTX and IMAZ and both in just over 4 hours…….

    It is all about the pacing. Proper pacing and fueling will get you through anything.
    Jason @ Cook Train Eat Race recently posted..Talent SearchMy Profile

  23. says

    I hit a wall hard during my first marathon but avoided it the next couple of times. The key for me is fueling. I don’t fuel a lot; I probably only take about 100-200 calories in total, but it’s about spacing them out and, like you said, eating them before you think you need them.
    Travel Spot recently posted..Currently: DecemberMy Profile