Hitting the Wall: Nutrition Tips for Marathoners

While training for my first marathon, I had heard the term “hitting the wall” in long distance running, but of course, I thought that it would never happen to me. Well, it turned out, that was far from the truth. Even with my nutrition knowledge, I underestimated the importance of nutrition when preparing for a long distance race, especially a marathon!

According to Runner’s world magazine, “Hitting the wall” is the “collapse of the entire system: body and form, brain and soul.” Every long distance runner will experience it at one point or another. I am not talking about the mere cramping of a calf caused by lactic acid build-up, or the deep muscle pain sometimes caused by downhill running. My “hitting the wall moment” happened in mile 23. I remember getting tired on mile 20, but then mile 23 came, or as I recall it, the Bermuda triangle time began to unfold, and I wasn’t in charge anymore. At that moment, my body and mind were being tested at the same time. I felt my body falling apart with every stride and every muscle in my body screaming for fuel. The pain was unbearable.

From what I learned after my unpleasant experience, “hitting the wall” occurs due to depletion of glycogen stores. Glycogen is the way our body stores glucose for energy; an analogy would be putting gasoline in your car, so it can take you places. Our muscles and our brain operate on glucose. When our body runs out of glycogen stores, our liver goes to plan B: convert fat into glucose. But here is the problem: this process needs oxygen, and when runners are completing a marathon or a half- marathon, most of the oxygen available is being used up - leaving not enough to complete the deal. The end result is muscle cramping, systemic pain and exhaustion, mental confusion, and lack of energy; the “hitting the wall” experience.  

Here are two tips to avoid this terrible experience if you ever consider running long distance: Hint: Spaghetti dinners are your best friend!

  • Tip #1 – Start with Carbs– A week before the race, start a high-carbohydrate diet: consume 70 percent of your food from carbohydrates (or 8.5 grams per kilogram of body weight). This method increases muscle glycogen by as much as 150 percent, a major boost to endurance. So carb-loading seems to aid endurance by charging fuel into muscles. But let’s not forget about the brain. The brain burns only liver glycogen. As the fuel demands of muscles and the brain deplete blood-sugar stores, your motivation, decision making and agility don’t work as efficiently and central fatigue sets in. Therefore, carb-loading prevents the classic muscle-glycogen downfall or hitting the wall moment.
  •  Tip #2 – Add Protein to the Equation- Protein strongly stimulates insulin release. Insulin speeds muscle cells’ absorption of blood glucose, so when you are burning stored carbs, speeding up the entry of blood glucose is vital. Insulin is an anabolic hormone, which also moves amino acid into muscles.

After going through the “hitting the wall” moment, I can proudly say that I did break through the limitations of my mind and body, and completed my first marathon. I learned a very good lesson that day: when running or training for any race, marathon or not, hydration and nutrition are equally important. Learn from my story, and my mistake of underestimating the importance of nutrition when training for a marathon.

This blog was written by Angela Sbodio, Dietetic Intern.