The Dreaded Wall

Everyone has heard of the term “hitting the wall” this doesn't just relate in sports terms but in many aspects of our lives. With yesterday's London marathon inspo and a few of my clients competing in some pretty big challenges I thought why not include this in this weeks blog.

“Hit that wall harder than it hits you”

Hitting the wall occurs when muscle glycogen stores become completely depleted, but could mental fatigue also be a contributing factor in the perception of physical fatigue? Some experts argue that your brain regulates exercise so you always have a little something left in the tank.
While the spectre of hitting the wall stirs up feelings of inescapable dread in amateur runners, many elite athletes embrace coping mechanisms to spur them towards the finishing line.

Dr Josephine Perry, a sports and performance psychology consultant who provides elite athletes with strategies to help them perform to their maximum potential, believes mental preparation is crucial when it comes to tackling the wall.

“The wall can get talked up by runners in a marathon build-up into this big, scary and potentially race-ending thing that occurs around 20 miles in,” she told The Telegraph. “But if runners have trained well, paced themselves effectively and mentally prepared themselves they won’t actually struggle too much. So preparation is really important here, the term mind over matter can mean success of failure. 

However, endurance athletes are on the course for such a long time, it is inevitable they will have a few dark moments at some point, so having a strategy for each time it happens is important.

That may be thinking about all the people who have helped and supported you with your training, or it could be breaking down the marathon or race in your head into much smaller chunks so it feels more achievable. This goes back to our goal setting keeping our goals specific and time related in small measurable chunks makes the bigger picture far easier to comprehend. 

“You always have a little in reserve” - I promise you really do. Ever heard of the saying the body achieves what the mind believes?

Professor Timothy Noakes, who has run more than 70 marathons and ultramarathons, puts forward the idea that “the brain holds us back from pushing past a certain point” as a self-preservation strategy, and believes this can be tapped into.

“There’s a control mechanism to make sure that you reach the finish line not in a completely, utterly wilted state,” he says. “You always have a little reserve.”

Dr Perry believes his research suggests that the brain is “more important than we had previously thought.

There is a huge debate between sports scientists about exactly what controls physical fatigue.

The latest thinking suggests that while our body usually has more to give sometimes our brain purposely holds us back, either because it is trying to protect our body from harm, because we are not motivated enough or because we are perceiving the effort as too much. - Things worth having don't come easy, or everyone would be doing them ! 

If we can increase our motivation and reduce our perception of effort then we can usually be more successful.

The positive power of a mantra

Alex Hutchinson, a long-distance runner and Cambridge-trained physicist, in his book succinctly sums up endurance up as “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop”,To stay motivated as aching limbs, physical exhaustion and mental tiredness creeps in towards the end of the grueling 26.2-mile challenge repeating a positive mantra is a “great tactic” for the final stages of the race.

A mantra is a short positive phrase that often focuses on your motivation to run or your goal for the marathon.

It needs to be personal to you and really resonate (so using one you’ve heard someone else say won’t work). It could be around how many people you’ll be helping with the money you’ve fundraised, how proud you’ll be meeting your children or how much effort you have put into your training, or simply what this means to you. 

Whenever you have a dark moment repeating this over and over again will help you keep your rhythm and maintain a more positive mindset.

Pushing past the pain barrier 

Pushing through the pain barrier as exhaustion and niggling aches and pains set in can also be achieved through a series of mind-focusing techniques, however there are certain warning signs you shouldn’t ignore - like chest pain or extreme sweating.

Runners and cyclists for instance actually tend to be split between those who like to focus on their bodies and use any pain they feel as feedback to adapt their technique and style and those who like to completely distract themselves.

If you like to focus, a great tactic to try is body checking; you mentally think about each part of your body part by part and focus on having good technique in each of them. - Your distractions could feed your focus. 

If you prefer to distract yourself then some people will have competitions in their head about the best support sign being held up, do maths and equations in their heads about the distance left to run or even find another runner going at the same speed to chat with. It is about knowing in advance what works for you, race smart, preparation is key.