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Hitting the Wall. How body and mind can overcome endurance barriers

Hitting the Wall. How body and mind can overcome endurance barriers

The participants in the recent Great North Run will know all about endurance. It may have been a relatively short race, but the conditions were certainly a test of commitment. With the triathlon in London on the same day showing that even professionals can ‘hit the wall’, are there any mental strategies to improve endurance when it matters?

Anyone who happened to watch the last few minutes of the triathlon Grand Final in London last week would have been gripped by the tussle between Jonathan Brownlee and Xavier Gomez. At stake was not just the one race but the entire world championship for this year. After a long cycle ride and a long swim, the two athletes were left with only the run and were battling it out to the very end.

Brownlee’s brother has commented in no uncertain terms that Jonathan made a tactical error which allowed Gomez to win by only a second. This may be true, but it was also clear that despite all his earlier efforts, Brownlee needed to sprint faster over those last few crucial yards. When it came to it, he had simply nothing left to give either physically or mentally. Both athletes collapsed in panting heaps after crossing the line – a demonstration of ‘the wall’ that is a phenomenon well known to endurance sportspeople.

‘Hitting the wall’ has been described as feeling as there is suddenly an elephant on the athlete’s shoulders. Limbs become heavy and previously smooth movements suddenly become just too difficult. There is a physical reason for this, as it is caused by a sudden loss of glycogen in the muscles. This means that there is no energy left in the body to make a further effort. Marathon runners will know that this point is usually reached with six miles to go. Even the participants in ultra-marathons with huge distances and extreme conditions will find that there is a point where they feel that they can go no further. 

Running out of energy also has neurological effects on brain and nervous system. The precise control of the running motion will be lost, and with the brain also screaming for nutrition the athlete will lose the ability to manage the tactical aspects of the event.

There are even further stages beyond the wall. These have been described as ‘the pit’ which is full of self-doubt and reasons to stop the event – this is more of a mental state than one of physical exhaustion. Finally there is ‘the abyss’, which is not just a bigger pit but a feeling that the barriers are disappearing and that the athlete suddenly is able to achieve anything.

If this all sounds like the last half hour of ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ or the after-effects of smoking some unusual herbs, then it may become clearer why people put themselves through marathons, ultra-marathons and even more extreme events. The satisfaction of continuing beyond what appears physically possible is a key attraction for endurance athletes.  It can be very hard to explain to ‘normal people’ why so much effort can be fun. The suffering, heat, pain, blisters and dehydration involved in endurance events are not going to make much sense to those who don’t take part. There is a definite ‘high’ for endurance runners in the knowledge that they have beaten the barriers and overcome their suffering to make it to the end of the race.

What can be done to overcome the wall? Carb-loading and regular carbohydrate consumption during the effect can provide the nutritional reserve necessary to postpone or even avoid the wall. However, all the physical training in the world will not help if the mind says ‘that’s it, stop’. So how can mental attitude help to defeat the wall?

Visualisation and imagery are tried and trusted techniques to encourage improved performance.  The thoughts required have been likened to those of monks that meditate or religious zealots that fast. We all know that banging your head against a wall simply results in a sore head, not a hole in the wall. You need to be telling yourself that you are sufficiently fit and sufficiently trained, and that you WILL get through the barrier and succeed in your goal.

Distraction is another way to leap over the wall. We all know that we don’t feel bumps and bruises if they are incurred in the heat of competition. It is only when the concentration wanes or the event is over that the brain has time to register aches and pains. So if an athlete can train himself to concentrate on something else when severe fatigue strikes, it can be possible to make the wall ‘invisible’ and simply stride through it.

Endurance sport is becoming ever more popular, whether it is a big marathon event or the long swims or cycles that so many people now undertake for charity. While there is no substitute for proper training and correct nutrition, knowing the mental effects of these lengthy exercise sessions is the first step to overcoming them.