by Laura Henry
What scares you the most about training or racing? I’m sure there are a plethora of answers to this question out there, but I’m also sure that many people would say this: not feeling good when they train or race. In other words: fear of hitting the wall.
What is “The Wall?”
“The Wall” is the term that is used to describe the sudden feeling of fatigue and loss of energy an athlete feels when they are training or racing. Physiologically, what is happening in the body is this: the body’s stores of energy (in the form of glycogen (the fancy term for stored carbohydrates), which is stored in muscles and the liver) are depleted, and it becomes incredibly difficult for the body to continue doing the activity that the athlete is asking of it.
I offer the exceptionally unflattering photo of myself above as an example of a physical representation of what it feels like when one hits the wall. Sometimes, in a rather cruel example of irony, you actually hit the wall when you are on one. :)
What causes this to happen? In my experience as an athlete and coach, hitting the wall is related to one of the following: lack of fitness, lack of appropriate pacing/execution strategies, and perhaps most commonly: poor nutritional habits.
When an athlete sets an endurance goal, they tend to become laser-focused on the physical work that needs to go into reaching the goal. While there are many things beyond the physical training that need to go well in order for an athlete to be successful, I maintain that nutrition is the most important thing that needs to go right. I honestly place it above physical training in order of importance because the physical training will mean nothing if the body lacks the energy and nutrients it needs to perform that physical training. This becomes even more true for athletes who are training for longer distance events. (For the purposes of this article, I consider a “longer distance event” to be any event that lasts longer than 90 minutes.)
Nutrition issues within an athlete’s training can be incredibly tricky for a coach or athlete to solve because these issues are generally overlooked. Many athletes do not want to admit that what they are putting in their mouths (or sometimes, ironically enough, what they aren’t) can have such a significant impact on their training and performance. Why is this? Based on my observations, it is because changing nutrition habits is one of the hardest things mentally for athletes to do. In my experience, athletes will seek to change just about EVERYTHING else before they will accept that they need to change nutritional habits.
While daily nutrition is certainly important and plays a huge role in performance, one of the best ways to avoid hitting the wall is to consume nutrition during workouts or races. Nailing this down can be very tricky, as each person is a unique individual, and as such, there is not a “one size fits all” approach that can be employed to figure it out. While there certainly are strategies that are very good starting points (for instance, consuming 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour during exercise) that can be used for most athletes, it generally takes a lot of practice, notes, and discipline to fine-tune an in-workout nutrition plan that is optimal for an athlete. In fact, I maintain that hitting the wall in training is one of the best ways to determine how NOT to hit the wall in the future. Learning what doesn’t work is just as valuable as learning what does.
The truth of the matter is this: an athlete will never perform at their best without their best training AND their best nutrition. As such, it is important that athletes acknowledge that nutrition is a critical component of their training and racing, and strive to figure out what works best for them. As an athlete myself, I speak from personal experience on this. It took me years of botched races, crummy-feeling workouts, and persistent nudges from my coach for me to finally see the light. Once I acknowledged that my nutrition strategies were holding me back and I began working to find more effective strategies, my performance improved exponentially (so much so that my coach at the time thought that something was wrong with my data).
Since the nutrition piece of the endurance training puzzle is such a complex one, I find that it’s best to seek the advice of a third-party to help solve this riddle. Hiring an experienced coach or nutritionist to review your data and notes from your workouts is one of the best ways to get that third-party input. These professionals will be able to help an athlete customize a nutrition plan that is optimal for that specific athlete as they monitor what strategies the athlete is trying over time. Combining a solid nutrition plan with a smart physical training plan will enable an athlete to reach their optimal performance in both training and racing.
In summary: Don’t dread hitting the wall. Aim to develop a strategy that enables you to climb right over it with strength.