How to Push Through a Runner’s Wall and Finish Your Run on Your Terms

Photo: Getty Images/Pethegee Inc
Anyone who collects miles knows that for every euphoric runner's high you experience, you'll also come across the opposite: the dreaded runner's wall. Hitting the metaphorical (brick?) obstacle feels a bit different for everyone, but Humaira Ashraf, MD, assistant professor of sports medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, says that it always happens for the same reason: your body's energy tank is low.

"When we talk about energy reserves at the physiological level, the currency we are dealing in is known as the ATP molecule," says Dr. Ashraf, referring to the molecule that stores energy in your cells. "When the body's access to ATP is low, the fatigue and reduced effort that is sometimes referred to as 'hitting a wall' occurs. Essentially the account is 'overdrawn' and performance is compromised." We tend to talk about this particular obstacle as if it's a mental roadblock, and um, it is. But it also has a lot to do with how you fuel your body before and during your run.

It's not simple, but with a little expert intel, you can learn how to dodge the runner's wall the same way you would a pothole or a jettisoned drinking cup at a race. Below, Melissa Wolfe, a coach at New York City’s Mile High Run Club and Dr. Ashraf pull out their best nutrition tips for keeping you stacked with energy on the run, including the mental tricks you need if even your trusted peanut butter bagel betrays you.

Nutrition: Your first tool for avoiding the runner's wall

Like many of life's great dilemmas, Dr. Ashraf says the answer to knocking down a runner's wall is #carbs. "The best way to get that coveted ATP in the bank is to consume carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the quickest source of ATP for the body," she says. In fact, your favorite whole grains far outpace fats and proteins when it comes to replenishing the glucose stores in the blood that help deliver ATP to your brain, heart, and lungs.

"Some large institutions such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) have put out detailed positions statements, but the general recommendation is five to seven grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of a person's weight per day to maximize glycogen stores in muscle to have enough ATP to avoid 'hitting a wall'," adds Dr. Ashraf.

Two hours or so before your run, an ATP-enabling breakfast could look like:

  • Oatmeal, peanut butter, and a banana
  • Almond butter on toast
  • Sweet potato toast with tahini
  • Protein pancakes

Once you've settled on a pre-miles meal you like, Wolfe recommends sticking with it throughout your training so that your body gets better and smarter at using it efficiently. "Preparation is key, both in terms of what you ingest for your nutrition and how you train your body to utilize your nutrition. While we hear a lot about 'carb-loading,' we need to remember that our body needs to know how to efficiently use those carbs over the duration of time that we plan to have our bodies in motion on race day." Ahem, your meal plan is a marathon...not a sprint.

What about during a run, though? "Liquid forms of carbohydrates are often favored as they are the easiest to digest after hitting that dreaded wall," says Dr. Ashraf. A running gel option, like this one, will do the trick. However, some pavement-pounders prefer a couple of dates, Sports Beans, or another quick-burning snack. So find what works for you and use it on your longer runs. "As a general rule, if the workout is under 60 minutes, the need to 're-up' with carbohydrates during training is not required," says Dr. Ashraf. That means you, half marathoners and marathoners.

Alright, alright—but what about the mental wall?

Wolfe says that the most skilled runners master their mental game by treating every training session like a dress rehearsal for the race. That goes with everything from food, to mileage, to pace, to mindset. "Throughout training, a balance of hard efforts and easy, slow-burning long runs are really important to teach your body how to efficiently use that glycogen but also reach for fat, a slower-burning energy source. Long easy-effort runs give the body an opportunity to adapt and build efficiency in utilizing fat as a fuel source," explains Wolfe.

Having a foundation of training to rely on creates that magic muscle memory that helps you think I got this! on race day. That kind of preparation can keep the runner's wall from happening in the first place, but if you find that your head's just not in the game three, 14, or 23 miles in, Wolfe has a few recommendations for snapping yourself back into your speed demon persona.

"While I've wished there was a simple fix to get up and over the wall, the reality is that mental fortitude is really the best tool to pull into play once hitting the wall has happened, which can be really challenging since the wall can leave you feeling as distressed psychologically as it does physically and really challenge your ability to change your mindset," says Wolfe. It sounds cliché, but yes: so much of running is mental.

mental tip 1: Give yourself a pep talk

Positive thinking has been shown again and again to be a stress-reducing tactic worth writing home about, and Wolfe says that's especially true in running. Since you can often go into a dark place when you hit a tough mile-marker in a race, prep your self-monologue ahead of time so that you can whip it out on the fly.

Mental tip 2: Smile and dedicate your next mile to someone you love

When things aren't going quite the way she'd hoped on a run, Wolfe says she has a specific ritual. "I smile, I say 'thank you' or 'this mile is for you' out loud with the name of a person who has brought me joy or inspiration to get to the start line in the first place," she says. You can do the same.

mental tip 3: Cheer on someone running next to you

"Sometimes I look for a runner near me with their name on their shirt and shout some encouragement at them to distract myself from my own pain. Supporting someone else tends to re-energize me," she says. Plus, you might just deter them from their very own runner's wall.

Thinking about running your first marathon? This plan will help you get started and this amazing story will inspire you to lace up right. now. 

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