When You Hit the Wall in Training: 5 Ways to Fix It

Ideally, desired adaptations will occur without an over-accumulation of stress. But for some, there’s just no getting around that wall.

This is for all you runners who know what it is to “hit the wall.” But wait – I’m not talking about the marathon wall – I’m talking about the wall that suddenly appears at the peak of your training, right before the taper begins. If you’ve hit that wall before, then you understand the frustration and self-doubt that begins to penetrate your thoughts.

What It Feels Like to Hit the Training Wall

Training for a marathon takes a toll on the body, but if you’re that runner who sets the bar high – you never miss a workout, you never shortcut a workout, and you’re willing to endure pain for the sake of improvement – then the impact on your body will be greater still.

Some athletes can handle the progressive overload without encountering any problems, but for some, there is just no getting around that wall. It may appear during one of your last long runs or during a tough pace or interval workout. When it does show up it forces your body to shut down and cower in front of it. There is nothing you can say, do, think, or feel that will give your legs and lungs the strength to push forward. You’re physically and mentally spent.

This happened to me recently, during a long run and also during a 10km race the week prior. It also happened to a friend of mine during her final twenty-miler, the week before her marathon taper began. She had to call her husband at mile twelve to come and pick her up (although he talked her into finishing her run).

It’s not all gloom and doom, though. The friend I mentioned above went on to take second place (overall women) in the marathon she ran. And I’m sure there are countless others who have hit the wall in their training, yet managed to get back on track and successfully meet their race goals.

Why You Hit the Wall

Before I offer some advice on resuming training beyond the wall, let me first explain why some of us hit the wall in the first place and what happens to our bodies during the training process.

In order to see improvements in speed and endurance, you must be willing to work hard, then harder, and then harder still. The body has to experience a progressive amount of overload or stress (more than it has experienced in previous workouts), in order to adapt and get stronger. Recreational runners, with no specific goals in mind other than that of running for enjoyment, don’t really need to enter the realm of pain and discomfort. But any runner working hard to reach a specific goal will most likely be following a plan that takes them further and further beyond their comfort zone.

If all goes well, the desired adaptations will take place without an over-accumulation of stress. For some runners though, a temporary setback may occur towards the peak of their training when the workouts are much harder and their bodies are too exhausted to complete them. It’s also possible for other non-training stressors to contribute to their over-trained state. Things like family and job obligations, financial concerns, poor diet, lack of sleep, and relationship problems. These types of variables often go unnoticed until it becomes clear a decline in performance is occurring.

5 Tools for When You Hit the Wall

So what action should a runner take if he or she should meet the proverbial wall – at the peak of training?

1. Put Things Into Perspective: It would be easy to embrace a defeatist mentality at this point in your training. When you have worked so hard, and the gains have been visible, it’s a huge disappointment to suddenly take a step or two backwards. But take a minute to focus on the fact that progress has already been made, and beneath the layer of fatigue and stress lays a well-built foundation of steadily acquired strength and endurance. In other words, trust in your training.

2. Identify All Your Stressors: Reduce or eliminate the ones that are within your control.

3. Take Extra Rest Days After Harder Workouts: You’ve most likely been following your hard (or race-specific) workouts with a recovery or rest day. Try following hard runs with an additional recovery or rest day. Allow your body extra time to recover and de-stress.

4. Reduce the Volume and/or Intensity of Your Training: Do this until your body reaches a level of recovery where you feel well enough to return to your original workload. You should be nearing your taper period at this time, so even though you will feel as if the reduced training was a premature taper, don’t try and make up the missed workouts. You’ll end up right back at square one and probably ruin your chances of running a decent race.

5. Future Measures: Learn from your mistakes and keep a training log the next time you start a training cycle. One of the things I recently started with my clients is a color-code system. I got the idea from coach Jenny Hadfield of Runner’s World, who uses this system with her clients to monitor and discern early warning signs of overtraining. Basically, you would record “yellow” if you felt strong, “orange” if you felt okay (neither awful nor great), or “red” if you struggled to finish. Ideally, you would see mostly yellows and oranges, but if you started to see a pattern of increasing oranges and reds, then that would be an indicator that something is impairing your ability to recover. Catching the warning signs early on may help you to skirt around that wall during the sharpening phase of your training.

A final thought: even if you don’t recover in time to run a good race, you can still run and enjoy your race. There is no runner’s rule that says goals are not allowed to be modified at the last minute. And there is no shame in changing your race goal from that of finishing in a specific time, to that of just finishing. As many of my athlete friends like to say, there will always be more races.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.