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Matt Bixley, adventure and distance runner, New Zealand at the Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon
Matt Bixley, adventure distance runner, New Zealand

Running Strategy - 'Hitting the Wall' or Not

Matt Bixley, Adventure Distance Runner, New Zealand

ďThe longer the distance though the more certainty there is that youíre going to find that point where your body has just had enough.Ē

I have mulled over what 'Hitting the Wall' means to me and have come to the conclusion itís probably not what most people consider it to be. I tend not to run in standard length events. I like to push my boundaries, go out and explore, see new places and to put it bluntly, thrash myself.

Stored glycogen. The concept of 'Hitting the Wall' is well known and well described. It comes at a point during a run where our body (muscles predominantly) depletes itself of stored glycogen. With all of us able to store around 2000 calories worth and using it at 100 calories/mile, if we donít supplement weíll run out of the easily accessible energy at the 20mile/32k mark in a long run (see Latta, Galloway below). Training helps and carbo loading helps, but eventually youíre going to run out.

For me there is a second type of hitting the wall, and itís not so much dependant on race length, nutrition, and glycogen stores. Itís more about your mental and physical preparedness for an event.

Itís possible to hit a wall in an 800m, a 5k or in fact any distance. The longer the distance though the more certainty there is that youíre going to find that point where your body has just had enough. If you run beyond your overall capabilities at the start of a race, youíre going to have an almighty crash at some point, and depending on the length of the run youíre going to wonder how on earth youíll ever get to the finish.

Pace strategy. In the shorter events, say 800m, 5000m 'Hitting the Wall' is more likely to be a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles from running at a pace beyond your ability to process it. Reaching your anaerobic threshold. You can avoid it though as stated above by both your physical and mental preparation. On the Physical side we are always able to outrun our abilities for a given distance, thatís easy, just run too fast at the start. That is where the mental side of preparation comes in.

Set a pace strategy consistent with the level of strength and efficiency of your engine.

Mental preparedness. I can give no better example of mental preparation than my own experiences, while they have been applied to very very long times and distances they can be equally applied to any situation. In 2010 I got the opportunity to represent New Zealand at the World 24 Hour Championships in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France. This was the event where Scott Jurek broke the then American record. Now Iím not Scott Jurek but I did have my own goals, I knew my own limitations and where my strengths may be. So I planned and mentally prepared so that physically I could do what I believed was possible, and it worked, for the most part.

Consistency. Like all races, best performances are achieved by consistency, ie. Starting and finishing at more or less the same speed. So I ran and scheduled regular easy (walks) right from the very beginning. I would run 2km, then walk 400m. That is embarrassing after all this is a World Championship running race and here I am representing my country and walking every 15 minutes. As the hours went by I slowly moved backwards through the field as people passed me while I walked, after 8 hours the big screen showed I was no longer losing places. Then as the night set in and time wore on I started picking up places. I had done nothing different I just continued with my strategy.

From memory I moved from 81st at the 8 hours mark, up to 46th at the 16 hour mark as I went through 100miles. Others had gone out faster and had now slowed down much much more. From that point on though was a state of limbo. Iíd reached my own wall, my position stayed much the same relative to everyone else. The most consistent on that day was the Italian, Ivan Cuden who eventually placed 3rd and ran even splits for the 1st and 2nd halves. There was more to my rest/walks though, they were perfect opportunities to take on board fluids and fuel, and there-in lies several volumes of literature alone.

Summary. In summary, 'Hitting the Wall' can be different things to different people, but which ever wall it is youíre trying to avoid there are common themes to help you.

  • Be Physically prepared Ė teach your body what to do.
  • Be Mentally prepared – know what your body is capable of doing and what is going to happen.
  • Nutrition and Hydration - Before and during the race, intake the food and fluids that will help your body to achieve it’s best.
  • Matt's recommended reading!

    PublicationHitting the "Wall", Sara Latta, Marathon and Beyond

    Matt Bixley is an adventure distance runner from Dunedin, New Zealand. Here are a few of Matt's running adventures amongst the 50+ Marathon and Ultras he has run.

    • World 24 Hour Championships 2010 represented New Zealand running 221+km
    • Commonwealth 24 Hour Championships 2011
    • Mount Taranki set 4 Summits speed record.
    • Northburn 100mile 2nd 2011.
    • Waihi Xterra Ultra Race, Kaimai Killer, 2013 2nd Place.
    • The Molesworth Run - 84KM 7:46:20 Nov 21, 2009.
    • The Great Naseby Water Race - 50km/100km/100Mile
    • Heaphy Five-O Trail Run - 50M 7:41:40 Nov 29, 2008.
    • H10X Kepler Challenge
    • 2X World Rogaine Championships Vet men's silver medal.
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