Forget About Mile 20: Hitting the Marathon Training Wall

imageWeek one of my marathon training cycle, I remember it like it was yesterday. Picture my fresh legs, big dreams, and heart full of joy and happiness. I couldn’t wait to get started on my path to dominate my next marathon, so I started my training a day early. As I looked ahead on my training calendar, eighteen weeks seemed like an eternity. Naturally, the mileage and big workouts deep into the plan intimidated me, but I figured by then, that would all be a piece of cake. Just one week at a time, right?

Thirteen of those weeks later, here I am. Picture a shell of my former self. I can only describe what I’m experiencing in terms a marathoner can understand; I have hit The Wall and I’ve hit it hard. That’s right, my friends! The wall isn’t just an experience you get to endure at mile twenty-ish of your marathon. If you’re anything like me, you may be hitting a wall somewhere around three-quarters of the way through your training cycle.

Sounds terrible, right? Well, it is a little terrible, but there is hope. Here’s how to know if you’ve hit the marathon training wall and some tips to get to the other side!

Symptom #1: Your energy is zapped. Nada. Gone on vacation.

Remember when you could stay awake without that afternoon coffee? Do you recall the desire to go out and do things with your friends? If you’re anything like me, after a few weeks of pretty heavy mileage, the cumulative fatigue starts to get the best of you.

The Fix: It’s important to focus on self-care as best you can during these exhausting weeks, as sometimes this exhaustion can be a sign of overtraining, or at the very least, a sign to give yourself an extra rest day if need be. Other ways I manage the fatigue are by taking the occasional power nap or planning my runs to allow myself a solid night of sleep. I used to be an early morning weekend runner because I liked the feeling of having my long run finished by 8am, but this training cycle I’ve let myself sleep a few extra hours and am starting my weekend runs a little later. The additional sleep has made a huge difference in my energy level!

Symptom #2: So hungry!

And yet, making that well-balanced healthful plate of food seems like so.much.work. (see above). This is the time in my training cycle where my nutrition focus seems to waver a little. Once so enthusiastic about eating the correct amounts of carbs and protein to fuel myself efficiently, I find myself getting a little lazy. When I hit the wall, I’m not feeling the greatest probably because I haven’t been fueling myself as well as I had been at the beginning.

The Fix: This is a great time to shake things up nutritionally. There are some training cycles where I find I’ve been eating too much for my activity level, but it’s just as easy to under-fuel if you don’t adjust your nutrition as your mileage ramps up. I always feel better when I’m eating better and having some new foods and recipes to look forward to helps me shift back into a good pattern of nutrition. My longest runs are still ahead of me, and I’ll feel much more prepared if my body has premium fuel. (I just came to realize that Starburst Jelly Beans, while delicious, are not a great source of fuel. So sad.)

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Drink up!

Symptom #3: So thirsty! 

Your pee is darker, your skin feels drier, your lips are chapped and yet, you’re sick of chugging water and would rather go for an iced latte or glass of Pinot. Maybe because the fatigue is catching up to you, but when you find yourself swapping out water for caffeinated beverages, you might be exacerbating chronic dehydration, which will make you feel more tired, thrusting you into a vicious circle and straight into that wall.

The Fix: Drink more water! Do it! Now! I don’t need to spend a lot of time preaching about the benefits of good ol’ H2O, right? We all know it’s good for us. Don’t be lazy like me. Drink more water! (As soon as I’m done with this cup of coffee, I will too.)

Symptom #4: You feel crazy

The wall makes us think crazy things. The wall wants us to think everything is impossible! That goal pace that once seemed so doable a few months ago is suddenly terrifying. My training plan doesn’t have me doing any 20 mile long runs and while I was totally on board with this in January, now I start to question if it’s right.

The Fix: First b-r-e-a-t-h-e and then remember it’s normal to doubt, but to keep the faith. Remember when you used to tell yourself to trust the process? There is truth to that. You probably spent a great deal of time planning your training goals well before your training officially began. Back when you were clear-headed and full of energy, you came up with this plan for a reason. Don’t let the wall tell you that you can’t do this. You can do hard things!

Symptom #5: Everything hurts!

Runners fall on a wide continuum of injury. Some magical unicorn runners make it through life with nary an injury. Most runners, however, will have some level of pain or injury over the course of their running career. Injury or not, by this stage of training, your body is probably feeling the hundreds of miles in some manner. This is also about the time that every little ache or twinge sends me right over the edge to Panic Town, USA. I’ll admit it, last week when I had a singular tight tendon for 24 hours I was on the phone with my chiropractor and worrying that absolutely certain DISASTER struck.

The Fix: Spoiler alert: I’m okay. But, this is a good reminder to do what we need to do to recover properly in-between hard training days (Seriously. Just 10:00!). Injury very well could happen, but we can do things to protect against them. Also, when we train hard, something is bound to hurt at some point. The trick is to accept this while being smart and knowing when to back off and when to keep that faith that a little niggle is part of the process. But if you’re finding your pain is localized and not improving, you need to consider that you might be injured. If you’re feeling sore all over, take a rest day or two or, at a minimum, push off your harder workouts until you feel better.

Symptom #6: Someone tell me I’m awesome!

When I’m at The Wall, everything feels so complicated. I want to give up. I might feel so overwhelmed that I cry when the kids start fighting at the end of a long day and go lock myself in the bathroom with my cats and a bowl of malted Easter eggs. I feel like a failure on all fronts.

The Fix: When you’re too tired to pep talk your way through all of this, you need your people to remind you of your sheer awesomeness and strength. Now is a great time to talk with your friends, family, and fellow runners about these things. There have been more than a few times lately where I’ve turned to fellow Salties for encouragement and support. I really am lucky to have friends to cheer me on and remind me I can race this marathon. I gotta keep the faith.

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Sometimes, it really is about going back to the basics, being kind to and taking care of ourselves. Training is emotionally and physically exhausting, but pushing through these hard times is a vital element to our training.

Do you find yourself hitting the training wall on the way to your race? What do you do to push beyond it?

I'm a college mental health counselor, runner, cyclist, wife, and mom to two strong-willed children. I started running in 2011 after the birth of my last child after years of love-hate relationships with fitness. My favorite distance is the half marathon, but I love the challenge of tackling the marathon. My biggest challenge is the mental aspect of racing, but my greatest strength is I'm stubborn and never give up! I'm a free spirit, an open book, and try to be authentic both in real life as well as in my internet life. Running has given me a place to face my fears, chase goals, and stay humble. Side note: I love cats and coffee and tacos.

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15 comments

  1. During my two marathon training cycles of 2015, I hit the Wall in that I had a week where I felt many of the things you described (wasn’t able to hit my goal paces, felt tired, hungry, etc.). I found that taking it easy, not being too hard on myself, and then realizing I was getting my period (duh!) got me past the wall sooner. This cycle I’ve focused more on racing throughout (a 5k early on, then a 10 miler) and I think the mini-tapers leading up to these races have helped me totally avoid that Wall (knock on wood!). Good luck finishing your training strong!

    1. Yes- I totally got my period on Sunday after hitting the wall HARD a few days prior. I don’t know how I end up being so surprised by my period every time it happens, but I swear every month when I get it, I’m like “oh THAT’S the reason everything feels terrible!” Duh! haha!!!

  2. I know I’ve hit it when I start crying over nothing. Just running can make me cry. Or I fall asleep at dinner. That’s also a good sign.

  3. I hear you, Pumpkin! Fargo is still 5+ weeks away and I’m hitting my training wall. I’m also getting a bit panicky, wondering if these months of hard work are going to come together like I hope.

    One thing I’m doing to push beyond the training wall is racing some shorter distances. I ran a 10 miler a few weeks ago and will do a half on the 30th. It’s a great way to get in some long speed work and to gauge where I’m at with my paces. Races also give me a chance to practice fueling, pre-race routines and to work on that mental training.

    See you at Fargo in May!

    1. Awesome that you’re running Fargo too!! I’ve had training plans in the past that encouraged racing throughout. I haven’t raced at all during this training cycle, so it will be interesting to see if that impacts my race day confidence!

  4. Learning to recognize the specific symptoms of overtraining is a big help here. Sometimes it’s just mental from the long grind, but sometimes it really is a physical problem and you need to dial back.

  5. I typically hit that wall with symptoms 1-5 when I’m not eating properly. If I don’t eat healthy my energy slumps, but I am hungry all of the time (probably because my body is craving all of the crap I let it eat when it shouldn’t), because I’m exhausted everything seems to hurt, then I don’t sleep well so I get a little nutty.

  6. Yes, that is exactly how I felt a week ago during my 14 miles long run. I bonked at mile 10 – hating the world in the last 4 miles walk back to my car; It was so unexpected – I did a half marathon race 7 days earlier and it was great! During that hour of walking back to my car, I questioned why I decided to do this and how crazy the whole idea of me doing a marathon. Luckily for me – I have a network of friends/co-workers cheering/encouraging me after they heard what happened. Then, my running group published the course for the next long run – my favorite – a 18-mile loop for the san francisco – all the tourist stops – at that point, I knew I have to do this. It is do or bust. Yes, I did it yesterday – sore legs and all – but I love seeing the scenes on the course. Now, I am back on the positive – that I can do my first marathon in SF. I will crush it.