What I do when I ‘hit the wall’ in training

‘Hitting the wall’ is a feared term in running circles. It’s that point in distance running where you feel like you can’t go on, where taking just one more step can seem impossible. It’s often a result of low energy levels, predominantly caused by exhausting your glycogen stores, meaning your body has to turn to fat stores for energy. In cycling, it is often referred to as a ‘bonk’ or ‘bonking’.

Hitting the wall can come at any point in your race. A study of 66 marathon runners, published in the BJSM in 1998, suggested it could happen anywhere from mile 12 to 25 and could last an average of 4.9 miles. Separate research in 2007 from the Center for Performance Enhancement and Applied Research at Springfield College found that 43 per cent of marathon participants reported hitting the wall at some point during their race, with symptoms including “generalised fatigue, unintentionally slowing pace, desire to walk, and shifting focus to survival”.

Continuing your race when you’ve reached this point becomes a mental challenge, rather than a physical one. You know you can do the distance physically – so you now have to conquer your own thoughts. You have to convince yourself that you CAN do this and, more importantly, you WANT to do this.

‘Hitting the wall’ is a feared term in running circles. It’s that point in distance running where you feel like you can’t go on

In the past, when I came up against ‘the wall’ in running, my tactic was to quieten my mind and take each step as it happened. Each step was a bonus step. Each step was further than the last. I broke the run down and gave myself the ability to quit ‘at some point in the future’. I postponed the quitting. I didn’t ban it entirely. For instance, I’d say to myself, ‘just do 5 more minutes and see how you feel!’ or ‘just run to the next bend and then you can decide’.

This, admittedly, isn’t a foolproof technique, but it is one tool to add to your arsenal of coping mechanisms, and a technique that can equally be applied to weight lifting.

While it isn’t talked about as much, hitting the wall can certainly happen to a certain extent with resistance training. In fact, it happens to me a fair bit, usually when I’m low on energy or dieting. Sometimes I get so worked up about a session that I find it hard to lift one more rep. It’s a viscous circle, and the inner dialogue generally goes something like this: ‘Urgh, I’m so tired. I’d much rather be at home eating/ chilling out. Why am I even bothering with this? I train so hard and it isn’t making a difference! If it isn’t making a difference then why am I bothering?!? This is pointless. I have no energy and I’m wasting the little energy I do have doing something pointless.’

Then I’ll start bargaining with myself: ‘You could leave now and just forgo having that treat this evening. Then it won’t matter that you didn’t do a workout. You’ll make up for it tomorrow, so why not go home now? There’s no point working out when you’re tired, you won’t get any benefit from it. Go home and have a rest, you deserve it. You could pursue your other hobbies instead. It’s not all about the gym.’

Then the inner critic comes out to have a swipe: ‘THIS IS EXACTLY WHY YOU WON’T ACHIEVE YOUR GOALS! You’re lazy. You’ll just go home and eat loads of food. Your hard work and gains will be lost. FOREVER’.

This, for me, is often the point of no return. Continuing down the self-criticism path inevitably means demotivate and the decision to quit, which, by the way, never makes you feel any better about yourself. Positivity, on the other hand, is a great motivator. So, how do I turn a bad session around? With a bit of effort, is the simple answer. I start by taking some time out – not time out from the gym (that would be defeating the point), just away from the area I’m in. I’ll go and get some water, go and stretch, go to the toilet – just somewhere to gather my thoughts. I’ll take a few deep breaths and really look at why I’m at the gym – 1. I enjoy it (normally)!! 2. I feel great after working out 3. I have goals. Then I’ll stride back to the gym floor. This whole process often takes less then a couple of minutes.

The next stage is to make sure I don’t overburden myself. The rest of my session will then involve just one exercise at a time, followed by a quick assessment of how I feel. I often find that demotivation occurs when you have a long list of sets and exercises stretching out in front of you. It can be quite daunting. Especially if you’re feeling depleted. So, I’ll say: ‘Right, I’m going to do 4 sets of 10 leg curls at a medium weight – nothing too difficult – and then see how it goes. After all, some exercise is better than no exercise’. Once I’ve completed that exercise, I’ll move on to the next. Never planning more than one exercise ahead and concentrating on delivering congratulatory messages to myself when I complete each set – ‘because 3 sets is better than 2 sets’! As I said before, this isn’t a foolproof technique, but it often helps me to turn a session from poor to pumped.

Maintaining motivation isn’t easy. If it were, everyone would be fit and healthy, barely anyone would smoke, and everyone would be excelling at their careers. This, clearly, isn’t the case, even though social media would have you think otherwise. Everyone is human. Recognise that you aren’t alone. That no-one is judging you, other than you. And if you do quit, that doesn’t mean you will tomorrow.

I recently read How bad do you want it? by Matt Fitzgerald. Aside from being an awesome overall read, it contained some great examples of how elite athletes push themselves to accomplish their goals. ‘The hardest races,’ he argues, ‘demand that a champion rely as much on the mind as on the body’. While we may not be elite athletes, it’s certainly worth a read for inspiration.

Keep finding ways to break down that wall!

How have you conquered the wall? Leave your ideas or questions in the comments below or email me at info@split-fitness.co.uk.  Check out my free programme for full body workouts.

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