You’ve just settled into your rhythm after burning off that starting line adrenaline. You feel great — your splits are quick, but not too quick. You’re breathing deeply, finding that tempo you’ve clocked on training runs so many times before. Everything is going according to plan. Then suddenly, inexplicably, it all falls apart.
This is called the Wall.
Hitting the Wall is a near-mythical experience: It is a crushing, unexpected physical fatigue that hits your muscles so hard, you suddenly doubt you ever were in good shape. The fix to lean on secondary muscles is only a temporary crutch — they, too, quickly begin to fail. A snowball effect takes hold; your body locks up.
Which brings us to the psychological component of the Wall: The shattering effect of losing control over your own body after so much preparation is incredible. Panic sets in, as does the recurring question as fatigue intensifies: Should I stop?
A few pieces of advice from my own experience:
Acknowledge the Wall.
Know that in any aggressive mid-to-long-distance effort (or a marathon, if you’re so inclined), the arrival of at least one Wall is a sign you’re doing it right. I normally hit two Walls, at 1/3 and 2/3 of the way in. This is normal. Hitting walls is also necessary to achieve your best performance — the key is balancing yourself on that threshold between aerobic and anaerobic, in a way that tempers lactic acid buildup (read: pain) so that you reach your limit just as you cross the tape. The exact timing of this takes a lot of practice. So does the recognition that it will be difficult. Try acknowledging, even looking forward to, the Wall — you’ll be amazed at what a little readiness and positivity do for your performance.
Focus on repetition.
You may find yourself trying to diagnose the Wall — why it’s arrived so early, how much it hurts, who cursed you. Try instead to think in repetitions. That means focusing on your breathing, on your tempo or on any personal goal or purpose to which you’re dedicating effort. Maybe it’s the literal image of your goal time in your mind’s eye. Maybe it’s the face of someone you love or something you’re running for. Maybe, like a former teammate of mine, you like to ponder death in order to contextualize pain. People are strange. Whatever your focal point is, just keep going back to it.
Give yourself goalposts.
In his remarkable memoir, “Touching the Void,” Joe Simpson recounts the aftermath of a nearly lethal mountaineering disaster. After badly breaking his leg on a perilous descent, he was left for dead by his climbing partner and forced to crawl three days back to base camp without food or water. His Number 1 method for keeping conscious and staving off insanity? Landmarks in his path that he would single out as “finish lines.” When he reached a landmark, oftentimes a crag or mound of snow, he’d experience a small burst of exhilaration — and then promptly pick out a new landmark. Using this system of goalposts to compartmentalize both pain and hopelessness, Joe survived. We can all take a great lesson from this (besides sheer awe). Implement landmarks when you think you can’t go anymore. Just 30 more seconds. Just to the next lamp post. Actually, the next one.
Last thing: Know that there will be times when, despite your best efforts, you don’t break through the Wall. We’ve all been there. As I mentioned above, the ideal aggressive workout is a balancing act, one that requires experience with overexertion (and in the past, underexertion). Hitting that perfect combination of toughness and pacing is a near-impossible task, but it’s worth working at. That moment of knowing you struck the balance just right is nothing short of revelatory.