Hitting The Wall

Feb. 2, 2014

Today’s post is a review of:

Experiences and Coping Responses of “Hitting the Wall” for Recreational Marathon Runners (2008), Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20: 282–300.

MATTHEW P. BUMAN University of Florida

JENS W. OMLI, University of Minnesota

PETER R. GIACOBBI JR., University of Florida

BRITTON W. BREWER, Springfield College

This study focuses on examining how people describe “hitting the wall” (HTW) and how they cope with that phenomenon. For those not familiar, “hitting the wall” is generally described as corresponding to that point during and endurance race where glycogen supplies have been exhausted and energy has to be converted from fat. Because fat burns much more slowly, you feel a sudden lack of energy, and this has been nicknamed “hitting the wall.”

The participants were 40 males and 17 females between the ages of 24 and 66 – average age was about 42) and the average number of marathon completed was about 10. Participants were recruited from an e-mail list serve and completed online questionnaires. In the questionnaire they were asked to describe hitting the wall and how they coped about it. What I found the most interesting was a way to sort and describe how you feel while hitting the wall, as well as how to sort and describe your coping strategies.

The authors of the study then read their responses, and felt they could be sorted into 5 general dimensions to describe hitting the wall (1) Affective, (2) Behavioral, (3) Cognitive, (4) Motivational, and (5) Physical (the examples listed are cut and pasted responses from the surveys):


Crying, broken will, depression, feeling defeated, giving your all and it’s not enough, loss of spirit, emotionally wiped out, emotional labile, lack of enjoyment, every step seems impossible, disappointment, frustration, shame.


Pace deteriorates with form, run changes to a shuffle, unable to keep rhythm, unable to keep pace, need to walk or take rests, slow down, running becomes a struggle, tunnel vision.


Giving up on time goal, uncertainty about reaching goal, losing positive flow, loss of ability to problem solve, motivational doubts, trouble focusing, unable to concentrate,


No desire to push myself, no more drive, desire to quit, desire to walk,


Difficulty breathing, dehydration, hunger, shakiness, nausea, cramping, heaviness, pain, stiffness.

Most people in the study used about 4 different ways to describe hitting the wall, indicating most people included more than one of these dimensions in their personal descriptions.

Next, the authors detailed how the runners reported coping with hitting the wall.

The authors sorted the responses into four general dimensions: (1) cognitive strategies, (2) emotion-focused coping, (3) race-related physical efforts, and (4) no strategies.

 (1) Cognitive Strategies (N = 29)


Focusing on another runner, focusing on crowd support, Looking       down, Mental detachment, Reward, Singing songs, Praying.

Mental reframing  (2nd most common = 10 people out of 57)

Race segmenting – Just run “light post to light post” or “Mile marker to mile maker” and performance justification – “This is just a bad day”

Race goal renegotiation

Giving up on race goal, Not worrying about finishing time


Mental encouragement, Staying positive mantra, Talking to myself,   Writing message to inspire myself


Visualizing finishing strong

Willpower  (1st most common N = 16 out of 57)

Convince myself it can’t get worse, just keep running, not giving into feeling of giving up, thinking “one foot in front of another,” push through it, tough it out, try not to walk

(2) Emotion Focused Coping (N = 7)

Emotional Regulation

Enjoying the race, trying to smile, yelling


Running with someone

(3) Race-related physical efforts (N = 25)


Pain killers, Energy supplements, Food, Gatorade, Water, Electrolytes, Minerals, Salt

Reducing physical demands

Slowing pace, stopping, stretching, intermittent walking, walking

(4) No Strategy (N = 17)

Defined hitting the wall as total lack of coping skills, Just let it happen, Not sure what to do, Nothing Works

Most runners used about 2.5 coping strategies, suggesting they have two or three go-to strategies.

The authors also reported another interesting finding:

“Cognitive strategies used by higher-performing runners were implemented to enhance performance. Similar strategies by lower performing runners, however, appeared to be used to attenuate discomfort associated with HTW or to maintain a positive self-perception.”

My translation: Fast people use coping strategies to stay fast or get faster despite the wall, while us mere mortals just try to make it hurt less or feel better about ourselves.

The authors then point out what I found to be obvious: different coping strategies may be useful for different stressors. Clearly, if your stress is cramping, your more likely to engage in a physical strategy such as taking electrolytes and/or stretching. But if it’s a loss of motivation, then a cognitive or emotional strategy is probably a better method to go with than drinking more Gatorade.

Here’s what I think the big take away is: Be prepared for hitting the wall! Make it a part of your race plan. How do you experience hitting the wall? What will you do when you feel that way? Be specific, and practice it, as it’s often hard to think clearly when you’re at that stage in a race, and as with all things triathlon…have a plan!


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