As we look forward to the Games of the XXXI Olympiad it may inspire us – the international athlete, the promising young phenom, the avid enthusiast and the weekend warrior – to strive a little harder, push a little longer or dig a little deeper. With this good intention at heart some of us may find ourselves squarely opposed by “the wall”.
A term more often heard in use by runners and even more specifically marathoners, it can be used generally across sports especially when referring to training. I’m talking about the wall that suddenly appears at the peak of your training, right before the taper begins. If you’ve hit that wall before, then you understand the frustration and self-doubt that begins to penetrate your thoughts.
Stories of marathoners hitting the wall conjure up images of an ominous structure that appears out of nowhere, as if by some unforeseen and certainly not benevolent power. Countless numbers of runners can attest to the existence of the invisible obstacle and to its humbling potential.
However, non-specific to running hitting the wall, at its core, could just as aptly be called glycogen depletion onset. It’s less graphic, but more scientifically accurate. Glycogen is a variety of glucose that the body stores to produce energy. Think of it as the fuel for your body’s engine. Your muscles need it, and your brain thrives on it. Unfortunately, there is a limited supply of glycogen that your muscles and liver can stockpile – about 2,000 calories to be exact.
Training for high performance takes a toll on the body. But if you’re that athlete who sets the bar high you never miss a workout, you never shortcut a workout, and you’re willing to endure pain for the sake of improvement. Then the impact on your body will be greater still.
Some athletes can handle the progressive overload without encountering any problems, but for some, there is just no getting around that wall. It may appear during one of your last endurance sessions or during a tough pace or interval workout. When it does show up it forces your body to shut down and cower in front of it. There is nothing you can say, do, think, or feel that will give your legs and lungs the strength to push forward. You’re physically and mentally spent.
It’s not all gloom and doom, though.
Before I offer some advice on resuming training beyond the wall, let me first explain a bit more why some of us hit the wall in the first place and what happens to our bodies during the training process.
In order to see improvements in speed and endurance, you must be willing to work hard, then harder, and then harder still. The body has to experience a progressive amount of overload or stress (more than it has experienced in previous workouts), in order to adapt and get stronger. Recreational athletes, with no specific goals in mind other than that of enjoyment, don’t really need to enter the realm of pain and discomfort. But any athlete working hard to reach a specific goal will most likely be following a plan that takes them further and further beyond their comfort zone.
If all goes well, the desired adaptations will take place without an over-accumulation of stress. For some though, a temporary setback may occur towards the peak of their training when the workouts are much harder and their bodies are too exhausted to complete them. It’s also possible for other non-training stressors to contribute to their over-trained state. Things like family and job obligations, financial concerns, poor diet, lack of sleep, and relationship problems. These types of variables often go unnoticed until it becomes clear a decline in performance is occurring.
So what action should an athlete take if he or she should meet the proverbial wall at the peak of training?
Put things into perspective: It would be easy to embrace a defeatist mentality at this point in your training. When you have worked so hard, and the gains have been visible, it’s a huge disappointment to suddenly take a step or two backwards. But take a minute to focus on the fact that progress has already been made, and beneath the layer of fatigue and stress lays a well-built foundation of steadily acquired strength and endurance. In other words, trust in your training.
Identify all your stressors: This is really important as we take a lot of extrinsic factors for granted that could be having really adverse effects in our performnaces. Reduce or eliminate the ones that are within your control.
Take extra rest days after harder workouts: You’ve most likely been following your hard workouts with a recovery or rest day. Try following hard sessions with an additional recovery or rest day. Allow your body extra time to recover and de-stress.
Reduce the volume and/or intensity of your training: Do this until your body reaches a level of recovery where you feel well enough to return to your original workload. You should be nearing your taper period at this time, so even though you will feel as if the reduced training was a premature taper, don’t try and make up the missed workouts. You’ll end up right back at square one and probably ruin your chances of performing optimally for your event.
Future Measures: Learn from your mistakes and keep a training log the next time you start a training cycle. One of the things I recently started with my athletes is a colour-code system. I got the idea from coach Jenny Hadfield of Runner’s World, who uses this system with her clients to monitor and discern early warning signs of overtraining. Basically, you would record “yellow” if you felt strong, “orange” if you felt okay (neither awful nor great), or “red” if you struggled to finish. Ideally, you would see mostly yellows and oranges, but if you started to see a pattern of increasing oranges and reds, then that would be an indicator that something is impairing your ability to recover. Catching the warning signs early on may help you to skirt around that wall during the sharpening phase of your training.
But most important to the entire process of defeating or at least pushing back the wall is increasing your anaerobic capacity. Glycogen is your body’s most readily available form of fuel, but fortunately it’s not the only fuel. Your body can also convert fat into energy, and even the slimmest of athletes store enough body fat to cover approximately 600 miles – the equivalent of nearly 29 marathons. The problem is, fat requires oxygen to burn, and if you’re performing an intense activity – say sprinting – you are said to be running anaerobically, which means “in the absence of oxygen.” Anaerobic performance also increases the amount of waste products in your blood, leading to a burning sensation in the muscles. So, what’s an aspiring athlete who wants to run faster and jump higher, for longer, do?
With consistent training over a period of weeks and months, you’ll become winded less-easily. Your anaerobic threshold – the point at which your body draws its energy from non-oxygenated sources like glucose – will be pushed back. You’ll be able to run farther and faster and burn a mixture of glycogen and fat.
Experience can also lessen the shock of hitting the wall. If you’ve been through it in training or previous events, you’re less likely to succumb to it. As humbling and physically challenging as it can be, it is only temporary. That intrinsic knowledge alone can be enough to get you to the finish line and emerge from the shadow of the wall.
Just remember be smart about it and live to fight another day. These moments are also prime opportunities for overused injuries. In everything there is balance and remaining positive while balancing your progressive overload with proper recovery time is key. As we are all preparing for the greatest sporting spectacle in the world, let us all strive to be a bit better on the playing fields ourselves.