Breaking Through the Wall

For most runners, the last 10-K of a marathon is also the toughest. These strategies will help you break through the wall, avoid bonking and reach the finish line.

Just a 10-K to go? For marathoners, that phrase is both a blessing and a curse. It means you’re almost there: only 6.2 miles to the finish. But it also means the toughest part is yet to come.

In fact, many runners consider the marathon two races in one: the first 20 miles and the last 10-K. That’s because in the last 10-K, you’re exerting the most effort. Your legs are complaining, your body has run out of glycogen, and your head feels like a typical day in Seattle (that is, cloudy). Some call it “hitting the wall”, “bonking”; others have names for it that we can’t print here.

But with proper training and racing techniques, plus the right fuel, fluids and mental strategies, you can make the last 10-K of your marathon, maybe not a walk in the park, but an integral part of your marathon success story.

Training: Run long, my friend

The key to running strong in the last 10-K of a marathon is the long training run. The idea is to simulate the exertion of a marathon without wiping yourself out in the process. That’s why long runs should be done slowly-at least 2 minutes per mile slower than marathon pace. “Duration is the goal, not distance,” says coach Benji Durden, a member of the 1980 Olympic Marathon team. Durden advises aiming for long runs that last within 30 minutes of your predicted time for the marathon. For example, if you’re training to run the marathon in 3:30, your long runs should last 3 hours. Marathoners shooting for 3:15 would do long runs of 2:45. However, any run over 3 hours should be broken up into two runs that day. “More than 3 hours at a time, and you’re looking at a possible injury,” Durden says. So, a 4:30 marathoner shooting for a 4-hour long run would run 3 hours in the morning, then do the additional hour that evening. How many of these long runs should you do? Ideally five or six, but four is the minimum you need to keep from struggling through the last 10-K on race day. And, cautions Durden, these long runs should be spread out over at least 12-preferably 16-weeks of training. “Marathon training is all about gradual buildup,” he says. “The times that I’ve struggled in the last 10-Ks of marathons were the times I tried to squeeze my training into a few weeks.”

Racing: Hold back

Just as training for a marathon involves a gradual buildup, so does the marathon itself. “Start slow, about 10 seconds per mile slower than the pace you want to run for the first 5-K,” says Durden. “The key is not to overestimate your potential and start too fast.” Also, take the race in threes; that way, says Durden, you divide the effort-both physical and mental-and save yourself for the last 10-K. “The marathon is all about managing energy, and the three-section approach is a great way to do that,” says Durden. The three sections of a marathon are:

1. The social run (0 to 10 miles). “That’s when you look around, talk to the other runners,” Durden says. The point is to ease into the race. “It’s very difficult to focus completely on running every single mile of a marathon,” he adds.

2. The transition (10 to 20 miles). “Become more quiet, focused. Get ready for the push,” he says.

3. Full focus (20 to 26.2 miles). “Time to race, in that you’re giving the last 10-K the attention you’d give an actual 10-K race,” says Durden.

Drink Early and Often

Don’t pass up the early water stops because you’re not thirsty or don’t want to slow down; by the time your body tells you it’s thirsty, you’re already on your way to dehydration. Eating and drinking: Avoiding the three curses Imagine passing a wicked witch at 20 miles. She waves her wand and curses you three times:

1. You shall have low blood sugar (light-headedness).

2. You shall suffer dehydration (your heart will pump sludge).

3. You shall run out of muscle glycogen (your legs will be out of fuel).

No matter how well trained you are and how wisely you’ve run up to this point in the race, these scourges are bound to hit you-unless you do three things:

1. Eat before the marathon. This raises your blood sugar level so your brain can concentrate on the task at hand. “An hour before the race, you need to take in about 300 calories,” says Nancy Clark, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. “Think of it as brain food.” A toasted bagel, some pretzels and a banana would make a good pre-race combo.

2. Drink two 8-ounce glasses of water or sports drink 2 hours before the marathon, and hydrate at every water station. You should take in 5 to 12 ounces of water or sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes during the race. This keeps dehydration at bay so your blood moves smoothly from your heart to your leg muscles, bringing those muscles the oxygen they need and shuttling waste products away. Taking in enough fluids also keeps sweat flowing, which cools you down and helps prevent muscle cramps. Make sure you don’t pass up the early water stops because you’re not thirsty or don’t want to slow down; by the time your body tells you it’s thirsty, you’re already on your way to dehydration. If you find it hard to swallow fluids while you’re running, stop and drink. The few seconds’ delay will pay off later.

3. Finally, take in fuel during the race. To ward off both glycogen depletion and light-headedness, Clark recommends consuming about 200 calories every hour. That’s four cups of sports drink per hour-or candy, cookies, a banana, energy gels or an energy bar on the hour. “It doesn’t matter if the fuel is liquid or solid,” she says. “Practice beforehand to figure out which type of fuel works best for you.” For instance, some runners find energy bars too hard to chew, while others think gels (syrupy substances in squeezable packets) are too sweet. Cookies can crumble, and candies may melt. Take advantage of your long training runs to work out which fuel is easiest for you to transport, use and digest. And since digesting solid “marathon food” will use water, make sure to drink plenty of fluid-at least a 6-ounce cup-with each snack.

Thinking: Head games

One way of dealing with the last 10-K, as we’ve mentioned, is to focus on it as if it were a 10-K race. But because most of us, unlike elite runners, simply can’t concentrate on our form and speed in the last 6 miles, we need a few mental tricks to get through it. Here are some strategies you can employ:

Use imagery

For example, visualize the last 10-K as some sort of epic quest coming to fruition. “At 20 miles you stand on top of the wall and look out at the finish line,” says Michael Sachs, Ph.D., an exercise and sports psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. “Then you jump down and plunge ahead.” Or you might see the finish as a welcoming blaze of light at the end of a tunnel.

Try to disassociate

That is, think about anything but the last 10-K. Some strategies:

  • 2 + 2. Sachs suggests working out a math problem in your head. Just make it fairly simple; don’t try to calculate the last digit of pi.
  • “Oh, Danny Boy . . .” Sing-either silently or out loud, depending on how much attention you’re willing to attract.
  • Bird watching. Soak in the scenery. If you’re running through a park, look for birds. If you’re in the London Marathon, check out the architecture, or count the double-decker buses.
  • Walter Mitty. Delve into a fan-tasy–you’re lying on a beach, and Brad Pitt (or Claudia Schiffer) is bringing you a pina colada.

Thinking–like eating and drinking on the run–has to be practiced beforehand. “You should work on your mental strategies during the last miles of your long runs,” says Sachs. “That way during your marathon you can tap into them more easily.”

In other words, without thinking about them.