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6 Mental Strategies to Prevent and Cope with “Hitting the Wall”

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article by Skratch Labs contributor Dr. Kristin Keim

Endurance athletes such as distance runners and cyclists often fear the phenomenon of Hitting the Wall. It’s what many cyclists call “bonking” during training or racing ― that dreaded moment when your body implodes and negative thoughts become so overpowering they literally stop you in your tracks and pedal stroke. While we normally think of bonking as a physical limitation, there are real cognitive and behavioral symptoms that can worsen the situation – a type of Invisible Wall. How we mentally cope with a challenging moment in training, racing, or life in general is just as important as how we physically manage the situation, in so much that our behavior and outlook determines the decisions that we make. Anyone can hit an invisible wall. Ultimately, it’s being aware of what is generally unseen that allows us to eliminate fear and to move forward in our most difficult moments.

What is Going on When You Mentally Struggle During Sport?

Studies have shown that around 43 percent of marathon runners are likely to hit the wall during a race. However, not everyone who runs a marathon will hit the wall or want to quit, but there are certain factors that contribute to this phenomenon, and some are within your control while some are not. Physiologists suspect it is likely that genetics plays some role in this, and your daily diet may also be a contributing factor.

Hitting the Wall typically occurs around mile 20 when your body runs out of glycogen to fuel your muscles and has to switch to burning fat as an alternative fuel source. When you run low on glycogen, even your brain wants to shut down activity as a preservation method, which can also lead to negative thinking. Primarily it means you start to feel physical pain and extreme fatigue, but it also affects focus, concentration, motivation, and mood.

Kyle Pfaffenbach, Ph.D., a Nutrition and Exercise Science Professor at Eastern Oregon University further explained, “The brain is always doing the math between how efficiently energy is being produced, the amount of energy that is stored, the rate at which fuel is being utilized, and the amount of fuel coming into the system. When the rate of fuel use does not match up with the amount of fuel stored or the amount of fuel coming into the system, the central nervous system receives and sends signals of fatigue. The balance between intensity, fuel availability, length of event, training background, fuel intake, and mental strategies during the event are all important factors in managing fatigue, and dealing with bonking and hitting the wall.”

Athletes Thoughts on Hitting the Wall:

Alex Warren, a competitive runner and co-owner of Runologie in Raleigh, NC realized that for him hitting the wall has been a combination of physical and mental fatigue. He shared that he often utilizes the mental tools of self-talk and breathing strategies to help him through hard training workouts and races.

On a recent 20 mile training run helping his friend prepare for the upcoming Boston marathon he explained, “I noticed that our pace started to change and slow, fatigue was setting in around mile 15 and we had to push it, some of it was probably related to hydration, nutrition, and lack of sleep, but I could feel the lactate and knew I was getting close to hitting the wall. So I focused back on my breathing and our pace in order to push through it.” He also shared, “You really have to pay attention to your body, you need to have the mental and physical tools to prevent and to get through it, but most of all you cannot completely stop or slow down too much, you have to commit, stay present, breathe, and keep moving forward.” When asked about advice for other athletes, Alex explained, “Keeping a training log is probably the best thing, and before every workout write out your hydration, nutrition, and sleep cycle because you learn valuable information about yourself and how your daily life, routine, and stress impacts your training and racing.”

Now what? The key is to have a plan, to dial in your mental toolbox. Below are a few effective cognitive strategies.

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6 Strategies to Prevent and Cope with Hitting the Wall or Bonking: Try them out in training and see which tools work best for you.

1. Race Simulation

The Golden Rule of Racing: Never do something in a race you have not practiced in training. To avoid breaking this rule, it is necessary to do some race simulations. A race simulation is where you try to re-create as many of the race conditions as possible, while avoiding the stress and recovery time of the actual race. It might seem counterintuitive, but it is also helpful to actually plan and practice how you will cope with fatigue and possibly hit the wall or bonk during your race. With some thought and planning, training runs or rides can be used as race simulation.

2. Dial in Nutrition and Hydration

Along with race simulations it is important to dial in your pre-race routine. It is also helpful for race simulations to mimic the fueling you intend to use during the race, as well as, mimic the nutrition the day before the race. Experimenting with different meals the night before the race and the race day breakfast will help determine what works best for your body. Ideally you want to replicate the hydration (your favorite flavors of Skratch) making sure you have enough hydration for your energy expenditure. Again, learning to control the controllables helps you feel more prepared and confident on race day.

3. Self-Talk

Self-talk refers to the inner voice in your mind. It is a useful mental strategy to apply to endurance events such as marathons and cycling road races. Repeating choice words whenever you need to focus can help direct your mind away from negative thoughts and toward a more positive race experience.

The Sanskrit word “mantra” literally means “instrument for thinking.” As such, short phrases or cue words can help to re-focus the mind and improve your mood. For example, to overcome climbing, you might use the phrase, “climbs and hills are my friend.” If you start to feel fatigue, you might say to yourself, “I am calm, collected, and strong.” Or perhaps you will need to repeat, “keep moving, don’t stop” over and over again. Sometimes even a simple cue word such as “breathe” can help you stay centered and focused. It is important to figure out which mantra, phrase, or cue word works best for you.

My personal favorite is “breathe, commit, believe” because it reminds me of WHY I am pushing my body and my purpose for racing. You have to feed into your positive thoughts ― those are the ones that are going to get you to the finish line. After all, happy racers go faster.

4. Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness is the act of slowing down to notice all the little things inside and around you without expectation or judgment. Mindfulness allows you to be in the present moment, notice what is going on with your body right then and there. Being in the moment or the “now” helps you to experience the presence of everything around you and connects you to where you can focus on what you need to do right now. Negative thoughts and anxiety develop from thinking about the future. Therefore, by being mindful you are able to attend to what you need to do this very moment instead of worrying about the finish line.

On the other hand, meditation entails emptying out the mind and calming it. Is it easy to empty the mind? No, but just like physical training it takes time and deliberate effort and practice to do so. Regular practice of meditation eventually allows the mind to become calm no matter what scenario is presented. Therefore, adding a meditation practice to your training routine can help you stay calm and focused so you can choose the appropriate tools to overcome any race obstacles.

5. Visualization

Research has found that mental training can be just as effective as physical training, resulting in actual endurance increases. This technique is referred to as “if-then planning” (if X happens, then I will do Y) ― for example, if you hit the wall, then you will use a visualization technique to help you imagine yourself getting through it. Linking back to the first strategy (Race Simulation) you can also work on a visualization script where you will visualize yourself successfully getting through the challenge and finishing the race.

6. Focus

During a marathon or cycling road race, association and dissociation are two key cognitive strategies for maintaining focus. Association refers to the monitoring of the body and adjusting pace accordingly, while dissociation refers to using distraction to direct attention away from pain and fatigue. Research has found that top Olympic marathon finishers employed cognitive strategies that utilized both associative and dissociative techniques, while lower finishers only adopted dissociative strategies. Therefore, being present, mindful, and at one with your physical state is really important if you are aiming to maintain appropriate focus.

Examples of associative and dissociative strategies include: monitoring foot strike and stride pattern, pedal stroke, making sure your shoulders and hands are relaxed on the handlebars, maintaining awareness of hydration levels or when to eat, and observing breathing patterns. These strategies can help bring a meditative practice to your training and race experience, almost as if you are in a state of flow.

You Hit the Wall – Now What?

First, do not panic, take a moment to stop, eat, drink, cool off, and then start again. Next, go back to all the cognitive strategies you added to your mental toolbox during training. Take a moment to find which tool works best for what you are experiencing physically and mentally.

Go back to the WHY and the reason you decided to train and compete. Focus on what you can control in that present moment. Hopefully there are some fun signs on the side of the road to help you laugh and improve your mood.

And if you are lucky like I was one hot day when I bonked on an 80-mile group ride off HWY 101, your friends will gladly pull you back home, while also never letting you forget that epic day. As athletes, we often learn the hard way.

Remember, training is more than just logging the hours and miles. It is a holistic mind and body process that has the ability to transform you into an athlete that is prepared, ready, and confident to meet their race objectives and goals.

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Dr. Keim completed her Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology with a focus in Health Psychology, Neuropsychology, and Clinical Sport/Performance Psychology, as well as her M.A. in Sport Psychology. She is a Certified Consultant in the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) and Member of the US Olympic Committee Sport Psychology and Mental Training Registry. Dr. Keim is the owner of Keim Performance Consulting, LLC and has experience working with athletes of all ages, levels, and abilities. Her research focuses are on mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBIs) in athletes, mindfulness, depression in athletes, athlete identity, and the transition (retirement) out of sport. This past summer she attended the 2016 Rio Olympics where she worked with Olympians in both cycling and triathlon events. In her spare time she enjoys riding, running, yoga, and exploring new cities and countries.

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