If there is one thing guaranteed to bring out a cold sweat in marathon runners, it’s the fear of hitting the dreaded 'Wall'. The good news is with the right preparation you prevent the worst from happening.
1. Why we hit the wall
When we run, our body is always using a combination of carbs and fat to push us along. Although our body’s primary source of energy is always going to be carbs, as our glycogen stores start to deplete, our body will begin to use more and more fat. However, the problem with this is that it takes our bodies longer to draw energy from fat and so as a result we naturally start to slow down.
Unfortunately, if we were to try and continue running at the same intensity while our body is low on carbs, then we will inevitably hit that heinous wall!
But, if you were to take on carbs whilst you run - and therefore keep your glycogen stores topped up - you will hopefully avoid the wall and - in theory - get a quicker marathon time.
2. Find out what gels are available on race day
Just about every major marathon will have a nutrition sponsor. The small provincial marathons may only provide poxy cups of water containing electrolytes (which is better than nothing), but the larger races such as Brighton (Cliff Bar) or London (Lucozade) will also strategically dish out gels and energy bars, as well as providing drinks.
If you’re running the London Marathon, for example, then it wouldn’t be a bad idea if you were to purchase some Lucozade in advance (available at miles 5, 10, 15, 19 and 23) and their Sport Elite Gel (at miles 14 and 21). Because, by practicing beforehand with what’s readily available on the course, you’ll save yourself having to carry it around with you on the day.
3. What if gels don't agree with me?
Although gels are far and away the easiest and quickest way to absorb carbs into your system, many of us have a Marmite like relationship with them. Our ability to tolerate gels often boils down to how efficiently our bodies can absorb carbohydrates whilst running. And this very much depends on whether we’ve trained our gut to take the maximum dosage, which is about 60g per hour for glucose sources.
If gels don’t agree with you, one other possibility is because you didn’t take them with water - crucial with just about every gel except the award-winning isotonic SiS Go. But the only way to find out what works for you is to practice with different types of energy sources during training.
In fact, you can source carbs from other ‘healthier options’, such as a banana, which contains about 20g of carbohydrate (enough to keep you going for 20 minutes) or a slice of orange, which will have about 6g of carbs (enough for six minutes).
Or you could simply carry with you an isotonic sports drinks - most of which contain about 30g of carbs. This is a good alternate option because you can happily sip the drink at regular intervals without getting your hands sticky whilst messing about with gels.
4. Don't try anything new on race day
But if there is key piece of advice to follow, it has to be this: DON’T TRY ANYTHING NEW ON THE DAY. Now is the time to practice with that caffeine gel. Now is when you experiment with Gu gels, Clif Shot Blocs, Jelly Beans or any other form of race nutrition. Because the last thing you want to be doing on race day is spending it in a loo or even worse, not actually finishing the race.
Race nutrition is a very personal thing. What works for one individual may not work for another. Experiment and get it right and you’ll be saying ‘What wall?’, but get it wrong and you could be in for a very long and uncomfortable day. So start thinking about your race nutrition now - not the day before you race!
Words: Tobias Mews