Overcoming the Wall

How your brain can help you run a marathon.

Posted Oct 31, 2012

The power is out and the subways are flooded, but the New York Marathon is still scheduled for Sunday. There will be numerous and varied hurdles to clear for tens of thousands of runners to even make it to the starting line. And on top of that, up in the Bronx, around 135th St., there’s a wall in the middle of the street. And if the past is any indication, this weekend somewhere north of 20,000 people are going to run into it.

At this point you’re either totally lost, or you know exactly what I’m talking about (hint: the wall is not a literal wall). Studies show that around half of marathon runners will “hit the wall.” Hitting the wall is what happens after about 20 miles of running when your body runs out of glycogen to fuel your muscles and has to switch to burning fat as an alternative fuel source (oh if only that alternative fuel source could also power your car.) Primarily it means you’re in a lot of pain, but it also affects concentration and motivation.

Now, given that this is a neuroscience blog and not a running blog, you might be wondering why I’m writing about such a topic. Sure this isn’t the place to delve into the fine points of when to start tapering, or how many calories you should consume at what time, but guess what? Your brain can affect when you hit the wall, and how long it lasts, and possibly even keep you from hitting the wall at all. 

Just to manage your expectations, your brain is not going to work miracles, but it can help out. Your training regimen is the most influential factor in predicting whether you will hit the wall. Eating properly and getting enough good sleep are also important (check out my post on tips for improving your sleep). Interestingly sex is another factor (no, not the kind you have, the kind you are), with men being more likely than women to hit the wall. So what can your brain do? It comes down to three factors: don’t pay too much attention to your aches and pains, reduce stress, and lie to yourself.

One study on hitting the wall examined the effect of runner’s thought patterns. The researchers classified thought patterns two different ways. The first classification is whether you’re paying attention to yourself or to the outside world (inward vs outward.) The second classification is whether you pay attention to things that are relevant to the task at hand or not relevant (monitoring vs distraction) That creates four categroies: inward monitoring, outward monitoring, inward distraction, outward distraction. In this study thought patterns did not predict who hit the wall. However, among runners who hit the wall, thought patterns did have an effect on how soon they hit the wall, and how long it lasted. Specifically, runners who engaged in too much inward monitoring hit the wall earlier and suffered from its effects longer.  

This might seem strange, since inward monitoring means paying attention to how your body feels, including thirst, soreness and pain. Aren’t those important to pay attention to? Yes, those are important, but too much time spent examining how you feel can start to create problems you wouldn’t notice otherwise. This is likely due to a feedback loop between two brain regions: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and the insula. The ACC is responsible for what you’re paying attention to, and the insula plays a role in sensing pain. If the ACC spends too much time talking to the insula, then it can magnify bodily sensations that you would otherwise ignore.

I’ll show you an example. Are you in pain right now? Are you sure? What about your wrists, do they feel totally comfortable? Or the back of your neck? Or is perhaps your lower back hurting from hunching over your computer? Or is your butt sore from sitting too long?

How’d that test go? Are you more aware of your aches and pains now? The point is that feelings of pain and discomfort are related to what you’re paying attention too. If you start to pay too much attention to small discomforts they can become magnified. Now it is good to notice things like pain, because it may mean you need to slow down, or change your running form. However, the key difference between the right amount of inward monitoring and too much likely comes from how you react to that information. If you freak out about it, or even just start to worry about it, then you’ll increase activity in the emotional amygdala and make things worse. It’s way more helpful to practice non-judgmental awareness, and keep the amygdala out of it (Maybe my post on yoga will help).

Spending too much time on inward monitoring also means you’re spending less time doing outward monitoring, like paying attention to your pace, the route and where the next water station is. Sometimes you need to just calm your thoughts and enjoy yourself. Then again, this may differ between elite and non-elite runners. Another study showed that elite runners may benefit from more inward monitoring, whereas non-elite runners may be helped by just trying to have a good time.

The second factor that your brain contributes is stress. The math is pretty simple. When you’re stressed you burn calories faster, and thus are more likely to run out of glycogen sooner. Stress is greatest when you feel like things are out of your control. So try to control what you can control. Familiarize yourself with the course. Try to plan out all decisions ahead of time, like what you’re going to wear, how many GUs you’re gonna stuff in your pocket, and how you’re going to get to the starting line. Be clear about your race strategy. And when things start to get tough realize that you brought this on yourself. Embrace the pain. (Relaxing your facial muscles also helps.)

To reduce stress it’s also important to realize that you are the greatest source of your own stress. Since stress is often about feeling out of control, then focusing on things you can’t do will only magnify your sense of being out of control. For example, if you can’t maintain your pace, there’s no point in worrying that you can’t do it. If you notice yourself saying, “Oh my god, I can’t do this,” then you’re focusing on what you can’t do. If you can’t do it, then don’t do it. But stop harping on it. You’ll be surprised what you can achieve once you stop telling yourself that you “can’t” do something.

The third factor is expectation. Your brain is powerfully influenced by expectation (that's how the placebo response works). Are you expecting to hit the wall? One study showed that whether or not people hit the wall was influenced by whether they expected to hit the wall. Obviously there are some confounding variables there, because some people who know they trained poorly might reasonably expect to hit the wall. But what’s the point in being reasonable? You’re consciously choosing to run 26.2 miles for goodness sake; you’ve probably already got a few screws loose. So if you’re really worried about hitting the wall: lie to yourself. Lying to yourself is also a good way to maintain a sense of control. One tip though: if reality starts to break through, don’t start freaking out.

So hopefully avoiding too much inward monitoring, reducing stress, and expecting to run pain free will help you run a great race. I’ll just leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the philosopher Albert Camus, who chimes in with this little gem on the power of your brain to overcome hardship: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

If you liked this article then check out my book - The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time

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About the Author

Alex Korb, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at UCLA, is the author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.

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