- This was printed in October of 2014 in The Madera Tribune, a newspaper in Madera, California. This was the 75th installment of my weekly column, Mind Over Miles.
You’re at Mile 20 of a marathon — whether it’s your first or your twenty-first — and
you’re bounding along at a comfortable pace. Suddenly you think Did my legs just turn
into lead? Why do I feel so tired?
Then just as suddenly, you can’t remember how to think. You’re dizzy, lightheaded,
disoriented. Is that an aid station or the finish line?
Then you get cranky. Get away from me, sweaty runners! Stop breathing my air! Why are
your steps so loud? Why won’t my legs move faster?!
You’ve hit the point of no return — the dreaded bonk.
It’s a huge fear for many marathoners, especially for those attempting their very first
26.2-mile race. “I don’t want to hit the wall,” they say. My response: “Then don’t.”
To ward off the wall, you need to understand it.
Hitting the wall is simply experiencing extreme fatigue as a result of glycogen depletion.
Glycogen is energy stored in the muscles and liver. When your muscles run out of
glycogen, they don’t want to move anymore. When your liver runs out of glycogen, it
doesn’t provide blood glucose to the brain, which causes the brain to not want to work
anymore — hence the confusion, dizziness and irritability.
To put it in simple terms, if you don’t want to “bonk” or “hit the wall,” don’t run out of
glycogen/energy. How do you stay energized? Eat.
Eat carbohydrates, specifically, as they provide glycogen to the muscles and liver.
The cool thing about running marathons is that you can indulge in all of the
carbohydrates that fad diets warn against. Forget Paleo and Atkins — bring on the white
bread, bagels, pasta and potatoes! Of course, “good” carbs like fruits and vegetables
should be consumed also. Fuel your body wisely by balancing fruits, veggies and
wholesome grains along with some protein and fats.
Even if you are training for your first marathon, you should still consider yourself — and
eat like — an endurance athlete. After all, anyone who runs 18 miles as a training run is
an athlete, no matter how much they weigh or what they look like.
Eating a balanced diet daily in the weeks leading up to the race will give your body a
solid foundation of stored energy.
Marathoners should “carb load” in the three to four days prior to the race. This just means
to adjust your proportions of carbohydrates, proteins and fats so that carbs make up a
bigger chunk of your diet than usual. Lots of water and some electrolyte beverages like
Gatorade should also be consumed during this time to ensure a runner is properly
hydrated come race day.
Fueling properly during a race is equally as important. What’s the use of getting regular
oil changes and filling up your car’s gas tank before a road trip, only to get so excited
about the trip that you drive until your gas-depleted car sputters to a stop?
Taking in calories — especially from carbohydrates — early and often, and hydrating
properly, will help prevent bonking during a race.
Marathoners should eat a sports gel, chew, bar or a piece of fruit (I prefer to eat a medium
banana) 30 to 60 minutes before a race.
Hydrate with small sips of water every 15 minutes or so while running. Too much water
and you’ll feel it sloshing in your stomach; too little and you might suffer the effects of
dehydration — thirst, headache, tiredness and confusion.
Eat a carb-rich snack every 45 minutes — sports gels and chews are the easiest and
fastest to digest and consume while moving, but fruit, pretzels and candy work too.
After the race (Hey, look! You got to the finish line without ever seeing that infamous
wall!) eat something protein-rich with some carbs, like graham crackers with peanut
butter and a cup of chocolate milk, to repair damaged muscle tissue.
Cheers to bonk-free marathons!