Turning "The Wall" Into a MolehillNow that we know why "the wall" happens to us on race day, here are a few strategies you can use to make sure that when (not if) you encounter it, you are ready to leave it in the dust en route to the finish line.
Target Your "Should" Pace
As I mentioned earlier, you have two race pace options: the Could and the Should. The "Could Pace" is what you talk about with your training partners, "Based on that run on the downhill course with a tailwind and assuming the perfect taper, I could run a sub-3:30 marathon!" It's a fun exercise for sure, but given all of the assumptions and outliers in the equation, more than a few things would have to be perfect in order for it to work out...and we all know that race day is usually anything but perfect.
In contrast to the "Could Pace" is your "Should Pace." This pace is the average pace of your long runs for the last eight to 10 weeks. It is the pace you have demonstrated you can run consistently in your training. If you have been fortunate enough to take a 5K test, you can use that value to predict a marathon time. Ideally you'll corroborate this with your actual training paces as well.
The marathon has often been described as 20 miles of hope and 6 miles of reality. We can take the sting out of "the wall" by improving how we pace the first 5 miles of the race. Years of coaching and racing show that the vast majority of runners overperform in the first 5 miles of their day. Excitement, adrenaline, tapered legs, crowded roads...whatever the reason, most runners simply start out too fast.
Instead, run the first 5 miles slower than your goal race pace by about 15 seconds per mile. So if you are hoping to average 8:00/mile, you'll target 8:15/mile. Since most runners aiming for 8:00/mile will actually run between 7:30 and 7:45 pace for the early miles, anything over 8:00 pace is bonus time and will help ensure you don't waste critical energy so early in your day before it really matters.
Boost Your Blood Sugar
Remembering the mental aspect of "the wall," it's important to note that sometimes what seems insurmountable is actually not so bad. We've all had a tough race, gutting it out, only to cross the finish line and think that we could have done better. It's not just post-race bravado speaking, it's actually the fact that we have stopped running and are re-fueling.
You don't need to wait until your race is over to seek clarity; should you find yourself bonking or losing a step as you near "the wall," consider reaching for some food. It could be a gel or maybe some jelly beans you've saved. It might even have some caffeine, assuming you have trained with it before. Whatever you consider to be your power food, make sure you have some handy as you near the end of your marathon so you are ready.
Use Technique Cues
When the wheels start coming off of your race and the pace starts to drop, it's easy to be overcome with a general feeling of helplessness. You wanted to run 8:30/mile, but staring at your watch the best you can muster right now is 8:42/mile, and you know that's not going to cut it. You are already on the gas, so what else can you?
Focusing on what you can control at this stage of the game is a great way to fight the sense of powerlessness. Since your overall pace isn't in your control as you fatigue, refer instead to some technique cues to improve your running form. If you can regain your form, you'll be more efficient (and more likely to see an improvement in your splits per mile). Some technique options include high hands, relaxed shoulders, quick feet, forward lean, good posture/chin up, push off with your toes, etc.