The marathon is a challenge to yourself, a test in which you push yourself beyond your limits and where many factors come into play. For this reason, it should never be underestimated and it is necessary to arrive prepared on race day: even if we overlook the smallest detail, we run the risk of failing to cross the finish line. Let’s analyse the difficulties we can encounter during the competition, both physically and mentally, and some techniques for dealing with them.
- 1. The marathon runner’s wall
- 2. Fluid management
- 3. Cramps
- 4. Stomach problems
- 5. Motivational deficit
1. The marathon runner’s wall
Let us first examine one of the greatest terrors of every runner, the famous marathon runner’s wall. The wall, or ‘metabolic crisis‘ generally occurs between 30km and 35km into the race (the critical point would appear to be 32km), but it is a subjective feeling that varies from individual to individual. Anyone who has experienced this crisis knows that it is a series of more or less serious ailments that lead the athlete to slow the pace, or even abandon the race. The main reasons for hitting the wall are glycogen depletion, inadequate athletic preparation and incorrect race pace management. For more information, click here.
2. Fluid management
A crisis during a marathon can also be caused by an incorrect hydration strategy. Not drinking enough, drinking too much, not replenishing electrolytes, sodium, magnesium and potassium, consuming only sports gels… The possible mistakes are many, for which you will then pay the consequences during the race. Lack of fluids plays a central role in reducing race performance. Dehydrated runners cannot produce the same performance as they would otherwise.
Do not underestimate this aspect: do not miss a refuelling stand, drink even if you do not feel the need to (the general rule is to take a few small sips every 10-15 minutes). And remember, drinking during sport is not only about replacing fluids, but also about providing energy!
For more information, check out these specific articles on hydration:
- Drinking during competition – how much, when and what?
- Hydration and Running: 3 Common Mistakes
- Avoiding dehydration during running – how much fluid should you consume?
Cramps are another critical factor for marathon runners. In the second half of a marathon, you often see athletes plagued by cramps who are no longer able to continue the race. The areas most affected are usually the back of the thigh, the muscles of foot and calf. But why does the regular interaction between contraction and relaxation of muscle fibres no longer work? There are mainly two reasons:
- Hydration: In correlation with the previous point, here is one more reason to drink enough: as we sweat, we lose mineral salts, and the lowering of sodium levels (a crucial element in muscle contraction) can cause cramps. So stay hydrated, replenish sodium, magnesium and potassium by favouring drinks rich in electrolytes. Moreover, if the temperatures are high, the chances of cramping increase, as high humidity makes you sweat more, and you therefore lose more fluids and salts.
- Inadequate preparation: Inadequate training is the main cause of cramping during a race. It is important to meet certain parameters, such as: having done at least eight long runs lasting between two and three hours; having trained on the same type of terrain as the competition; having used the right shoes and having tried on the competition shoes during the long sessions. If you have not performed even one of these points correctly, you may have found the cause of your cramps: a mismatch between preparation and competition.
Race tips: how to avoid cramps and what to do if they occur
If you have followed the tips described above, you should not experience cramps. To avoid cramps during the race, remember to stick to the pace you set yourself: on race day, caught up in the excitement, it can happen that you increase your speed without your body being ready. Avoid these sudden sprints. Also, do not forget stretching and warming up, a crucial part of pre-race preparation and very important to avoid cramps. Finally, make sure you have properly replenished your body with carbohydrates over the previous three days.
If in spite of everything you are still affected by cramps, stop, stretch the affected muscle, drink an electrolyte supplement and start again at a slow pace to regain your race pace.
4. Stomach problems
A further complication for runners in endurance competitions are gastro-intestinal problems. When we run, we stress the abdomen and all the organs inside it, due to the vertical vibrations caused by repeated strides. Symptoms vary from burning, gastro-oesophageal reflux, cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea. Causes of pain can be identified in digestion, hydration, nutrition, anxiety, medication, high temperatures.
Techniques to alleviate pain while running
Stop running, then squeeze the abdominal area and breathe with half-closed lips. The breaths should be frequent and constant. Extend your arms above your head for a few minutes. Mint tea stimulates digestion and can help half an hour before a run. Ginger also prevents intestinal gas and combats nausea.
For detailed information on this topic, check out our article:
5. Motivational deficit
Finally, we tackle perhaps the most important crisis of all, the one that occurs in our head. In the final phase of a marathon, in addition to the physical collapse, there is obviously the mental one. The difference between those who manage to finish and those who give up a few kilometres before the finish line lies right here, in a greater inner drive and a healthy competitive nastiness.
Reading ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running‘ by Haruki Murakami, I came across a sentence that I particularly appreciated:
“Fatigue is an unavoidable reality, while whether or not one can make it is at the sole discretion of each individual.”
Generally, all participants in a marathon experience fatigue and muscular pain, but mental endurance enables them to overcome them. Obviously, this motivational strength must be built and trained, because it is not innate. One has to work on the psychological aspect, develop the right strategies to keep concentration high, release tension and not give up in moments of crisis.
Example: Visualization can be a good method to train mental resistance. Try to imagine the feeling once you cross the finish line, or the reward once the race is over (a good dinner and a healthy sleep!); or you could divide the route into sections and celebrate each time a segment is finished.
In short, complement your traditional training with mental strengthening exercises, you will need them in the race. And fill your mind with positive thoughts and images, always think that you can do it and not the other way around!
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