If you have never run a marathon before you have most likely heard of this thing called THE WALL.

Some runners believe that you can’t run a marathon without hitting the wall and others know better.

I’ve hit the wall {many times}. I’ve also NOT hit the wall and had great races where I finished 26.2 miles feeling like I had more in the tank.

I’m one of those runners that believe that you do not have to hit the wall in a marathon. The science behind it really is just about making sure you don’t make some of the key mistakes that can lead to a slow down in the later miles of a marathon. The more of these mistakes you make the earlier in the marathon you may feel this so-called-wall. {yes it exists IMO but YES it can be avoided – going to say it again – YOU CAN AVOID THE WALL}

There are things you can control in the marathon and there are things you can’t control. Control what you can.

Here are my top five mistakes runners make in the marathon that often lead to hitting a wall:

  • Overcarbsumption in the week leading up to the marathon. No it is not a real word – but YES it is a real thing. You do not need to stuff your face with carbs in the week leading up to a marathon. You may want to slightly increase your intake of healthy carbs but eating a donut for breakfast and pizza for dinner every night the week leading up to the marathon does not count as carbo loading. There are a variety of reasons why this is not a good idea but the two that stand out for me are: you are also drinking more water than normal – excess carbs + lots of extra water lead to bloating and feeling sluggish – fueling your body with “junk” carbs all week is not going to give you the fuel you need on race day {you know that adage you are what you eat – this is VERY important when you want your body to perform at top level – give your body good fuel and you may just see better results}.
  • Dehydration. Entering a marathon under hydrated is a huge mistake. I am certainly not suggesting you should over hydrate {that’s another issue all together} but I am telling you that if you enter in to the race even slightly dehydrated your performance is going to suffer.
  • Overdressing. Here is that dehydration issue. If you over dress for a marathon, you are likely going to sweat. Sweating on a cold day can lead to the chills – you will likely feel colder than if you had worn less. Sweating on a VERY hot day is going to cause you to sweat at a faster rate and cause dehydration faster than if you had dressed appropriately for the marathon. It’s hard to get blanket advice on what to wear for the marathon since we are all out there for different amounts of time and there is a HUGE difference between being out there running for 3 hours vs 4 hours vs 5 hours. I can say this from first hand experience, having run in the 3’s the 4’s and an almost 5 hour marathon {4:56}. My rule of thumb is get dressed – look in the mirror – take off something {gloves, hat, an extra layer or what not}
  • Starting out too fast. You can’t make your marathon in the first mile but you can BREAK your marathon in the first mile. There are select few runners who can run an even pace for 26.2 miles {this girl comes to mind} but for the MAJORITY of us if you start out too fast, at or faster than your goal pace, you will hit the wall. There is science behind this, but basically you will be burning through your stored energy at a faster pace than if you started out slower and worked in to the faster pace. This will leave your muscles depleted earlier in the race. The wall can happen at different miles for different people – it typically is said it happens around mile 20 because that is when the average runner has used up the majority of their glycogen stores. The reality is though it depends on how much your body can store, has stored, and how fast it is burning through it. This is also where setting a realistic goal pace comes in to play and is extremely important. In the first miles of a marathon repeat PATIENCE to yourself and let people pass you. The first miles are not a time to compete with anyone, consider it a warm up {if you are an elite, then yes you may be competing in the first miles, but even elites have to practice patience in the beginning of the race}.
  • You didn’t set a realistic goal and are paying the price. It’s awesome to have a DREAM BIG goal. I’m all about HUGE, SCARY goals, but at the end of the day you have to be realistic with what your body is capable of when it comes to the marathon, or it can make for a miserable day. When I first started running my goal every race was to Boston Qualify and run a sub 3:40 marathon – not only was I not in shape for a 3:40 marathon but I was running like a moron in the first miles and ALWAYS hit the wall. My first marathons basically turned in to run/walks – now I RUN a marathon – as in – not stopping for 26.2 miles. This is because I know how to pace myself better now. Your dream big race pace is likely going to feel easy in the first miles of a marathon. You have tapered, have fresh legs, and are feeding off the excitement of the day and of the crowds – this makes the early miles seem easy and you don’t doubt for a second that you are running too fast. Then it hits and you realize that what you thought you were on pace for is drastically going to slow – in sets the disappointment and you aren’t even close to the finish line. Once the mind is defeated the body follows and soon feels defeated itself. If your goal for the marathon is not realistic and even if you don’t make the mistake of starting out too fast for that goal {say you start 30 seconds slower than goal race pace} you may still be going too fast for you in the early miles.

I’ll break this one down for you because I think it’s EXTREMELY important when it comes to racing or running well in the marathon. You want to feel good when you finish, not terrible and in tears.

Say your DREAM BIG goal for the marathon is a 3:40 but a realistic goal based on your training is 3:59

  • a 3:40 marathon is an average of 8:24 per mile
  • a 3:59 marathon is an average of 9:09 per mile

Say you start your marathon out at 15 seconds slower than goal race pace at 8:39 which you believe to be starting out slow. It feels great because again you are tapered and a marathon should feel easy in the first miles. BUT your goal is not realistic and you should be starting out at 15 seconds slower than goal race pace for a 3:59 marathon and then kicking it in the last 6.2 miles if you feel good. Your pace in the early miles should be around a 9:24. HUGE difference between starting out at a 9:24 pace vs a 8:39 pace…….you start to feel crappy around mile 16 or so – thinking it will pass and by mile 20 you may be running a 9:30 pace. By mile 20 you are thinking about starting to walk – by mile 22 you may likely be run/walking. Your pace slows as you do the math in your head. At this point you may not even hit your realistic goal of 3:59 but an even slower goal as you see your pace slow down in to the 10’s and beyond.  {These times are not precise – I am simply setting up a scenario for you so you fully get the importance of a realistic goal time in order to avoid hitting the wall} You are sad, miserable and though happy to be finished are disappointed that months of hard training led to this. Don’t dump your time goal down the drain by starting out too fast – I’ve done it many a time – it’s not fun knowing you are going to not only not hit your goal – but that you feel miserable and aren’t enjoying the marathon in the process.

THIS doesn’t have to happen. Set a realistic goal and then if you feel good in the middle of the race start picking it up each mile – you will likely be able to run under goal race pace for the second half of the marathon making up any time you thought you may have lost in the beginning.

This is how you surprise yourself and end up running close to your goal and even under your DREAM BIG goal.


Questions? Thoughts? What do you think the biggest mistake you can make in the marathon is? What mistakes have you made that you hope to avoid in the future?

Top 5


*Disclaimer: There are TONS of mistakes you can make in a marathon, these are my top 5 in no particular order. I am a coach but I am likely not your coach. Check with your doctor before running 26.2 miles and as always do your research. I’ve run 24 marathons, but I’m not a doctor or medical professional.  

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  1. I ran the Columbus marathon on Sunday and was hoping to finish in 3:40. This was only my 2nd full marathon and I did exactly what you described above…. I started out too fast! I knew better, but just wasn’t able to trust the knowledge & advice of more seasoned marathoners to pace myself slower in the beginning. I felt great for the first half and anticipated needing at least one bathroom break during the race so I hoped that by “banking time” at the beginning, I’d be fine. As it turned out, I DIDN’T need to hit the porta potty at all and was able to maintain a decent pace for 20 miles, but I DID hit a wall around mile 20/21. In the end, I finished feeling awful and 8 minutes behind my goal (3:48). Next time I will definitely aim to start out much slower and ease into my goal pace. Hard & painful lesson learned! Thanks for your helpful thoughts & advice!

  2. Yes, it is definitely possible NOT to hit the wall but like you said- pacing is everything! My best marathon to date was Boston this past April and a lot of it had to do with how I kept a steady pace. My first mile was one of the slowest. I did not intend to go out that slow but it was so crowded it really kept my pace in check. My overall average at the end was11 seconds faster per mile than my first mile average! In the marathon I ran before Boston my first mile average was over 35 seconds faster than my overall average. I started way too fast and hit the wall hard the last 5k.

    These are all great tips and I can relate to all of them! Thanks for sharing these.

  3. In my very first marathon I hit the wall at 17 and FREAKED. My mistake was I didn’t take in enough the day before – I ran out of everything! My husband on the other hand never hits the wall, and now I understand his crazy pre-race rituals the entire time before. He actually depletes his carbs for the first 3 days of the week before and then he starts building then back up and this helps to use those carbs during the race.

  4. Thanks for this! I always struggle to start out slow during a race and I really need to focus on this aspect for my next marathon. It’s going to be tough to do it, but I really want to break 4 hours and this might be the key to achieving that level of success.


  5. Preach it!! Start slow finish fast. Changed marathons for me :):)

  6. Perfect timing!! Thank you! Races always get me pumped and I start out too fast but Sunday I will remember to take those first miles easy and soak it all in :) cant wait to see you out there!

  7. Marathon #5 and hopes to hit sub 3:40 (BQ with 5 min to spare) Sunday so this post is timely and exactly the time I’m shooting for. Sigh…so Dream Big is tricky for me I have to say. I have big goals but I am so freaked out to hit the wall (walk, drop pace way off) that I have yet to start off any marathon or half for that matter to fast. I think it contributes to not hitting my goals. It’s so fustersting. I am just freaked out to blow up. One of these days it will happen I’m sure but you never really know what your made of until you push yourself to the breaking point. Let’s just rip off the band aid and get this over with. I know, sounds miserable but I just love it.

  8. I agree, the wall doesn’t have to happen. You have some great tips on avoiding it!

  9. Thank you for posting this. I’m running marathon #3 next weekend (Indianapolis Monumental) and I’m praying my calf muscles don’t cramp up on me like they have for the past two. I’m going to go out slow, I think that’s my issue (I’ve never cramped in training). Very informative! Thanks!

  10. Amen and amen! I just did this last weekend! I have trained way harder, smarter and just better than ever before and ran a marathon 9 minutes slower than my pr in the same race 2 years ago when i hardly trained. Started out way too ambitious…(even though I trained for that time) especially on a super hard hilly course! I also think race nutrition is super important. I hardly took anything and I think contributed to my bonk!

  11. I think that a corollary to ‘realistic pacing’ is understanding the course. If you could run a 9 minute pace on a flat, easy surface with optimal conditions … chances are you will need to alter that pace if the course is hilly, the terrain is rougher and the conditions are sub-optimal.

    As an example I ran an inaugural marathon along a hilly gorge this summer – and the initial race guide didn’t have an elevation map but only described 200ft of terrain change. Come to find out that was start to finish … there was closer to 4000 ft of hills! The roads were packed dirt … and the conditions were torrential downpours the entire morning! So rather than a mildly hilly and slightly shaded easy course, you had a very hilly trudge in downpours through 2″ of constant muck and running water! That was a pace destroyer of a race :)

  12. Great post. Sound advice, Breaks down the runner’s thought process during a typical marathon so well. I do hope I follow the plan in my next marathon 3 weeks from now.
    Thank you, beautifully written –

  13. This was just what I needed to read before Sunday! I am getting so nervous!!! My one concern–am I drinking TOO much water???

  14. Summer Harty says:

    Thanks for this post! I am running my very first full marathon in NYC in just about a week, so the nerves and excitement are starting to set in and reading this helped calm me a bit. I always start out very slow but have found that I push those middle miles too much on my long runs because I’m feeling so good and all “Yes! I love to run!!!”. This was a good reminder that I should wait to push until the very end. And let’s be real here, I’m just hoping to have some kick at the end :) That will be a successful race for me. Good luck this weekend at MCM!

  15. I just ran my first marathon 2 months ago and can attest that you do not have to hit the wall. I went ridiculously slow because my only goals were to run the whole way and enjoy it. I felt great the whole way! Next time I will push the pace because I’m confident in the distance.

  16. I definitely suffered from 1 and 4 on my first marathon.
    I thought training for (and running) a marathon was an excuse to eat whatever I wanted. Big mistake.
    I also went in without a time goal, but arbitrarily chose to run with the 4:30 pace group. I felt fantastic for the first 15 miles…then I slowly started fading, and by mile 19 I was crying my eyes out wishing it was just over. Cue to finish in just under 5 hours.

    My how times have changed :) Tough lessons but I’m glad I learned them early on.

  17. Thanks for this post! I’ve never hit the wall before, but I’ve definitely made a few of these mistakes! Going out too fast is always a big problem for me, but I’ve been getting better. In this year’s Chicago Marathon, my mantra for the first half was “slow down,” and it really helped me keep an even pace.

    And your point about not over-doing it on the carbs is really true. I used to think that I needed to ADD tons of carbs to my normal diet, but for my last few races I just switched foods instead of adding, and I felt much, much better before and during the races.

  18. Thank you so much Dorothy for posting this. Since I will be running my first Marathon in December I have not experienced hitting the WALL! I don’t plan on it either, key word being plan. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. I often set really lofty and high goals for myself but I also try to be realistic. I am looking at my training and will set a goal once I get closer to time. I think the biggest mistake is starting out too fast. It is so easy to do when you are with a group of other runners.

  19. I need this for my first 26.2 at MCM tomorrow, thanks Dorothy!

  20. Summer your post rings a familiar bell. And your choice of the word “trust” is perfect. Trust the words of those who have been there before, trust our own gut feeling and trust what our body is saying. All in all, you now need to trust that this race was a success as you learned a great deal and your next outing will likely benefit so much from this. And P.S. 3:48 is not a bad time especially considering all the things you wish you could have done differently.

  21. Holy cow! Talk about a bait and switch route! It might not have been a PR course, but it certainly sounds epic and memorable!

  22. A key for me in ultra training has been to practice fueling during long runs. I’ve tried nutrition that worked great on long runs…. aaand things that led to, let us say, dire consequences. It’s good to know in advance what works — and bring it along, if it’s not offered on the course.

  23. Not so much ‘bait & switch’ as it was the inaugural running and the guy putting it together was some combination of (a) inexperienced and over his head and (b) slightly dishonest to get more people signed up (the mix varies based on who I talk to … I know one person who specifically didn’t run the race because of the director … ). Either way I know better should I run it again next summer.

  24. It’s great that you are getting ideas from this piece of writing
    as well as from our dialogue made here.


  1. […] How to not hit the dreaded “wall” during the marathon. -Mile Posts  […]

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