Break Through “The Wall”

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The author hits the wall hard at this year’s World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships. Photo by U.S. Mountain Running

I hate “the wall.” I feel the same way about the wall as the Kool Aid Man feels about it. I was a fan of the Washington Wizards until they drafted John Wall.

You get the point. The wall is a horrible feeling to experience in a trail race. The best way I can describe it is this: Running is easy and you feel strong, until it isn’t and you aren’t. There is no triggering event for the wall. You’re just running along, minding your own business and feeling fresh, until all of a sudden you can barely move. That’s the wall, and it will ruin your race if you’re not prepared to smash through it.

To attack the wall, you can train harder and fuel properly, but those solutions still leave you at risk of running face first into a pile of bricks late in your race. Simply put, almost everyone is going into uncharted territory in longer trail events, especially ultramarathons. You probably can’t simulate your longest, hardest races in training and stay healthy.

So how can you make like Mr. Kool Aid and smash through the wall if your body has never (or rarely) experienced the specific demands of a long, difficult trail race in training?

Here are two essential training tips that can help you break through.

1. Get Comfortable Being Outside All Day

David Laney showing off his ultra-stache power at this year’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Photo courtesy of David Laney

The best advice I’ve ever gotten about trail racing is from elite trail runner and mustache legend David Laney. In Laney’s words, “Chill in the outdoors.” Basically, he cites a summer spent outside as one of the main reasons he had a breakthrough third-place finish at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a highly competitive 166-kilometer mountain race in the European Alps, this summer.

(More: How David Laney Aced Europe’s Hardest 100-Miler)

The way Laney describes it, to prepare for the demands of a long trail race, sometimes it is best to spend a really long time on your feet, in really cool places, dealing with rocks, bugs, chafing and all of the other wonders of the great outdoors. Although most normal humans won’t have Laney’s talent, and most non-Civil War generals lack his mustache-growing power, we can still use this principle to push back the wall.

When training for your next ultra or long trail race, wake up and do a normal long run of two to three hours. Then, spend the rest of the day on a long, adventurous hike with your dog, family and/or thoughts. The run will start your high-end aerobic metabolism and add to your weekly running mileage. The hike will stress your metabolism as a race would, plus it will prepare you for a long day on your feet. A two-hour run followed by a six-hour hike is perfect for almost any long trail race.

If you are venturing into 50- and 100-milers, think about doing even longer hikes and repeating the all-day adventure over a two-day weekend. Then, at your desk on Monday, you can gain the strength to face the week (and your next race) by knowing that you have David Laney-approved shredding powers.

2. Bombproof Your Quads

Good advice for bikers, runners and puppies. Photo by Megan Roche

Downhills are like dog farts. When it comes to trail-race goals, just like a dog with indigestion, downhills are silent but oh-so-deadly killers.

It’s easy to ignore descents in training. However, when your legs feel like Jello at mile 20 and you hit the wall for no apparent reason, it almost always has the same explanation. The dog farted! Wait, not that. What I meant is that you weren’t ready for fast, race-specific downhill running.

Fortunately, downhills are easy and fun to practice in training. I recommend two different workouts. First, practice running almost every downhill of your weekly long run with the same approach that you will use on race day. It will make you more technically proficient and it will speed up your run, all while letting your legs adapt to the unique stresses of racing downhill.

Second, twice before your goal race, do a workout where you run two 5-to-10-minute downhill repeats faster than race pace. This workout will prepare your body for that moment when you have just a bit too much adrenaline on race day, plus it will strengthen muscles you didn’t even know you had. It’s better to get over Jello legs in training than to deal with pudding quads when it counts.

With these tips and a solid number of training miles, you should be able to smash through “the wall” in your next big race. As Mr. Kool Aid says, OH YEAH.

David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. When not frolicking on singletrack or working as a public-interest attorney for the Environmental Law Institute, he enjoys spending time with his wife and puppy, both of whom are substantially better at running than he is. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.


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