Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hitting "The Wall"...Explained!!!

If you have ever engaged in any sort of intensive cardio work or have had conversations with friends or family that engage in the sort of madness Jess and I have become addicted to, you are probably familiar with the concept of “THE WALL”.  As most people describe it the wall is a point in your workout where you feel utterly spent, exhausted, desperate and forlorn.  It is the point during your workout where you think “I need to call Jess and have her come pick me up in the air-conditioned car after stopping for delicious, cold, sugary beverages or I’M GONNA DIE!!”  It is also during this time that the voices protesting your efforts become the most shrill and persuasive.  And, it is something we all encounter regardless of fitness level.

So what is this “WALL”? 

The human body produces energy from a variety of sources.  These include blood sugars, glycogen (this is a form of sugar/carbs stored in your muscles) and fat stores.  These sources are used to produce energy at different points during an intensive workout. 

When you decide to go for a run or hop on the bike or jump feet first into whatever cranks your gears, your body fires the starter’s gun for all of these sources to begin to convert to usable energy.   The first few minutes are fueled largely by sugar that is most easily accessible to your cells, meaning it is the sugar that is already present in your blood.  Now, this is a very “short burst” sort of resource because sugars burn very quickly and are meant for high intensity, short interval activity.  This resource can be exhausted in as little as a few minutes.  At the same time your cells begin taking in glucose from your blood stream, it begins to extract glycogen (those handy carbohydrate reserves) to convert to usable energy.  Now glycogen conversion usually takes a few minutes to begin to kick in, so in some instances people describe hitting a mini version of the wall very early on their workout, this wall represents the difference in time from the point your blood glucose levels are depleted to the point in time that you begin receiving energy as a result of burning your glycogen stores. 

For most folks glycogen stores are ample enough to carry you through at least 15-20 minutes worth of work, and for endurance athletes who are well trained in the disgustingly gluttonous practice of carbo-loading these stores can last up to around 90 minutes. 

The whole time your body is converting and burning all these sugars, the engines are warming up to begin burning fat.  To make this whole thing less complex, we won’t go into detail regarding why it takes so long for fat conversion to get rolling (maybe we’ll save that for another day when I am feeling like not getting any clicks or page views), but it is no coincidence that it can take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes (again depending on fitness level) for your body to begin using available fats for fuel.

Hopefully at this point the pieces are coming together just a little bit.  If the first mini-wall experienced by many folks is the few minutes between the exhaustion of blood sugar and the beginning of conversion of glycogen, then “THE WALL” (the real wall, the one that makes us question all that we hold dear) is our physiological response during the agonizing minutes between the exhaustion of our glycogen stores and the beginning of the conversion of fat to energy. 

Now here is the good news, as agonizing as these walls are, if you can manage to silence the voices telling you that there is no point in continuing, and to stop torturing yourself…your eventual absolution is the elusive “high” that many athletes describe as being experienced during the later stages of their work.  This is the point at which you feel invincible, you feel empowered and when you finish…Rainbows are brighter, trees are greener, the air smells sweeter and…your high is complete with a case of well-deserved munchies!!!

Happy Running!!!

#hittingthewall #cardio #endurancesports