FITNESS: WHEN HITTING THE WALL
How to overcome hitting the wall in your fitness journey
IFyou exercise regularly then eventually you might ‘hit the wall’. The big question is: do you try to crash through the wall or do you take it as a cue to relax? Hitting the wall is more than experiencing a slowdown. In fact, truly hitting the wall is peak exhaustion. You are physically and mentally spent. You literally cannot keep going. Hitting the wall can be emotional and demoralising. You can feel like all the fitness gains you have made to date have vanished. But it’s normal and you haven’t lost your fitness. Elite athletes give us some cues. They will plan when they might hit the wall during their training cycle, so it doesn’t happen during an event. If you’ve taken any interest in sports you will have seen what happens when elite athletes hit the wall.
BUT WHAT DO ATHLETES DO WHEN IT HAPPENS?
Steven Kotler, one of the world’s leading experts on high performance, sums it up best, explaining different stages of an exercise program.
THESE FOUR STAGES ARE: 1. The struggle stage
Starting a new activity loads the brain with new information: planning the run, doing the run, learning what our body can and cannot do. This stage consists of training, during which the body releases cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine – stress hormones which prepare the body for increased intensity. But these hormones also cloud judgement and use energy. They tense your muscles, increase your heart rate, prepare the body for the ‘fight or flight response’ and increase frustration and tension.
2. The relaxation stage
Athletes know they must move out of Stage One, take their mind off training and their sport, or they will hit the wall. This may surprise, but it’s important to stop training and do something completely different like go to a movie. The relaxation stage allows the body to flush the stress hormones while the brain introduces nitric oxide, which improves blood flow. The body then releases the feel-good hormones dopamine and endorphins and you feel good again.
3. The competition stage
An athlete’s body and mind are now ready to be tested in competition. Timing Stage One and Stage Two well, is critical. If athletes skip Stage Two, then stress will prevent them from performing at their best and they might hit the wall during the event. But if they have successfully managed Stage One and Two, athletes can reach the ‘flow stage’, where they can perform at their peak.
4. The recovery stage
Athletes use a huge amount of energy across stages 1-3. A planned recovery is crucial. This is where an athlete is ready to go to the next level.
Sleep, rest, good diet, healthy habits all combine to make a good recovery. It allows the athlete to complete the cycle. It means they have mastered their current level and can plan for the next level.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE REST OF US?
Many people exercise hard without the structures and discipline of elite athletes. Yet scientists have found just a 4% increase in intensity, duration or frequency can push us from our comfort zone. Our mind and body respond positively to this, but we can become overloaded. If you are overloaded, stressed and just can’t take it anymore, you may have hit the wall. In time, as you learn to listen to your body and your mind when exercising, you will learn to recognise the signs. Trying to ‘crash through’ this wall often creates more stress and risks injury, which may prevent you doing the exercise you enjoy. Perhaps take a cue from elite athletes and relax for a while – do something else, go to a movie, catch up with some friends, take a little time out. Chances are you’ll come back stronger.
• Hitting the wall is a normal part of exercise. • Athletes hit the wall more than most and plan for it. • By listening to your body, hitting the wall will only be temporary.
Kusal Goonewardena is an experienced physiotherapist, lecturer, consultant and mentor to thousands of physiotherapy students around the world. Kusal has authored books including: Low Back Pain – 30 Days to Pain Free; 3 Minute Workouts; and co-authored Natural Healing: Quiet and Calm. Kusal consults via his clinic, Elite Akademy.
By listening to your body, hitting the wall will only be temporary.