What is the Wall in Physical Exercise?

For those who exercise, reaching the threshold of resistance is one of the main fears. This is how the so-called "wall" or deterioration in sports performance appears. 
What is the Wall in Physical Exercise?

Last update: 10 September, 2019

The wall or decline in athletic performance is one of the problems that can appear during the practice of physical exercise. It’s a physical phenomenon triggered by the lack of planning and muscle overstrain. Find out more about it in the following article.

The wall in physical exercise

In the past, you’ve probably seen a runner suddenly faint or a cyclist fall off the bike during a competition without an accident being the cause. There’s a logical explanation known as the wall; it’s a phenomenon that occurs, for example, when you reach the limit (or wall) of what the body can offer.

We commonly refer to it as “hitting the wall” and it’s characterized by an almost immediate decline in performance. Athletes feel the obligation to stop and, in some cases, they don’t realize it and end up on the ground.

This happens more frequently during physical activities that require great endurance, such as cycling, marathons, the popular “Ironman”, or a triathlon. However, it’s also present in highly intense activities, such as CrossFit.

Causes and symptoms of physical performance deterioration

This “wall” causes a sharp drop in performance and forces athletes to stop right away due to the extreme fatigue they feel. Their body doesn’t respond and, although they try to move, they don’t succeed.

Other signs that let you know when you’re on the threshold of physical exercise are fatigue, weakness, concentration problems, muscle tremors, excessive sweating, dizziness, blurry vision, vertigo, disorientation, and shortness of breath.

Fatigue and dizziness can be signs of you reaching your physical threshold.

The main causes of a decline in sports performance are high temperatures (heat stroke), loss of minerals due to dehydration or sweating, drop in blood glucose levels, and the depletion of energy reserves (glycogen).

It could be said that the only thing we can’t fix is the weather; although, it’s possible for us to abstain from training or competing under certain weather conditions. Nonetheless, we can improve everything else with good training and proper planning.

How to treat and prevent the wall in physical exercise

It’s very important to get ahead of the situation and pay attention to the signals that our body gives us. If you experience certain symptoms, you must alert the coach or team to prepare for your possible collapse.

In these cases, you may feel heavy, slow, and weak as a result of a decrease in blood glucose levels. It’s also common to suffer muscle tremors and to sweat more than usual, but mainly you’ll notice that your brain is off and doesn’t respond to your demands.

In some people, anxiety, nerves, irritability, and hostility also appear as a natural reaction to a physical problem.

What to do

As soon as you start to notice a decline in your athletic performance, you need to stop in a proper way, keeping in mind the other competitors. For example, if you’re running a marathon, step aside and rest. If you’re in a cycling race, notify those on your right to move and to give you space to park the bicycle.

The second step is to drink water or, better yet, isotonic or sports drinks that will replenish the number of mineral salts you lost. Some athletes also consume fast-acting gels, with the purpose of returning to the competition as soon as possible. Surely you’ve seen it in tennis players when a match lasts longer than usual.

Isotonic drinks can greatly help you replenish mineral salts.

Nevertheless, it’s important to prevent rather than treat. Hence, you need to plan your physical exercise training well. This means being in top condition before going to the tracks and accumulating enough experience with minor challenges.

We can’t assume that our bodies can support an ultramarathon if we’ve never participated in a short distance race. One of the strategies that elite athletes use is consuming carbohydrates a few hours before the competition. The objective is to have the necessary amount of energy for the most part of the competition.

 We could also add that, if you’re participating in a endurance comptetition, don’t use up all your energy in the first minute. It’s better to go slowly and reach the goal.

In short, we can avoid hitting the wall or stopping just in time. It’s only a matter of recognizing the signals that our bodies give us and knowing how to respond to them.

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  • Buman, M. P., Brewer, B. W., Cornelius, A. E., Van Raalte, J. L., & Petitpas, A. J. (2008). Hitting the wall in the marathon: Phenomenological characteristics and associations with expectancy, gender, and running history. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2007.03.003