How to avoid ‘hitting the wall’ in your next marathon


  Here is a story that might prove helpful to all distance runners, but especially those tackling marathon and beyond. The story is real but I have changed the name to protect his identity.

Tom was typical of many runners. He loved his gadgets and attached great value to the statistics they gave him. He loved to watch the rise and fall of his performance over the years. When he looked back it gave him great pleasure to see how he had progressed. He used an app called Myfitnesspal which is used by many, not just runners, to track not only calories in and calories out, but also macronutrients, salt, sugar etc. He believed implicitly that creating a calorie deficit and following the recommendations as to the right balance of carbs, fat and protein, he would inevitably lose the belly fat that had accumulated over the years and be healthy. After all, the main reason he had taken up running quite a few years ago now was to lose weight, stay healthy and manage stress.

He had become dependent on the running to manage the stress of his job. If he didn’t run he felt terrible. He really needed that running fix every day. However, what really baffled him was that, although his app told him that he was creating a calorie deficit and getting the right balance of macronutrients, the belly fat remained and the harder he trained the worst it seemed to get. His device frequently told him he was burning 3000-4000 calories per day, sometimes more, and he was only consuming around 2000 most days. Tom was mystified and asked me for some nutritional guidance. Why wasn’t he losing weight and what ratio of macronutrients would I recommend?

He was also concerned because he was preparing for his third marathon attempt. The previous two had gone fine until about 18 miles, then he had fallen apart like many attempting the distance, hitting the so-called ‘wall’ where he had run out of energy and walked/jogged to the finish in a disappointing time. He really would like to get close to or just under 4 hours this time – very respectable for a guy in his mid fifties.

Looking at his print out from his app it was very obvious where he was going wrong. He thought he was doing the right thing because he had followed all the usual advice about creating a calorie deficit and consuming around 60% or more of his food in the form of carbohydrates, cutting down on the fat, but keeping a moderate level of protein. In order to do this he was consuming a lot of processed carbohydrates – not necessarily the ones that you would think were really bad – hell he would hardly ever have a pizza or chips or white rice – but instead chose those marketed as healthy options instead – wraps, baked crisps, flatbreads, brown rice etc.

My advice was very simple. Don’t demonise carbohydrates as such because some populations do very well on a high carb diet, but avoid REFINED CARBOHYDRATES as much as possible – because these make you fat due to the increased release of insulin, the main fat storing hormone. They also prevent you from burning fat for fuel, which is what you need to be able to do if you don’t want to crash at 18 miles again when you run out of stored sugar supplies.

‘Just eat real food instead and forget about macronutrients and calories and everything else you’ve been told because you won’t need to count these when your hormones get back into balance again. You will know when it’s time to eat and you will realise that you don’t need all that food, nor do you need to eat little and often when not hungry, even if training for marathon.”

Tom was dubious. ‘I like to have goals and targets – this is just too vague’ was his response. He had wanted an exact number of calories in and out and a clear idea of what proportion should be carbohydrate, fat and protein. I refused to play this game because this is the game of Big Food which wants to tell you that all calories are equal and that their ‘wholegrain’ products are real food. Most of what Tom had been eating was actually not real food at all but food like products with chemical additives to give them a longer shelf life so they could make more profit a the expense of his health and performance.

Tom was sceptical because my advice went against everything he had been told over and over for decades about nutrition – a ‘balanced’ diet, ‘eat little and often’, ‘fat is a killer’, ‘weight management is only about creating a calorie balance or deficit’ etc. etc. These were his deep-rooted beliefs, even though he could see that it clearly didn’t work. ‘

‘It’s all so complicated’, he replied. ‘I need to educate myself some more on the topic’.

However, Tom had come to me because he trusted me to help him achieve his running goal. His training had gone very well and he had built up a strong aerobic base without getting injured (in itself a big achievement for a guy of his age with a good deal of stiffness throughout his body). He followed as best he could what I had suggested, although it wasn’t easy to reduce all these little sugar fixes throughout the day (he hadn’t previously even thought of these as ‘sugar’).

At first he felt weak and tired when running, but he persevered and got through that after a few weeks. He then started to report more energy and the fat started to fall away. Finally he began to understand that everything he had been told about needing to carb load for marathons and eat massive quantities of food had just compounded his problems. He was running faster and faster at the same heart rate – a sign of ever improving aerobic fitness. Moreover, he felt great when running, had fewer niggles, and enjoyed it more. He also slept better and worked more productively.

There months later he completed his first sub 4 hour marathon. In truth it had felt a lot easier than his two previous well over 4 hour marathons and he recovered much more quickly too. He had come to realise that the key to being able to keep going longer with less effort was to learn to burn fat for fuel, by combining low intensity training with a high fat, low carb diet. This builds a strong, efficient aerobic system – the key to not only running success, but good health too.

If Tom’s story resonates with you and if you’d like to emulate his success then get in touch. Nutrition becomes more and more crucial the longer you go.

In depth consultations and assessments looking at everything that relates to your running available now. If you’re preparing for London or any other Spring marathon this really is the last opportunity to get a complete programme together to address all aspects of your preparation. Please don’t just rely on some generic training schedule that takes no account of you as a person – it won’t work for many reasons.

Call or text David now on 07504439555.




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