Saturday, October 27, 2007

Hitting the Wall

The wondrous high school juniors and seniors who are now full time college students where I work are all in differing stages. Some have found themselves, maybe for the first time, hitting the wall. Most of these students are academically gifted students for whom traditional schooling has come easy. For the first time in their academic careers, some of them are facing failure - and it's not pretty.

I found an article about marathon runners "hitting the wall" and I've cut it apart and pasted it below. There are many parallels that apply to the students in my care, and there are some applications that are relevant as well.

“Hitting The Wall is basically about running out of energy,” says Dave Martin, Ph.D., Emeritus Regent’s Professor of Health Sciences at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

What does all of this have to do with hitting The Wall? Let’s start with the pace. It’s common, in the excitement of the moment, to start out at a pace that’s too fast for you. Big mistake. Your heart cannot pump enough blood to ensure a steady supply of oxygen to the muscles. At this point, your muscles have no choice but to burn glucose in the absence of oxygen.

It may be difficult or impossible to maintain your pace, especially if you’ve lost enough water through sweat to become even slightly dehydrated (this causes your blood to become thicker and therefore harder to pump).

Central Nervous System Fatigue
It should come as no surprise that the brain, as well as the muscles, can become fatigued over the course of a marathon. In recent years, J. Mark Davis and others have begun to study the relationship between changes in the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord, or CNS) and exercise-related fatigue.

Davis, a professor of exercise science and the director of the exercise biochemistry laboratory at the University of South Carolina, suspects that CNS fatigue, the result of neurochemical changes in the brain, is very likely to be involved in a runner hitting The Wall during a marathon. In fact, he says, “I think that CNS fatigue is actually what causes most people to stop, as opposed to muscle specific fatigue.” Aside from very highly motivated runners, he says, most people don’t really drive or push themselves to complete muscle failure.

Cognitive Strategies
Yogi Berra said that “Baseball is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical.” Berra’s famously charming illogic aside, the same could probably be said about any sport. Charles A. Garfield, a sports psychologist and coauthor of the book Peak Performance: Mental Training Techniques of the World’s Greatest Athletes (Warner Books, 1985), maintains that 60 to 90 percent of success in sports can be attributed to “mental factors and psychological mastery.”

Faster race times are generally associated with what have come to be known as associative strategies—thinking about physical sensations, such as breathing, muscle soreness, or blisters, and other race-related issues such as pacing and competitive strategy. During competition, elite runners tend to use associative thinking strategies almost exclusively.

Flow is “a state of consciousness where one becomes totally absorbed in what one is doing, to the exclusion of all other thoughts and emotions,” according to Susan A. Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, authors of Flow in Sports (Human Kinetics, 1999). “So flow is about focus.” In other words, when you experience that running nirvana during which everything seems effortless, you are probably thinking associatively.

What NOT To Do: a Cautionary Tale
Dick Beardsley’s race strategy for the second marathon of his life—the one in which an elephant jumped on his shoulders—is a classic primer on how not to prepare for and run a marathon. He had run his first marathon on a whim when he was in junior college and finished in 2:47:14. Not too bad, especially considering that he hadn’t trained for the marathon distance. Two months later he learned of a marathon in nearby Minneapolis. It was Tuesday, and the marathon was on Sunday. He decided to “prepare” himself for this one. Relying upon advice in an article he found in an old running magazine, he decided to fast until the marathon, allowing himself only Gatorade, juice, and water.

On the morning of the marathon, he put on his brand-new pair of running shoes and went out for an eight-mile warm-up. He went out fast in the first few miles of the marathon. He bypassed the aid stations—didn’t everyone know that drinking anything during a race would give you a side ache?

Beardsley was still feeling pretty good, despite the blisters on his feet, as he ran past the 20-mile mark where someone had painted the words, “You’re at The Wall.” And then, just past mile 23, he felt like a sledgehammer had come down on him. “I went from feeling pretty good to where I did not know how I was going to get to the next telephone pole,” he said. “I was running with my eyes shut, hallucinating. Without a doubt, that was the worst wall I ever hit.” He collapsed at the finish line, severely dehydrated.

How to Avoid Hitting the Wall
Mistake number one: by fasting the week before the race, he probably started off in a state of near-glycogen depletion.

  • Students who are used to doing well without much effort do not have a storehouse of experience to deal with challenges. Their brain has not been exercised enough to build up strength; they are operating at a disadvantage compared to other students who have had to work hard to get that good grade. These students need to prepare for new circumstances by doing at least mental push-ups beforehand!

Mistake number two: running in a brand-new pair of running shoes. It is difficult to maintain your cognitive focus on race-related issues as you are developing painful blisters.

  • Students are doing many new things at one time and it's difficult for them to maintain their focus. Find ways to blend the familiar with the new situation.

His eight-mile warm-up was about seven and a half miles too long. By going out too fast, he probably incurred some lactic acid buildup, which lessened the amount of glucose that he could metabolize later on.

  • Spending too much time avoiding the real task makes it more difficult to face when deadlines loom. Work on things in smaller increments.

Not eating or drinking during the race was a recipe for glycogen depletion and dehydration.

  • Many high achieving students are "running on empty" by not getting enough sleep, eating poorly, and not spending time on building up their physical and spiritual being.

If you live with a high achiever, watch for signs of fatigue when he or she is faced with a new challenging learning environment. Learning how to navigate that wall is crucial to their development and future success.