What does "Hitting the Wall" Mean?

Jacob Queen

"Hitting the wall" is a term that athletes use to describe the condition where they physically run out of steam. This generally happens when a person uses up most of the nutritional reserves stored in the body. After hitting the wall, athletes may feel extreme fatigue and an inability to move—they may even experience some mental effects. If a person tries to persist in exercising after hitting the wall, he may pass out from exhaustion.

When an athlete hits the wall, she has run out of energy.
When an athlete hits the wall, she has run out of energy.

To avoid hitting the wall, most athletes will try to increase their carbohydrate intake prior to any exertion. When people are performing any kind of exercise, the body will generally burn either fat or carbohydrates. A person's body burns fat more slowly and efficiently, but it is harder for the body to access fat. Carbohydrates are burned more quickly, but they also run out quickly.

Some athletes may "hit a wall" sooner if they are not properly hydrated before their work out.
Some athletes may "hit a wall" sooner if they are not properly hydrated before their work out.

During an athletic performance, athletes are usually pushing themselves pretty hard. They may initially rely more on carbohydrates during the early portions of an event. Once a person uses up their carbohydrate stores, the body will generally switch to exclusively burning fat, and then at some point, the individual may hit the proverbial wall if they push things too far.

One of the main effects of hitting the wall is emotional. People may lose their sense of drive and suddenly feel depressed. They may also suffer from a general sense of confusion, and they may have trouble thinking clearly about what they are trying to do. Some experts think that these mental effects are caused by an overabundance of serotonin in the brain, which seems to be a common effect of running out of carbohydrate energy.

Another contributing factor that may cause people to hit the wall could be insufficient hydration. The body generally needs water to perform most activities, and any kind of endurance-based sport will often cause as lot of sweating, especially if the temperature is high. Sometimes athletes may not hydrate themselves sufficiently before undertaking an activity, and as a result, they might hit the wall faster than they normally would.

In some studies, women have shown more aptitude for endurance-based sporting events than men. Certain experts think this might be because their bodies are more tuned to burn fat during exertion. This would generally lead to a higher level of energy-burning efficiency, although men could potentially offset the difference by altering their dietary approach.

If a person tries to persist exercising after "hitting a wall" they may pass out from exhaustion.
If a person tries to persist exercising after "hitting a wall" they may pass out from exhaustion.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@Amphibious54- One of the worst symptoms associated with the body crashing from physical exhaustion is hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia is a case of low blood sugar, resulting in the blood not delivering enough glucose to the brain. When an athlete pushes him or herself to exhaustion, they are literally burning all of the sugar in their body faster than it is replenished.

In the most severe cases, hypoglycemia can result in brain damage or death. The effects are similar to spontaneous starvation. The body becomes weak, the brain becomes confused, and the body’s nervous systems begin to overcompensate. Left untreated, or in cases too sever, the body goes into shock and convulses.

The symptoms for the most severe cases (brain and neurological) are staring off into space, mental impairment, automatism, slurred speech, confusion, abnormal breathing and seizure. Any good coach should be able to catch these symptoms well before it gets to this third, and most dangerous phase.


Can hitting the wall be dangerous? I have heard about a few athletes recently who died from exhaustion or dehydration. At what point does the body just crash and not get up? How do you know if you are really "hitting the wall"?

Should someone coaching sports to youth be concerned with this type of exertion? What kind of symptoms does this type of overexertion have, and what kind of damage can it do?


I want to say that a person can still bonk hard even if they are conditioned. I used to ski in the winter and ride my bike in the summer. I have had plenty of instances where I bonk before I finish a long ride during the beginning of the season.

Riding bikes uses totally different muscles than skiing. From what I know about muscle energy is that the body does not store the same amount of carbohydrates in all the muscles. The upper body strength required for mountain biking is much different from skiing which is almost purely lower body.

By the time I finish one of my trail rides, I crash and become sluggish and dizzy. This is the point where I need to stop, drink water, slurp down a garb gel and rest for about ten minutes. The transition between sports seasons means a transition between what muscle groups I am working.


@Alchemy- mild to moderate cases of "hitting the wall", "bonking", or crashing can result in nausea. Hitting the wall can cause temporary hypoglycemia if the affected does not intake carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores.

As you condition, you probably eat more before and after workouts. Additionally, the carb-loading that most endurance athletes perform leading up to an event can prevent a person from hitting the wall. Your body is conditioned to store more glycogen as you work out more. This is probably why you only lose your lunch at the beginning of training camp, when your body is conditioned to be in relaxation mode after a long summer off.

High intensity workouts need more of the fast metabolizing glycogen for caloric energy than slow metabolizing fat. This causes a need for more glycogen, so the higher the stores, and the longer until a person crashes. The main reason athletes are given sugary drinks filled with electrolytes is because the sugar replenishes glycogen and the electrolytes replenish salts lost during perspiration.


When a person hits a wall, does it cause vomiting? I remember I used to run until I would vomit during football training. Why does a person become nauseous when they hit a wall?

The weird thing is this only happened to me during the first few weeks of pre-season training. I know it is because I am better conditioned, but if someone can give me more formal an answer, I would appreciate it.

Post your comments
Forgot password?