What's this exercise phenomenon called?
July 17, 2018 8:01 PM   Subscribe

So I walked a marathon last weekend. I'm 50 pounds overweight and no spring chicken, so it was really hard for me. Around mile 16, I really, really wanted to quit.

I scanned my body...no major blisters, no serious joint or muscle pain, and I was tired, but nowhere near exhausted. I've experienced this, to a lesser degree, in training or workouts, so I'm sure it's a known phenomenon, but I haven't been able to figure out what it's called, or what causes it. I looked up "hitting the wall", but that seems to be a physical thing, and this felt like it was mental. It wasn't exactly boredom, just...I really didn't want to be doing that particular thing anymore.

Does anyone know what this is called, and why it happens? I guess it's possible I was more tired than I thought, and my brain was telling me to quit as a type of protection, but I was able to do another 10 miles with no serious repercussions, so maybe not.
posted by ruemonkey to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Mental fatigue or mental roadblock, most likely. Congrats on finishing!
posted by the webmistress at 8:06 PM on July 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

I was thinking "bonk" but came across this article from a running site discussing some possible issues that you might have. Another about bonking from Runner's World.
posted by amanda at 8:11 PM on July 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Could be hitting the wall. It's an unusual feeling that most people have never encountered, and I've heard it described different ways. For me, I didn't feel any more tired and didn't feel any more pain, but my whole body suddenly (VERY suddenly) felt heavy and sluggish. It almost feels like a mental phenomenon because your body is still operating and muscles can move, they just don't want to.

(In my experience, runners usually say hitting the wall and cyclists say bonking...might be geographic variation though?)
posted by allegedly at 8:53 PM on July 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think that's called rational thought kicking in. You overcame it and finished the marathon with apparently no mental anguish so there is probably no hope for you now. Enjoy your new endurance exercise oriented existence. Remember the Appalachian Trail is one thing but the Pacific Coast Trial means you've gone too far.

Signed- a middle distance runner who totally would have quit because 16 miles is far enough, clearly.
posted by fshgrl at 12:18 AM on July 18, 2018 [13 favorites]

Bonking is when you run out of blood sugar or your lungs fill with fluid or your body reaches for some sodium and goes "uh oh!". Bonking means you ran one or more of the tanks dry and it's not good for you in the same way that it isn't good for cars. You didn't bonk if you didn't puke, fall over, get the spinnies or crawl to the finish line, while babbling nonsense and fighting the emt's off, don't worry.
posted by fshgrl at 12:21 AM on July 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

The Central Governor Theory is a good explanation of this.

What is the central governor theory?
In short, the central governor theory is based around the premise that the brain will override your physical ability to run and “shut the body down” before you’re able to do serious or permanent damage to yourself.
Noakes believes that the point in the race when you think you’ve given everything you’ve got is actually a signal or response from the brain to slow down to preserve health, rather than a physiological reality. In actuality, Noakes believes you have more to give physically when this happens.

posted by maupuia at 12:42 AM on July 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Wikipedia has a useful "Hitting the wall" phenomena page. Basically the effect happens when our bodies run out of the glycogen supplies we have in our liver and muscles - and have to switch to metabolising fats instead. Our bodies can only store about 1500 kcals worth of energy as glycogen - and after a couple of hours of running (say) we will have burnt all of that up - about 15 miles into a race for a marathon runner. That affects the brain in particular (as it is a major consumer of energy) - so it can influence motivation. It is possible to extend this amount of time/distance before this kicks in by "carbo loading" before the race or by consuming food and drinks during the event itself. Marathon runners often do "glycogen depletion runs" as part of their training - allowing their bodies to become more efficient at switching over to burning fats. Getting "through the wall" is also helped by mental preparation.
posted by rongorongo at 12:47 AM on July 18, 2018 [6 favorites]

"Hitting the wall" is what I would call it. I'm by no means a super-athlete, so I've only experienced it once that I can recall.

I'm a pretty avid cyclist (not spandexed fast road biker, but more leisurely cruisers and hybrids) and decided to do a 50 mile ride around my city one Saturday. (On a single speed cruiser.) I wasn't pushing for speed, but just riding for pleasure. Since I was going to be in town for the whole ride, I knew I would never be far from a place to eat or drink. I grabbed a quick fast food breakfast before heading out, but then had nothing else besides water. I just kept thinking "I'll get something in a bit" but then kept passing any place that had food. Until, at mile 45 and seemingly without warning, everything just shut down. It definitely wasn't mental; I was really enjoying myself and felt like I could do 100 miles that day if I wanted. No pain, no panting or heavy breathing, just... oh, my body stopped working. I made it, even more slowly than usual, to a store and had some protein bars and water, which got me the last 5 miles.

I'm planning on another 50 mile day this year, but I won't be so stubborn about eating, and will make sure to have more food on the bike.
posted by The Deej at 5:54 AM on July 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

I call it "nyeaaaaah, I don' waaanna" syndrome, and I get it every. single. time. I try to do anything remotely interesting but hard.

The first week or two of not eating sugar: "nyeaaaaaaaah, I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis, giiiiiiive it to meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee."
Duration: Seemingly every three seconds until bedtime, but really probably that intense only the first three days, then gone.

Stopping playing mahjong or some other stupid mindless clicky game all day: "noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo, I wanna plaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay iiiiiit."
Duration: all day long at varying intervals, steadily declining for maybe three or four days before it extinguishes.

Day hikes: "nooooooooooooooo, I can't doooooooooooooooo iiiiiiiiiiit, I'm gonna diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie."
Duration: Intense whining commences after an hour or two. Goes on for an hour or so.

Weeklong backpacking: Same as above, repeats the second day but less intense, you might get another bout potentially midweek, by the end it's gone and you never want to stop walking.

You just have to power through.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:06 AM on July 18, 2018 [6 favorites]

"Pushing your limits" seems to fit on the vernacular side of things. Sounds right to me.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:31 PM on July 18, 2018

a helpful anecdote:

Punkrock Fred, beloved wastrel, was somehow conscripted at the last minute to watch his sister's or his cousin's or somebody's two preschool-aged kids one early morning. Their mother leaves and Fred is left alone with these kids, whom he doesn't know all that well. Spectacularly hungover, he is nevertheless determined to do this right, so he calls the children to the table and feeds them breakfast according to the instructions he's been given. He pours them their cereal in their special kidbowls and sets them up with their special kidspoons and their sippycups full of chocolate milk or grape juice or whatever, and then he pours the milk over their cereal, but here it all falls apart. He does the milkpour part wrong or differently or something and the kids start whining. Fred's response is to prepare his own breakfast, which is maybe coffee, maybe whiskey, definitely a cigarette. The kids escalate the whining. Fred sits down at the table across from them. The kids are now practically screaming. Fred's girlfriend emerges from the bedroom bleary-eyed and clutching her head to see what the hell is going on and there is Fred sitting there placidly smoking regarding the two red-faced furious shrieking kids, and he says with obvious admiration, "Rock on."

It's a good response to whining: Rock on.
posted by Don Pepino at 1:09 PM on July 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Wow, thanks for all the wonderful responses. I'm marking them all best, because they've all been very helpful and I'm not sure there's a "right" answer here. It seems like it's probably a mental thing resulting from some physical things and lack of discipline, along with, as fshgrl pointed out, some rational thought. It definitely occurred to me that catching a shuttle bus out of town for the sole purpose of walking back was some level of ridiculous.

I'm particularly intrigued by the "Central Governor Theory" maupuia mentions, but Googling the variety of phrases you've all provided has given me tons of interesting online reading and will, no doubt, make me a slightly more awesome person. Much appreciated.
posted by ruemonkey at 1:46 PM on July 18, 2018

I don't think it is lack of discipline?? I have been a runner for years and I still get this at regular intervals throughout any run. I'm not sure but I think it has something to do with your body switching from burning one kind of fuel for another, or at least that is the explanation given to me. I always just remind myself that it will pass and most of the time I keep going.
posted by thereader at 12:55 PM on July 20, 2018

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