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Metabolic Factors Limiting Performance in Marathon Runners

Figure 3

Distance to ‘The Wall’ for endurance runners.

Computed distance athletes can run before completely depleting glycogen reserves (‘hitting the wall’), as a function of running intensity (expressed as a percent of ), relative leg muscle mass (leg muscle mass as a fraction of total body mass), and muscle glycogen density. The distance an athlete can run before ‘hitting the wall’ decreases with increasing levels of exertion, and as the shaded rectangular region labeled ‘Will “Hit the Wall”’ indicates, if this distance is less than 42.195 kilometers (26 miles and 385 yards) then the runner will not be able to complete a marathon without experiencing complete glycogen depletion (at least not without refueling midrace). Each colored curve corresponds to a particular density of muscle glycogen, as labeled (Red, 40; Orange, 60; Yellow, 80; Green, 100; Blue, 120; Purple, ). The colored curves each correspond to athletes whose leg muscles constitute 21.4% of total body mass and are loaded with glycogen at a particular density (relative liver mass has been assumed constant at 2.5% of total body mass, and liver glycogen density has been assumed maximized at ); a shaded region around each colored curve fills the region corresponding to relative leg muscle masses of 15% to 25% total body mass. Darker shading indicates overlapping regions and identical failure distances for different sets of physical parameters: The area of densest shading straddles the 21-mile line for athletes running at intensities of 80% to 95% , indicating that many different athletic builds and levels of glycogen loading are subject to failure at these intensities around mile 21, which has been empirically identified as the distance at which marathon runners most commonly ‘hit the wall.’ By contrast, few runners will ‘hit the wall’ before mile 11, or when running a marathon at less than 55% .

Figure 3