Some call it “hitting the wall” while others such as myself call it “bonking.” Either way, both terms refer to the same horrible feeling that sneaks up on you during a race. You know the feeling: Suddenly you feel as if you have next to no energy to continue to move and both your brain and body are simultaneously turning off. To make matters worse, this often seems to occur out of nowhere, without warning, making it feel so much worse. Call it what you want, but both terms basically refer to something being both physically and mentally wrong.
Though signs and symptoms of bonking vary from an individual to another, common symptoms include:
- A sudden feeling of weakness throughout the body
- A sudden feeling of your body being heavy
- Reduced concentration or a general “foggy” feeling
- All of a sudden, you no longer care or can fathom finishing the race, and may even consider stopping as your best option
- You start to slow significantly and people who shouldn’t be passing you are all of a sudden passing you left and right, which only makes you feel WORSE
- Everything seems to be taking ten times longer than it actually is or should. Minutes feel like hours and you can’t seem to see past the time horizon
- In VERY extreme cases some people faint or collapse
Though it is horrible to feel like this, there’s a good reason behind why it exists and why it happens. In basic terms, bonking is a defense mechanism utilized by the body. The reason is to prevent you from damaging your body when you’re attempting to exert yourself, when your body no longer has the means to do so. In essence, your body self imposes you into a “time out” by forcing you to bonk, and it does this when you are not able to burn sufficient fat for energy. Why? Because fat, the source of sustained, long-term energy and stamina, has been depleted by the activity you’re engaged in, leaving you with the option of relying on sugar. Unfortunately sugar is fairly limited in providing energy. When this happens, you start tapping into your glycogen stores which causes your blood sugar to dip very low, depriving both the muscles and the brain of fuel. Needless to say, much like a car, when you’re out of fuel it’s inevitable that you will eventually come to a screeching halt.
Generally speaking, there are many elements that cause you to deplete or reduce fat burning and ultimately bonk. Some of the more common reasons include:
- Starting the race too fast
- Inadequate pre-race meals leading up the race (i.e., high-glycemic carbohydrate rich meals that raise your insulin too high, which in turn reduces your glycogen stores and overall fat burning)
- Pre-race stress that can raise your cortisol levels
In addition to fat-burning problems, water regulation can also cause or contribute to a bonk. In the right set of circumstances, significant dehydration can stop you in your path quickly. The actual cause of dehydration can include:
- Inadequate water intake before the race
- Inadequate water intake during the race
- High temperatures, dry air, or competing at higher altitudes
Other bonk factors outside of depleted fat stores and dehydration include nutritional imbalances, extreme weather conditions, allergies, asthma, or just plain being sick. Sometimes, it’s not a single factor, and an athlete will actually bonk because more than one of the above issues are applicable.
No matter the ‘why’, once you reach the point of bonking, it’s almost next to impossible to reverse it. This is true even if you slow down, take in some nutrition or even stop completely for a few minutes. On the flip side, although some may think that bonking is simply a part of racing and comes with the territory, it’s really not something that has to happen. In fact with proper diet and training you can avoid bonking altogether. This can be achieved by investing in some key preventive measures prior to the race. These preventive measures should start with and become an integral part of your training, and involve following pre, during and post nutrition plans as well as practicing appropriate pacing. For example, determining you need to take in ‘x’ amount of calories if you expect to spend ‘y’ hours cycling ‘z’ of miles at an average wattage of ‘xx.’
The process of experimentation should take place during training, NEVER while racing. By the race it’s too late to experiment and you’ll seal the deal on guaranteeing a bonk. Once you find your optimal routine, including adequate nutritional intake, pacing strategy, stress management, and basically what works best for YOU, not only will you likely avoid bonking, but you’ll also race better and enjoy your time out there.
More: Returning to a raceby