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Why do some athletes collapse in the middle of a race?

Team StoryWeavers|August 26, 2020|

Easily, lunch breaks are one of the best parts of a day at school. If you plan your lunchtime properly, you get an extra 15 minutes every day to play with your friends- what else can anybody ask for?

But do you remember what happened after those 15 minutes of fun? The dreaded school bell would ring and everybody had to rush back to class before the teacher came in. Do you remember what it felt like climbing those flights of stairs in a hurry? Even as you settle into your seat, your heart would still be beating fast and your breathing would be rapid. Now imagine that feeling multiplied by 100 – that’s what cyclists and marathon runners feel like in the middle of a race.

Image source: Giphy

The science related to endurance is a major part of both sports and biology. Today let’s look at the biology behind endurance that helps athletes win races!

Hitting the Wall

Also called “bonking”, hitting the wall is a phrase used for extreme exhaustion. When athletes hit the wall, they simply collapse and find it very difficult to get up let alone finish their race.

This athlete has hit the wall and other participants have to hold her so she can finish the marathon

The origin of the phrase comes from the feeling of literally running into a wall and not being able to move. So how does our body get to a point where it simply gives up? The culprit is a sweet substance called glycogen.

A Good Sugar Rush

Glycogen is a complex sugar that acts as a fuel for the body (like petrol is fuel for a car). Our bodies store up to 2000kcal of glycogen in muscles and the liver. While this is enough for daily activities, it isn’t enough for long periods of high-energy activities like running or cycling (2000 kcal of glycogen will last you about 32.18 kms while running).

When athletes hit the wall they have basically depleted all their glycogen reserves. Glycogen is also the brain’s only form of fuel. So when it is depleted, you lose concentration, dopamine production stops and serotonin (the chemical that makes you feel tired) is secreted. In such a state, even lifting a finger feels like climbing Mount Everest. See how glycogen plays a role in life processes here.

Climbing the Wall

In order to avoid hitting the wall in any physical activity, you need a lot of planning. That’s why athletes train extensively before a race. Through this training, they teach their body to burn fat instead of glycogen. This helps them preserve glycogen and avoid collapsing.

A second technique that is used is called card-loading. Glycogen comes from carbohydrates that we eat. So to increase its reserve in the body, athletes eat a lot of carbohydrates a few days before an event.

Carb loading is a yummy moment in an athlete’s training because carbohydrates are delicious!

Biology in Action

Without the right training, pushing your body to the extreme can be dangerous. But if you understand the basic mechanisms of biology and train well, then you can make your body perform amazing feats!

Do you have an interesting sporting story from your experiences? Tell us in the comments!

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