For elite endurance runners, getting fit usually means being leaner and lighter. But what’s good for shaving seconds off race times doesn’t necessarily represent a healthy or sustainable body type. Two-time Olympian Ryan Hall knows this well. He pushed his body to its performance limit from age 13 to his retirement this past January at 33. The lanky 5’10” pro usually raced at about 138 pounds. By summer of 2015, battling debilitating fatigue, chronic injuries, and low testosterone levels, his weight dipped to 127 pounds.
“I would run for 15 minutes, and have to walk home,” says Hall, who eventually realized his halcyon days of chasing distance records were finished. “I was so depleted from years and years of hard training.” America’s fastest marathoner, and the only U.S. runner to break an hour for a half marathon, scaled back to just three easy jogs a week, averaging 12 total miles versus the 140 he used to hit.
The good news is retirement seems to agree with Hall. While as recently as last fall he couldn’t make it through the day without a nap, now he has energy to spare, and his testosterone levels are back to normal. Much of his health turnaround comes thanks to a new strength-training regimen that's helped him pack on 40 pounds of muscle.
“From when I was a kid, every time I was around someone big and strong, I wondered what that felt like,” says the runner. Hall started lifting in December after researching natural ways to boost testosterone. “That’s my goal with the weightlifting, to feel strong. But I have a ways to go. At 165 pounds, I’m not even average size yet!”
Hall now lifts six days a week, two days each on arms, legs, and back and chest. The professional athlete has gone about his transformation in the same way many of us would: Googling how-to advice and working out in the garage before fixing breakfast for his kids. He creates his own plans and is learning as he goes from books, online research, YouTube videos, and Bodybuilding.com. He’s also become a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“When you think about weightlifting, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the first person who comes to mind,” the 33-year old says. “I bought his Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding and read it cover to cover.”
Nutrition has also been key to Hall’s physical transformation. Now he focuses on eating slow-burning carbs, and adding more healthy proteins and fats to give his body the building blocks it needs for strength. At one point Hall was eating a dozen eggs a day, six in the morning and six before bed. He’s also had to change his attitude toward food.
“As a runner, food is fuel, but it can slow you down if you overdo it,” says Hall. “When you are trying to put on pounds, your body doesn’t make weight out of nothing — I’m eating a lot more now than when I was running 20 miles a day.”
Where he used to feel “blasted” after completing running workouts, Hall says weightlifting sessions leave him wired, and his new approach to training and eating have allowed him to add daily easy and tempo runs back into his schedule. He isn’t the only one who’s noticed a difference.
“Before, we would describe Ryan as a ‘dead man walking,’ " says Hall’s wife Sara Hall, a professional runner, who has taken to calling him Shrek due to his transformed physical appearance. “Now he has plenty of energy to help with projects around the house and play with the girls.”
The father of four even has a new race on the calendar, the ASICS Beat the Sun relay race in Chamonix, France. According to Hall, an ASICS athlete, relay events were his favorite when competing professionally due to the team dynamic, and Beat the Sun is up his alley. Held on June 21, the longest day of the year, teams race to be the first to make it around Mont Blanc between sunrise and sunset. “It’s really inspired me to get out the door,” says Hall.
So, does the professional athlete feel healthier as a muscle-bound lifter versus a lithe, elite runner? Hall confesses there’s good and bad to both.
“When your body is really responding to race training, you feel like a million bucks. I will miss that for sure,” says Hall. “But there is a cost for living and training on the borderline of what your body can handle.”