Surviving Cross Training when Injured

January 2, 2019

This was me…

close up portrait of noble sled dog a Chukchi husky breed laying on its doghouse

Ryan and I had the chance to go dog-sledding in Norway, something I greatly anticipated because I knew, as a husky owner and an athlete, I’d appreciate it even more. When we were getting ready to start sledding, the dogs hooked to the sled started barking with excitement and anticipation. But it was the dogs who were about to be left behind, chained to their little wooden box homes, that were actually barking the loudest. I imagine they were protesting not getting to do what they were created to do-run. “I feel you”, I thought to myself. Having just been through an injury, the pain of not getting to do what I love and instead being chained indoors to some machine, was fresh.

My inflamed peroneal tendon started inconspicuously as just a nagging pain, something that felt a bit sharp after performing a routine calf exercise in the weight room and in the days following just seemed a little tighter than usual. I’m usually good at nipping things in the bud but didn’t think much of this, nor did my therapist, until the race was nearly here. It was getting increasingly painful the last few days before the race, but I figured when I got out there and warmed up and had the race endorphins, it would be fine just as it had always been in training.

It was anything but fine. The pain intensified early on in the race, and I knew I was favoring it. But I was still on pace for a big PR, so I resolved in my mind that I could handle whatever pain I faced. But soon after the halfway point, my limp turned to a hobble and my ankle started giving out, causing me to slow.  It was a strange feeling to step off the course, but once I did, I immediately couldn’t put any weight on it-or for the 2 weeks following (it’s amazing the amount of pain we can run through when we set our mind to it).

About 2.5 weeks in, I was able to start some light cross training- both a blessing and a curse. It felt good to get the heart pumping a little again, but most cross training activities are not things I enjoy, and it’s mentally draining to have to motivate yourself every day.

For those of you also in cross-training purgatory, I compiled a few tips that helped me survive it and come out sane and stronger: 

  1. Fill your sports bra with your kids Halloween candy. Eat at 5 minute intervals or as desired.
  2. Music is everything. This is not the time for hipster indie tunes. Fast tempo and as loud as possible is king. I often default to Ryan’s “Together Forward” playlist on Spotify. Blast your favorite dance/house music, and if biking, bust your best arm-only hip hop moves. I do not recommend this on the elliptical (from personal experience). Current favorite to dance to- DJ Snake & Lil Jon “Turn down for what”
  3. Download a lighthearted upbeat chick flick you haven’t seen (*note “download” and not “stream” because when you’re in cross training purgatory, the slightest thing like frequent buffering can push you over the edge.)
  4. Adopt 4 kids and field their constant requests for “how do you spell…” while exercising at home.
  5. If cross training in solitude, you have the benefit that you can sing out loud/yell/grunt/cry/dance. But it sometimes helps to have company, like spin class, others sweating it out around you, people you can pretend to compete with to get those juices flowing.
  6. Book travel. It may be trips you actually take or fantasy vacations, but most flights you can cancel within 24 hours. So hunt away…
  7. Cover the clock. You wouldn’t do a long run staring at your watch the whole time, would you? Watching each second tick by is miserable. Cover it with a towel and tell yourself, “Just make it to the end of the next song…”
  8. Cross train only if it isn’t going to prolong your injury. Work with a therapist to identify what activities to avoid and pay attention to your pain during and after.  I try to get as running-specific as possible. With this injury, I could only tolerate the recumbent bike at first. Then the upright bike, then the elliptical. The more upright you can be, working the same muscles as you do running, the easier your return to running will be. 
  9. Give yourself an off day. I never struggle with motivation running, but I never DON’T struggle with it cross training. It’s emotionally taxing, and every so often you need to cut yourself some slack and go to brunch with friends instead.

Expect your first runs back to be awkward. You may even feel like you forgot how to run. It will come back quicker than you think, though. There will be a day you cry happy tears mid-run because you feel like your old self, and it will be sooner than you think.

Lastly, remind yourself that it will make you stronger. Every time I come back to running, it feels so much easier. It still hurts when I run hard workouts, but it’s a movement I enjoy, so there’s an ease with it. You strengthen muscles that have been neglected in running-only training and have a refreshed and hungry perspective. And like the sled dogs, you are ready to get out and grind with wild-eyed excitement, fully present in doing what you were created to do.

musher dogteam driver and Siberian husky at snow winter competition race in forest

Photo credit: TC Marathon
ryan hall

Continuing the Journey

April 13, 2018

When I retired from professional running 2 1/2 years ago I thought that was the end of my journey of pursuing big, dreamer-size goals in running. There were a lot of dreams I had for my running, some of which I was able to experience and some of which I wasn’t, as is the case for all those who dare to dream big. However, recently I’ve come to the realization that my journey is not over. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not planning a comeback, but I am planning to continue on the road of attempting to bring breakthrough to the sport of running.

After being a few years removed I’ve begun to do some coaching, beginning with coaching Sara, my girls, and some online clients. I’ve really enjoyed helping others accomplish personal bests and the process of pursuing their big dreams. Running has been my craft for my 20 year running career and I’ve had the pleasure to run under some of the best coaches in the world, carefully learning from them. I was able to make their ceiling my floor to build from as a result of all they invested in me. I am deeply grateful for how my coaches helped me on my journey. Now, I want to make my ceiling my athletes’ floor so they can learn from the good and bad from my running career and go after big goals.

Recently, Sara and I made the decision to move back to Flagstaff, AZ where she will continue to pursue her goals as a professional runner and where I will be starting a pro training group. My vision for the group is simply to be bold in racing and go all-in on training to go after big dreams. I want to coach my athletes to run far faster than I ever ran at distances from 1500 meters to the marathon.

I have had the privilege of training and living at various high altitude training locations and have found Flagstaff to be the best all-around option. It is already widely used amongst professional runners for this reason. It has everything professional runners need to develop to their full potential.

If you are a big dreamer and are interested in joining a like-minded group you can contact me directly at ryanhallcoaching@gmail.com.

(The team is open to athletes who have qualified for a USATF Track Championship, been an All-American in college, or have achieved the Olympic B standard in the marathon and have a way to financially support themselves)


sara hall

Strength Training Your Way To Faster PRs

February 12, 2018

I’ll admit it: Strength training is my least favorite part of what I do. A lot of people ask me, “How do you motivate yourself to train when you just don’t want to run?” Truth is, I don’t struggle in most aspects of my job—I love lacing up and taking to the open road. But one area that takes discipline (and one I rarely feel like doing) is strength training.

Recently I’ve been logging 120 to 125 miles a week. When I’m not running, I try to expend as little energy as possible—largely so I can spend time with my kids. But I do currently carve out two to three hours a week for strength training because I’m absolutely convinced the benefits outweigh the extra energy expenditure—especially when done correctly.

What are those benefits? Well, to start, getting in the weight room has made me a more efficient runner. I’m now able to expend less energy while running at the same speed. Muscles also hold glycogen, so the more muscle I have, the more glycogen I’m able to store and the longer I can run before hitting the wall. Having a strong midsection helps keep your body from collapsing like an accordion. I’ve noticed that when I spend time strengthening my core and gluteal muscles, I actually feel like I can engage them as I run, taking some of the load off my lower legs. And lastly, I’ve found that strength training is hugely important for injury prevention.

Sold? Follow the rules below to start strengthening your stride.

1. Lift For Your Goal
When lifting, make an effort to prioritize exercises that have a direct impact on your performance. When I’m in the weight room, I’m not doing bicep curls or hopping into a fitness class just to get a good burn. Everything I do has a specific intent. I’m focused on making my running form more powerful and efficient. I’m thinking about the drive I need to sprint uphill and the strength my quads require to weather all the downhills of my goal race, the Boston Marathon.

Since I know I’ll be dealing with many eccentric muscle contractions, which involve the controlled lengthening of muscle under tension, I give a big eccentric load to my squatting. I’ve been using an exercise device that helps give my workouts a quad-heavy focus. I also tweak other strength exercises to force more load on my quads while alleviating the pressure on my heels.

2. Train Your Weaknesses
Back in 2012, I had surgery to repair a tendon in my knee that was sliced through by a rock. I was in a brace for three weeks and, during that time, my leg atrophied. It took years to get my left quad as strong as my right. I now work with a chiropractor/massage therapist to address my trouble spots and work on becoming more symmetrical. It takes a conscious effort to decrease that imbalance little by little in the weight room. When it came to lifting, I did extra exercises on my left leg. Generally, I continue to work on the weakness of my quads with eccentric movements: back squats, back squats with heels elevated, and single-leg squats. I also integrate hex-bar deadlifts, front squats, and the occasional spin class.

Where do you have room for improvement? Tailor your weight training to strengthen those weaknesses.

3. Go in a New Direction
You’d think that since running is a forward-moving sport, you should only do things in that plane, but the opposite is true. Movement patterns fall into three groups: sagittal (forward or backward), frontal (side-to-side), and transverse (rotational). To build a balanced body and help prevent injury, you need to perform a variety of different exercises.

I do lateral shuffles and band walks to develop my quads and glutes, which helps make my stride more stable, and use a rotating platform to work deep intrinsic muscle fibers that also help with stability. Why is this important? Well, the more stable our stride, the more efficiently we move and the less we’re prone to injury.

By strengthening the intrinsic muscle fibers deep in my glutes, I’ve noticed a big difference in the power of my stride and I’m coming off workouts feeling less beat-up than usual. My last running-related injury was the dreaded IT band syndrome, so I have been focusing on the main way to prevent it by strengthening and stabilizing my hips.

Reminding myself of these benefits helps motivate me to peel myself off the couch after a hard 24-mile run and head into the gym to keep making gains. Evolving into a stronger, more efficient, more balanced runner is the goal, but staying injury-free and getting to do what I love is enough to make the time spent well worth it.

ryan hall

How I Helped a Magazine Editor Train For Her First Marathon

November 17, 2017

I love helping people take on the challenge of tackling their first marathon. This past season, I had the privilege of helping Kim Peiffer, an editor at InStyle magazine, prepare for her first marathon. Kim was already doing some running and living a healthy lifestyle prior to our 12-week training, which made developing her plan for the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon fairly simple.

People often ask me how long it takes to train for a marathon, but that largely depends on your pre-race conditioning. Kicking off a training program in relatively good shape—for example, being able to run 4 to 6 miles fairly easily—is ideal. Hitting this baseline fitness level is what you need to begin tackling the 12-week build-up needed for tackling your first marathon. Some runners may need longer to get marathon ready—even up to 20 weeks—but a good rule of thumb: If you’re interested in tackling your first marathon, goal number one should be to run 4 to 6 miles 5 days a week.

Kim was easily at this point when we began her training in late summer. My main goal in developing her program was to keep her healthy. I also wanted to make sure her training was enjoyable. Lastly, I wanted to make sure she felt mentally and physically prepared to take on all 26.2 miles of running.

Here’s how to create the best training plan for your first marathon.

1. Follow A Basic Template

The basic template I like to follow is doing shorter, faster intervals on Tuesday, doing a run at goal marathon pace on Friday, then going long Saturday. When I began writing Kim’s program, the first week looked like this:

Monday: Rest

Tuesday:  5-mile easy run

Wednesday: 20-minute warm-up; then 10 x 1 minute hard/1 minute easy.  Then a 20-minute cool down.

Thursday: 5-mile easy run

Friday: 20 minute warm-up; then start running at goal marathon pace (for Kim that was a 9:09 per mile pace) for as long as you can sustain, but no longer than 8 miles. Finish with a 20-minute cool down.

Saturday: 5-mile easy run

Sunday: 12-mile progressive long run

The key is to build on this template slowly and adjust based on how your body feels. If you’re new to long distance runs and this first week of training looks intimidating, it’s probably too aggressive. Don’t be afraid to pair it down. I recommend bringing the long run down to 8 to10 miles and capping the Friday marathon-pace run at 4 to 6 miles.

2. Seek Structure (But Stay Flexible)

It’s smart to have a basic training structure that you’re able to adjust and tweak based on how your body is performing. Kim and I would touch base at the end of every week to discuss how the previous week went. Then, I would customize her program accordingly.

Unfortunately, Kim had a few aches and pains along the way, so instead of pounding the pavement we adjusted her plan so she could do quite a bit of her training on either the elliptical or bike. Her biggest challenge was avoiding shin splints, so I recommended some shin-strengthening exercises paired with running on softer surfaces as much as possible. Doing this allowed us to largely keep her shin splints at bay.

3. Embrace The Long Run

Kim’s biggest week of training came three weeks prior to the TCS New York City Marathon. It looked like this:

Monday: 60-minute easy cross-train

Tuesday: 20-minute warm-up; then drills and strides. 4 x 4 minutes at one minute faster per mile than marathon goal pace (about a 8:09 pace). 20-minute cool down.

Wednesday: 60-minute easy cross-train

Thursday: 20-minute warm-up; then 8 miles at goal marathon pace (9:09 pace). 20-minute cool down.

Friday: 60-minute easy cross train

Sat: Rest

Sun: 20-mile easy long run (but no longer than 3 hours)

It was fun to hear about Kim’s longest run. She felt great and was able to easily log several miles faster than her goal marathon pace. Her previous long run didn’t go as well, but I assured her that long run’s never feel good early on in training—they get more and more comfortable as time goes on, really.

Aside from providing a confidence boost, the results from Kim’s long run assured me of two things: She’d be fine to cover the marathon distance and she’d accomplish her goal of finishing in under 4 hours. While the 20-mile run is pretty standard in most marathon training plans, you can get away with a lot less—like 16 to 20 miles— if you’re able to remain confident in your training. Going for 20 mainly provides you with the psychological benefit of knowing you can cover the distance.

4. Beware of  Injury Late In The Game

The biggest challenge in preparing someone for their first marathon is keeping them healthy. I’ve never trained for a marathon without experiencing some ache or pain along the way; it’s to be expected. The key is knowing which pains are OK to run though and which aren’t. My general rule of thumb is that if it’s a sharp pain, a pain that gets worse while running, or a pain that leaves you unable to hop on that one foot, then you shouldn’t run through it.

Despite doing three days a week of cross training to limit the pounding on her body, Kim came down with foot pain about two weeks before the marathon. When something pops up that close to race day, I’m always cautious. At this point all the hard training has been done, so a little extra rest can only help. In this case, I still had Kim run 2 to 3 days a week since the injury wasn’t something she couldn’t train through. The rest of the week she cross trained.

5. Focus On Positive Takeaways

Unfortunately, the pain Kim experienced ended up being beyond what was manageable to start the marathon. We were both bummed that all the training she’d put in wouldn’t be put to the test. And there’s no doubt in my mind that she could have completed the race.

I’ve experienced both the sheer joy that running a marathon can bring and also the heartbreak of having trained for months only to be sidelined by injury or fatigue. As painful as it is not to be able to toe the line, I always found that I could channel that heartbreak to fuel the fire in preparing for my next marathon.

My best marathon (the Boston Marathon in 2011: 2:04:58) came in the wake of not being able to run the Chicago marathon in 2010. Sometimes the best motivation is the heartbreak of injury. I know this minor setback will fuel Kim as she prepares for her next marathon.

sara hall

How Running Partners Gave My Training a Boost

August 11, 2017

Though running at its core is an individual sport, ever since I began running I have thrived and benefited from having running partners. I consider myself a “social exerciser.” I would much rather be running in a group, sweating it out alongside other people, than inside on a treadmill. This is partly because I find it more enjoyable and partly because I know it will help me get the most out of myself.

Running Friends With Benefits

Training with others gets your competitive juices flowing. In seventh grade, my first year of running competitively, my coach had me workout and race with the boys to challenge me. I thrived on beating all but one of them and enjoyed having people to chase rather than winning the girls’ race by large margins.

In high school I continued to train with the boys varsity team, and though it was frustrating to see the same boys I beat in middle school gradually get faster with less effort simply because their bodies were maturing, I enjoyed the camaraderie and challenge. If I had stopped running with them, I may have gotten complacent in my ability to win the women’s races by large margins, and would have never known my full potential. Instead I had fun competing alongside people and finding out what I was made of.

Another advantage of training with others is being able to feed off their energy and vice versa. When I was recruited to run in college, it was very important for me to choose a program that had a healthy team dynamic that was both challenging and encouraging. I wanted to be an excellent runner, but I didn’t want to be in a toxic, “win-at-all-costs” atmosphere.

Stanford University’s team turned out to be everything I hoped it would be. I had women at my level to train with day in and day out whom I looked up to and who made me a better person. We genuinely wanted to help each other, often holding back in workouts or races to keep the other from falling off pace. There were three of us that often finished races in the top three side by side, having run the whole race that way.

I remember days that I struggled physically. Having my teammates next to me feeding me encouragement helped me hold it together and finish strong. There were also times when I felt stronger, but, rather than exploit their weakness, I’d do my best to pull them along in return. If you choose your running partners wisely, all the hours you spend training become fertile ground for developing beautiful relationships and having the positive character traits of others rub off on you.

Now as a professional, I don’t have as many training partners available to me as I did when I was on a team, but I do seek out running company when I can. It simply takes less effort to do workouts with someone than alone. Having a “target” to focus on, whether it’s someone next to you or in front of you, often saves you the mental energy of constantly analyzing the pace or having to be the one to initiate it. You can turn your brain off and follow or lock into the rhythm of that person for periods of time, which conserves energy. My husband will often ride his bike next to me while I run, or I will go out of my way to meet up with a friend because I know I will have a better workout than if I were out there alone.

Running Partners Get Results

This winter while training in Ethiopia I chose to join a team’s practices rather than stick to my own schedule. Some of Ethiopia’s best marathoners were there and I enjoyed the challenge of keeping up with them at a grueling altitude of 9,000 feet. Although the runners typically train in silence (unlike in the US where we like to chat between intervals), they would often encourage me with a quiet “Berchi!” which means “Be strong!” It was all I needed to snap out of feeling sorry for myself and get back on pace as we climbed a steep hill. It added such a fun spontaneity to my daily routine that I felt really rejuvenated and got in some of the best training I’ve ever done.

The training differed from how I typically train and I even disagreed with some elements, but I felt being in the atmosphere of the team more than made up for it. The result was a new personal record at the Tokyo Marathon (2:28).

There is definitely a time and place for learning to push yourself while running alone—and I incorporate that into my training as well—but if you’re looking to make your training more enjoyable and effective and to have more support when you hit rough patches, I’d suggest finding some running partners to share the road with.