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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.

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.

sara hall steps foundation

East African Summer – Kenya

October 27, 2013

Ryan and I had intended to make the pilgrimage to Iten, Kenya last February, however, Ryan’s torn quad thwarted our plans. Fortunately this time we both made it, meeting up in the Nairobi airport and seeing each other for the first time in 4 weeks. Our first day in Kenya we headed out to Wesley Korir’s home outside of Kitale to visit the hospital built by The Hall Steps Foundation. When we pulled up at the hospital, it seemed like the entire village had gathered to greet us (the women singing a song as we stepped out of the car) and thank us for bringing them the gift of health. We walked around and shook probably 250 hands of the people that were gathered, and then made sure to tell them that it was not just us but many other runners back in the US that cared about them enough to run a race or donate money so that they would experience better health. To that they cheered! It was a precious moment of seeing in a very tangible way the beneficiaries of the charity that we spent so much time and effort on from afar.

After touring the hospital, we were off to Iten to train at Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Center. We had envisioned training with the Kenyans, but upon showing up realized we had no contacts in the area and no idea how to “join in” the training. Most of the people staying at Lornah’s trained on their own, but I was told that there was a large fartlek on Thursday mornings that was open to anyone. So, my first morning in Iten, I decided to “throw myself to the wolves” and show up at the fartlek. When I jogged to the meeting spot, it was quite a sight to see 300 lean Kenyan runners dressed in neon athletic gear lining the roads waiting for the fartlek to start (and all staring at the one crazy “mzungo” white girl who decided to join in). We all funneled into a narrow road about 4 people wide, a coach said “go” and we were off! In those moments I experienced what many back-of-the-pack marathoners talk about — having to shuffle along in the pack for the first mile until the race strings out. As we surged along the rough dirt road to the tune of 3 minutes on, 1 minute off, I soon found myself running with a Kenyan girl named Ruth, and together we moved up, passing runners who had stopped the workout and were now walking it in (common I guess, once you get dropped). Contrary to what I expected, there were a lot of up-and-coming runners out there, not just established elites, but all trying to hang with the ones at the top.

I happened to run into Ruth the next day out on an easy run, and we chatted about her hometown of Nyahururu (also home to Sammy Wanjiru, 2008 Olympic marathon champion) and how similar it is to Iten; it is at high altitude and a nice place to train. I had heard about Nyahururu because Kenya’s largest orphanage, called Heroes of the Nation, is there and was started by a member of our church. It was a place I’d been wanting to visit, and when I mentioned this to Ruth, she immediately got excited and invited me to stay at her home when she went back to visit.

As things turned out, we did go to Nyahururu, but rather than staying for a night as we planned, we stayed for a week. Staying in Ruth’s home was a crash course in Kenyan culture and a pleasure to be able to experience more intimately than we would have at a camp with mainly Western athletes. We just adapted to their routines — ate the same food, went to their team practices, shared meals at their friends’ and relatives’ homes, and even walked her daughter to school every morning. There were many things that surprised me about Kenyan runners that were different than what I expected, and many things that were just as anticipated. Though I do not claim to be an expert on Kenyan running culture which surely varies, from the people I met and interacted with, these were some of the myths that were debunked and some “secrets of Kenyan runners” I learned:

Myth 1: Kenyans run all their runs very hard
Fact: Kenyans are not afraid to run their training runs very hard, but they are also not afraid at times to run very sloooow. Painfully slow, most afternoon runs (I wore a Garmin once and clocked us at 10:00 miles). However, the majority of morning runs I went on in Kenya were brisk compared to my usual training run pace, sometimes right from the gun at 6 am, sometimes “progressive” starting at 9:00 mile pace and progressing down to 6:30 pace uphill (at 7k feet elevation).

Myth 2: Kenyan runners eat very natural and healthy
Fact: Compared to my Californian diet that’s high carbohydrate but also high in fresh fruit, vegetables, and organic meat, I found the Kenyan diet very lacking nutritionally. Breakfast was sliced white bread with margarine and tea made with lots of sugar and some milk (which was delicious! Also was the only fluid Kenyan runners drink throughout the day, hydration doesn’t seem to be a concern). Lunch and dinner were both a mound of rice, corn mush, or white potatoes, with a small side of gristly meat or vegetables cooked in lard (“cooking fat”, what everything is cooked in, including the delicious fried “chapatti” flat breads). Meat or vegetables were served more as a condiment than a part of the meal. With the exception of Lornah’s camp, which served a buffet including plentiful meat and veg for our Western stomachs. To be honest, I didn’t feel much different training off of their diet of pure carbohydrate (though I did have stashes of beef jerky, nuts, and chocolate that I would continually dip into). I think it shows that you can attack nutrition a lot of different ways and still be successful.

Myth 3: All Kenyan children run to school, which is why Kenyans are faster
Fact: Though I think this was the experience of some of the best Kenyan runners growing up, only once did I see a few children running to school, and I never saw any running home from school, but walking. From what I gather, running to school is done out of necessity to avoid being late, which is why rarely do you see them running home. Children did join in for a bit when you ran by them, even if they were carrying backpacks, and seemed to enjoy it.

Kenyan Secrets:
Their belief in themselves: I was amazed at how confidently most of the Kenyan runners talked. They always expected the best in their training and upcoming races, and were very confident that their training plan was going to get them to their goals. They also don’t believe it’s possible for a white person to beat them — I learned this really quick on the track when I went to the front and all of a sudden started a race! After the workout, the coach had me share with the group my PRs and then said, “You see, just because someone is mzungo doesn’t mean they can’t beat you, you still have to try hard”. Ryan and I were cracking up! I would finish a workout that I didn’t find that impressive, and everyone would be saying, “wow, very strong mzungo!” Their expectations of me were very low!

Training in groups: It is common knowledge that the Kenyans train in groups, but seeing it play out made me realize how they are able to develop so many high level athletes. These groups are coed, so the girls basically try to hang onto the pack of guys as long as they can on training runs, people dropping off as the run goes on. Even at the track workouts I went to, there was an “A group” of the best guys, a “B group” of the next best, and a “C group”, of the women with some guys. You constantly have others pushing you to your limits. I feel like in the US our culture is a bit more conservative; runs are more recovery and conversational, with the intention of staying injury free and not over-training. For every one Kenyan that makes it to a high level there are likely others that get injured or over-train along the way, but you can see why it is a system that pushes the envelope and develops high level athletes.

Support and a Simple Lifestyle: I joke that elite Kenyan women runners have it made. You can hire a male pacemaker for a workout, going as far as 25 miles with you, for $2. You come home to get a deep tissue massage, an hour and a half costs $5. You have a live-in “house girl” who cleans the house, does your laundry, buys groceries, cooks the meals, takes care of your children, all for $1-$2 a day. Your job is to run hard and recover — period. The men have it the same, either a wife that takes care of most things or a house girl that does. Life is simple there: even the wealthiest homes I went to didn’t have internet, but there is almost always a TV. Runners just eat, sleep, and lay around and wait for the next run. I’m naturally a busy-body, so this was an adjustment for me, but you get used to it and start to look forward to simpler things in life, such as the afternoon chai or dinner at a relative’s house.

Aggressive training: One of the mindsets I really liked that most Kenyans had was that they always saw challenging training through the lens of being a benefit to them. For example, we would do a very hard hilly run the day before a track workout, something you would rarely see someone doing in the US. We would see it as taking away from the hard session the next day, but they don’t think about that, they just say “runs like today in the hills make your legs strong!”

I left my summer in East Africa a lot fitter, a shade darker, clothes stained from the all pervasive red dirt, and my craving for adventure filled. I have been challenged in my approach to training, in my American cultural habits, and by coming face to face with human need. I have made new friends and am inspired by the concept of hospitality and family I experienced. When I first arrived I was scared to ride (helmetless) on the back of a “boda-boda” (motorcycle taxi), thinking it stupid and dangerous. By the end I was taking them every chance I could — Africa has a way of mellowing you out. You just sit back as you bump along on the rutty pot-holed roads and enjoy the ride. I hope to be back soon!

Thanks for reading,

olympics sara hall

Sara Hall post Olympic trials thoughts

July 13, 2012

I recently competed at the US Olympic Trials in the 3,000 Steeplechase and fell one lap short of my dream of making the Olympic team. Though it never ceases to be painful when I fall short of attaining a goal, I firmly believe after years in this sport that the journey is what matters more than the final outcome. I want to share some of my journey with you, with hopes that when you too experience the death of a dream, you can perhaps identify with what I have been through.

When I first began competing at the age of 13, winning came easy. In fact, I started competing with the boys because I was winning girls races by over 2 minutes, and even still, usually won or placed 2nd against the boys. Though this fueled my love for running and competing, it also set me up with an “anything less than winning is not acceptable” mentality. As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized how much I was drawing my identity from how successful I was as a runner. If I was competing well, in my eyes I was a success, but if I competed poorly, I saw myself as a failure. Fortunately God used some rough patches in my career to show me that my identity is not based in what I do, but in who He created me to be and who He says that I am. Now I make sure to spend time hearing from God and from others on how God sees me, the plans He has created me for, and shape my identity from that.

Once your identity is secure, than you are free to take risks and go after dreams, because you no longer fear failure. There have been times in my career where I was more nervous I’d fail than excited to succeed- and this was because the failures were shaking my identity. But now that my identity is secure, I rarely ever get that feeling of nervous dread before races, I am excited and peaceful going in, more focused on how much I love to compete and run all-out than worried it might not go well. That is how this whole year has been leading up to the Olympic Trials. Even when some of my steeples early on were sub-par performances, rather than letting that rattle my confidence and let fear enter in, I shifted my focus to what my goal was and how excited I was to be running towards it. The day of the Olympic Trials I experienced so much more peace than in other years, and I am so thankful for God’s grace in growing me in this area.

I have also learned that, unfortunately, as much as we would like them to be, our bodies are not machines and do not always cooperate as we would like them to. After 15 years of competitively racing, I’ve become quite aware of this, and though it can be frustrating at times, I have learned that the number one thing you can focus on is giving your best and walking away from the race with no regrets. When you’ve given your all, you have to trust that even if your best wasn’t good enough, that God will use it to “work all things together for your good” (Romans 8:28).

So what happens when you don’t accomplish your goal? Well, I believe it’s totally normal to get really bummed out, as I did after the Trials. I was devastated and let myself mourn the death of the dream. I had really believed it was going to happen and that Ryan and I were going to walk hand-in-hand into the Opening Ceremonies. But amidst the pain, I intentionally kept my focus looking outward and forward rather than backwards and inwards. Rather than getting really introspective and analyzing what went wrong, why didn’t I have that last gear, what could I have done differently, how did this happen and being tormented by these thoughts, I instead got together with my friends and family and let them embrace me with their unconditional love. I hung out with Jesus and let him encourage me. I picked a new goal and kept moving forward. Then, after some of the frustration and disappointment had worn off, it was a good time to meet with the coach and analyze the race and what we could do to improve both the race and preparation next time. And after a few days, I felt a lot more like myself, because I realized that I don’t just do this solely for the end result, but I do this because I love it and feel called to it, and that doesn’t change when you don’t meet your goal. When you are enjoying the process and letting it shape you as a person along the way you realize the value of the journey.

Another thing I’ve learned is to keep your head up and keep looking for signs of God’s redemptive work. I have already seen little glimpses of how God has used my Olympic Trials race to teach me things, and am constantly looking for what He is up to. It’s always easier to see these things in hindsight and see how His hand has fit all the pieces together perfectly, though at the time we can’t see the full picture.

So what’s next? My attention has now shifted to preparing for some fast races in Europe and supporting Ryan in his final buildup to the Olympic marathon. I am excited to experience the Olympics with him as we usually approach things- as a team, together, even though we won’t be official teammates on Team USA. It will be the culmination of a big season of change for us, where we’ve really had to rely on each other and God for support, so I look forward to seeing it all come together on the streets of London.

We will keep you updated! Thank you so much for the prayers and support, we really appreciate them as we continue this journey!