Ryan Hall is a retired long-distance runner who holds the U.S. record in the half marathon. He won the marathon at the 2008 United States Olympic Trials and placed tenth in the Olympic marathon in Beijing. Hall is the co-founder of The Hall Steps Foundation a non-profit organization which funds initiatives that tackle structural causes of poverty such as chronic lack of access to basic entitlements including clean water, shelter and physical security.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in Big Bear Lake in southern California. I grew up sports mad. I wanted to be a professional baseball player and grew up spending hours and hours throwing baseballs against a handmade tarp my dad set up in our yard for me to practice pitching. The problem was I was 5’ tall and weighed 100 lbs. so, while I had the heart to make it to the majors I did not have the body type.
At that time, I hated to run but I was good at it. I ran a 5:22 mile in 8th grade on a dirt track at 7,000 ft altitude without training but I wanted nothing to do with the sport of distance running.
That all changed one day when I was daydreaming out the window of a car staring at the sparkling blue waters of Big Bear Lake and was hit with the desire to run around the lake. The next Saturday my dad and I made the very slow, long, painful run around the 15-mile lake and my life was forever changed.
I went from being a kid who hated to run to a kid who was obsessed with running. I spent the next 20 years trying to hone my craft and see how good I could get at the sport of distance running.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I wish I realized how important other aspects of training are beyond just physical training. I was very focused on hitting workout, mileage, etc. but wasn’t very dialed in with my nutrition, sleep, and strength training. Training is a holistic pursuit yet oftentimes we focus simply on the training while not putting the same passion into the other important elements that a successful athlete must have in place. This is why my friend and I started Run Free training (a personal, online, coaching system) so that we could not just prescribe tailored, week by week training to athletes but also address all the other components such as nutrition, sleep, weight training, the mental game and more. You can be doing the perfect training but if your sleep is off (for example) you will not achieve optimal results.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
There are a lot of good recommendations out there, such as not trying anything new on race day but what I find to be prevalent in the sport of marathoning, in particular, is a lot of fear-based running going on. A lot of athletes have had some rough moments in marathons (any seasoned marathoner has) and as a result, are fearful of having another “blow up” experience.
Running out of fear is not a powerful way to go about trying to achieve optimal results so I work really hard to help athletes become confident runners that aren’t afraid to fail. This is why I started the Run Free podcast in conjunction with Run Free training. It’s our way to address what is going on inside of athletes. We are convinced that what is going inside an athlete will eventually be manifested externally. I think there is a similar fear to training hard.
Many athletes are afraid of getting hurt, afraid of getting burned out when in reality they can train much harder than they think. This isn’t a perfect statement but there is a lot of truth to the statement that “there is no such thing as overtraining, just under fueling and undersleeping.” If an athlete has their sleep and nutrition dialed in they can train very, very hard. I think there are a lot of people out there thinking they can achieve optimal results from training 30 minutes a day or 60 minutes a day for three days a week. I’ve been around world-class distance runners my entire life and there is not one story of one athlete achieving world-class results on this type of training. Yes, you can achieve results, stay healthy, and feel good off very little training but if your goal is to see how good at the sport you can get you to have to bring it.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
I dropped out of school during my sophomore year at Stanford. I was super depressed. My running was going terrible (I put on 10lbs my freshmen year in college and developed an eating disorder), my academics were also super stressful and not going well, and I was getting sick all the time from not getting enough sleep. My main problem though was that my entire identity and self-worth were coming from my performances in running. When I looked in the mirror I judged myself entirely on what I was doing (performance) rather than who I was. Falling into this trap was leading me through some very difficult internal battles.
Going back home only made things worse. I learned that you don’t solve an internal problem by changing external realities. I got even more depressed at home. Finally, I had a discussion with my pastor and he asked me: “what is the last thing you know God was calling you to do? Go back and do that.” I knew the answer was I felt a strong calling to Stanford so I returned. Things didn’t change right away at Stanford but I started doing more inner work. I would bike every day to the Stanford football stadium and ask God this question: “how do you see me?” As I began to journal and write what I felt God was telling me in answering this question I found myself seeing myself through different eyes. Eyes that valued me completely independent of my performances. As my perspective of myself lifted so did my depression.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
My faith. When you no longer value yourself for your performances it frees you. It makes you fearless and a fearless competitor is scary.
What is your morning routine?
It varies. I used to be very legalistic with my schedule but I am learning to bend and flex with life. I get up around 6-7 am. Drink 20 oz of water, make and drink a 20 oz coffee and read and write during this time. Then make my wife a pancake and head out to the door to accompany her on her training (I coach her). I used to wake my kids up and make them pancakes as well but with COVID they are pretty self-sufficient waking themselves and grabbing some breakfast before online school starts.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Meditation without a doubt. Meditation has brought to light how unfocused my mind is. I find meditation to be a helpful practice that carries over into prayer, reading, athletics, etc. because it teaches you to keep the mind focused on one thing. With so many distractions in today’s world, this is becoming increasingly important for me.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I try and get a lot done early in the day when my energy is the best. I am pretty useless (in terms of productivity) after 5 pm. Also, I find it helpful to look at my schedule for the coming day the night before so I can plot out my day a bit and figure out when I am going to get my gym time in.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
The Bible, first and foremost. I think that regardless of what faith tradition you are a part of the wisdom, the person of Jesus and the teachings of the Bible are endlessly intriguing and life-giving. I find that the more I glean and put into practice what I am learning in the Bible the higher the more I experience the fullness of life. I’ll never fathom all the wisdom the Bible has to offer but I love digging into it. I’ve always said that the Bible is also the best sports psychology book out there, especially the teachings of Jesus. If an athlete were to fully master and put into practice the teaching of Jesus I am convinced they would be the freest, unencumbered, fearless, intense, athlete to ever walk on the playing field.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
This is my primary one because it is so simple and sums up my entire purpose of existence: Matthew 22:36-40
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.