A few weeks ago, there was buzz on the Internet about the physical transformation of recently retired marathoner Ryan Hall. Hall, whose distinguished career includes the fastest marathon and half-marathons ever run by an American, had adopted an intense weightlifting regimen and was dedicating himself to dumbbell curls and bench presses with the fervor he’d previously shown for tempo runs and track intervals. As a result, the 5’ 10” Hall had bulked up from 127 pounds last summer to 165 pounds, according to a recent Twitter post. The tweet also included a shirtless selfie, in which Hall’s torso looks less like that of an elite endurance athlete, and more like something you’d see on the brochure for a Vegas pool party.
As one member of an online running community bluntly put it: “Ryan Hall is jacked.”
Hall is relishing his newfound jackedness.
“I’ve been small and weak my entire life—just, like, totally underdeveloped,” Hall told Runner’s World. “I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to be big and strong.”
“Weak” and “underdeveloped.” It sounds like invective a passing runner might receive from CrossFit acolytes as they snack on a pack of gravel. But what to make of such words when they come from a runner–and not just any runner, but the best runner this country has ever seen? To put it another way: If Hall is retrospectively critical of his physique during his peak years as a competitive athlete, isn’t that problematic for the sport as a whole?
In a recent phone conversation, I asked Hall whether he felt healthier these days than he did during his competitive years. He said that he did and that the difference was like night and day.
“To be an elite marathoner with a body that’s light and lean: while you’re running, you feel amazing. You’re fluid and economical, floating along without having to carry a lot of muscle mass,” says Hall. “But the rest of the day, to be honest, is not a lot of fun. My energy was super low [throughout most of my career]. I took naps every day and felt pretty much useless when I wasn’t running.”
“The highest levels of performance come at the expense of health. In fact, I would say that the two are mutually exclusive.”
Hall told me that even during his best years as a competitive athlete, he was “healthy” only in a narrowly defined way. As he put it, he was good at one thing: running. Everything else was rather laborious. Hall said he could be stirring pots of chili while making dinner and feel soreness in his shoulder the next day.
Not exactly the robust image that the running industry wants to promote.
Rather than a condemnation of running in general, however, Hall’s example should serve as a reminder that participating in a sport for one’s wellbeing and competing at the highest level are not the same thing. That might sound obvious, but it’s easy to overlook with endurance sports like running and cycling, which in our culture have become ubiquitous staples of healthy living. On some level, we assume that those who perform these activities better than anyone else must be at the pinnacle of health—but that is a tenuous assumption at best.
“The highest levels of performance come at the expense of health. In fact, I would say that the two are mutually exclusive,” says Mark Twight, former elite-level alpinist, competitive amateur cyclist, and professional trainer. When I spoke to him on the phone, Twight told me that the ideal physique for an athlete is defined by the singular task that athlete is trying to achieve. (Photographer Howard Schatz’s “Athlete” series offers a striking visual depiction of the range in athlete body types.) In the hyper-competitive and hyper-specialized world of professional sports, physical versatility is a common sacrifice. And it’s not just endurance sports.
“You can look at top level [male] cyclists, who always joke about having their wife or girlfriend carry the groceries, because they don’t have the upper body to do so,” says Twight. “But also, how healthy is the offensive lineman playing professional football, where it’s just size for the sake of size? That could certainly be considered ‘unhealthy’.”
Twight said that he was extremely light—around three percent body fat—while racing his road bike as a masters athlete around 2007. While this took a serious toll on bodily functions like testosterone levels and mood, he was faster than ever.
But is weightlifting any better for Hall?
I put this question to Twight and he gave the example of a young professional powerlifter, whom he met last year in Georgia. Asked about his favorite part of Olympic-style weightlifting, the athlete answered, “[I get to] rest and eat.”
“Those two things [calories and rest] lead to improved health,” says Twight. “Whereas [in the case of a runner], if you’re eating just enough calories in order to fuel those workouts and the recovery, you’re always treading a really fine line. The stress you’re putting on your body would probably skew more towards the unhealthy.”
However, Twight said that it would be reasonable to assume that after years and years of absorbing the shock of heavy weights, the sport could potentially lead to skeletal and structural damage. Some extent of physical attrition, it seems, is inevitable in any sport practiced at a professional level.
Will Hall become a professional weightlifter? It seems unlikely. His competitive years now behind him, Hall still runs several days a week, albeit at a more civilian pace. While he believes that his current fitness routine, which places greater emphasis on weightlifting and includes easy running for balance, is the way to go for an “everyday” athlete just looking to feel good, Hall doesn’t regret the time he spent on the razor’s edge of elite distance running.
“If I had to go back, I’d do it all over again—I would still have become a runner,” Hall says.
“Running has been so good to me. It’s changed my life. Given me amazing opportunities. It’s the reason why I’m married to the person I’m married to and all the relationships I’ve built have all come as a result of running. I wouldn’t trade any of that. But there was an immense sacrifice that came with trying to be the best in the world at what I did.”