Ryan Hall: Transformation From Marathoner to Strength Trainer

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Ryan Hall’s story is an interesting illustration of the argument about too much cardio interfering with strength and muscle gains. He is the Boston Marathon American record holder, where he ran the fastest marathon time ever by an American. It is not the American record for the marathon because Boston is not a ratified course for records because it is point-to-point with a net downhill. The official American record belongs to Khalid Khannouchi. Nevertheless, Ryan Hall was obviously an elite marathoner. During his career he was very fit, but not very muscular, weighing in at 127 lbs.

After retiring in 2016, Ryan decided to see how strong he could become, and took up strength training, big time. He used the “German high volume” method and switched to a high protein diet. The results were astonishing. He put on 38 pounds of what appears to be all, or almost all, muscle. Recently on twitter he posted this comparison of his current physique with how he looked in his marathon days:

This certainly is a strong example that doing lots of strength training is a very effective way to gain muscle. Doing lots of cardio, with not enough strength training, may get you lean but you could end up slender and not too strong. This is not an example that lots of cardio causes muscle wasting, though. For that you’d have to start with someone lean and muscular, like Ryan on the left, as the before picture, and end up with someone lean and slender, like Ryan on the right. Nevertheless, this is a very good advertisement for strength training.

As I mentioned in a recent post, the bad air we had been experiencing on the West Coast due to the wildfires caused me to adjust my training to shorter, more intense sessions. As part of this I do a lot less cardio, although still a significant amount. And I give strength training a lot more emphasis. I’ve been at this for a few weeks and am still enjoying it. I’ve broken through the plateau I mentioned and am getting stronger. While there is scientific evidence of some conflict between cardio and gaining strength, in my case the conflict is also psychological: I realize that in the past I had a tendency to rush through the minimum possible strength training to preserve my strength, because I wanted to get on to activities I considered more fun.

This was still useful, my strength and the appearance of my muscles stayed the same for more than 10 years, from my late 50s till now, despite some major surgeries. This is a time of life when the “inevitable” loss of muscle with age is supposed to be accelerating. So my quick strength workouts still had value, probably because I at least put good effort if not a lot of time into them. But there does seem to be even more value in taking strength training more seriously. And I’m finding ways to enjoy it so it also now counts as a fun activity. I don’t, however, expect to be putting on close to 40 pounds of muscle anytime soon. 🙂