Retirement From Sport: Ryan Hall – 2x Olympian, Professional Runner and American Record Holder
Over my years as a professional athlete I have seen so many athletes retire and move on from professional sport. Some have thrived in their next phase of life. Some have maintained close ties to the sport that they called their job and career for so long, while others have moved entirely away from it and shifted their focus and motivation all together – beginning an entirely new chapter.
Others have struggled. Whether it is the loss of identity, to lack of confidence in a tangible and transferable skill set, to decreased inspiration and drive for the next phase, to even the negative physical implications that can arise from years of training and competing at the highest level – transitions can be hard.
One of the themes I have heard repeatedly is that there exists a genuine lack of support for retiring athletes. Things like financial management and planning, career coaches, mentors, and advisors to help with things like resume writing are all things that would help athletes transition. However they largely don’t exist.
As part of this series, I am interviewing former professional athletes across a broad range of sports, focusing on their process of retirement – the ups and downs, the planning, the emotional and physical changes and more. In addition I have asked for their tips and advice for those who are considering retirement soon. I hope these interviews prove to be informative and helpful as the idea of moving on from professional sport comes into vision.
In this week’s interview, we hear from Ryan Hall. Ryan is former professional runner and a 2x Olympian, competing in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2012 Olympics in London. Ryan holds the American Record for the half marathon in 59:43, becoming the first American to run under one hour at the distance. Ryan is also the only American to run under 2:05 in the marathon, running 2:04:58 at the 2011 Boston Marathon. Ryan won the the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, and has finished 3rd and 4th at the legendary Boston Marathon, and 4th at the NYC Marathon.
In January 2016 Ryan announced his retirement from professional running after a highly successful career spanning more than 20+ years – from a successful high school runner, to his career at Stanford, to then establishing himself as the top American marathoner of our time. As he discusses below, at his retirement, Ryan felt that his body had given everything it could to lead him through such a successful career, but it was time for a needed break. As with every interview I have done, I loved reading the unique perspective that Ryan shares about his experience with retiring from professional sport. For example, Ryan has all but completely given up running. To meet his need for a daily fix of physical activity he has taken up weight lifting, gaining more than 20 kilos since his running days. During parts of his career, Ryan felt that running was a large part of his identity, but when he retired, he had transitioned to a place where he viewed running as a chapter in his journey, and not how he identified as a person. I also appreciated Ryan sharing his initial disinterest to move into coaching and speaking, but how that shifted as he realized how much he had share about his craft. Ryan also recommends “taking a big break” to those contemplating retirement, noting that there is a difference between the true desire to retire versus the need for an extended mental and physical break from sport. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
Can you give us a bit of background about yourself. What sport did you play? At what age did you turn professional? How long were you competing for as a professional athlete? Did you go to University?
For sure. I grew up playing basketball, baseball, and football and hated to run. When I was 13 all this changed as I feel like God placed inside of me the desire to run around the lake in my hometown (15 miles). That moment blossomed into a 20-year journey of me discovering and un-earthing the talent God had placed in me. I turned pro after graduating from Stanford University (I ran track and cross country all four years helping my team win two national team titles in cross country and winning the individual 5000 meter championship my senior year in track) in 2005. I competed professionally for the next 10 years.
What are you doing today from a career perspective?
I co-founded a holistic online personal training business for runners of every level (Run Free Training) a little over a year ago, have written two books, speak at events, coach my wife in-person and coach 11 other athletes remotely. I am also a dad to 4 biological sisters adopted from Ethiopia nearly 5 years ago. I have also taken up a hobby of weight lifting since I stopped competing and stopped running entirely. I feel way more busy now compared to when I was running professionally!
How did the sport define you? Did you feel like it was a big part of your identity?
Early on it was all consuming and a huge part of what made me me and what I thought made me special. It was a long process of learning that running isn’t me and that I am good enough without running that occurred mainly over the last 10 years of my running. I finally got to the point when I retired that I no longer needed to run to feel like I had something valuable to offer to myself, those around me, and the world.
How long were you contemplating retirement before announcing your plans to leave the sport?
It was a 4 year journey of trying to “right the ship” after dropping out of the London Olympics with an upper hamstring injury. Over that time period I tried every coach, training system, nutritional tweak, and change I could think to make to try and get my body responding to training how it once did. It was all for not. Nothing I did kept me from feeling insanely tired and run-down. By the time I got back to the 2016 prep for the trials it was very, very clear that my body had had enough. I made the decision based on 4 years of my body’s feedback to various stimulus. I really felt like I had done everything in my power to turn things around and I also felt like my body was telling me that it had given me everything it could give me over the last 20 years and it was time for me to give back to my body (which is one reason I got into lifting being the complete opposite of running…running being primarily catabolic and lifting being very anabolic).
What were your feelings around retirement? Were you nervous? sad? excited? conflicted?
I remember the day I announced my retirement my wife, Sara, commented that if felt like I died that day because of the outpouring of love and support on social media. It did feel that way which made me sad to say goodbye to the sport. I had already decided to retire a month or so before we went public with it, which I am really glad I did. This gave me time to “try on the decision” and see how it felt. I felt a ton of peace about it during that period and didn’t miss running at all. I was excited to turn the page to the next season of my life.
Were you concerned at all about loss of identity?
I was early on in my career when I knew how important running was to me but God had dealt deeply with me on identity over the years so by the time retirement came I had already dealt with the issue, making retirement pretty easy when it came to identity.
Many athletes talk about falling into depression after their career has ended. Did you experience that at all?
Surprisingly no. I had dealt with depression during my time at Stanford (dropped out of school during my sophomore year and wasn’t sure if I was going back) and depression had been an issue for me at other low points of my career but I was actually more happy after I retired. I think a couple of factors played into this. 1. I was able to finally stop striving and look back at my career and just be thankful for how amazing it was. 2. I gave back to my body via weight lifting and a lot of quality sleep and nutrition. 3. I stayed true to who I am. One reason why I ran was because I love to challenge myself physically. That is just who I am and what makes me tick. Since I was no longer able to meet this need via running I had to find a way to meet it which is another reason I got into weight lifting. Weightlifting is the perfect way for me to meet this very real need I have. To this day, if I am not challenging myself physically I am not a happy camper so I have to make sure I scratch this itch daily with 60-90 minute lifting sessions in the gym daily. 4. I was able to see that I was in a completely new season and I was able to say goodbye to running when I ran the world marathon challenge (7 marathons, 7 days, 7 continents…check out my book “Run the Mile You’re In” for a few chapters on this challenge.
What were your feelings around decreasing your training and exiting competition? How did you address that?
It was hard to no longer compete but I was able to turn my lifting sessions into a competition with myself. I also live vicarously through my wife and daughters who are still competing in running competitions.
When you retired did you already have a plan in place for what was next, or did you approach it only after retirement? If the former, did you find it difficult to both focus on your future while staying committed to competing at the highest level still?
I didn’t dabble into future plans until I stopped running. Things just kind of evolved organically after I stopped running with various opportunities coming into play. I’m really glad that this was my approach and that I allowed the transition to happen slowly. I’m five years removed from competition and things are still transitioning slowly. My approach was to kind of try out and feel out a lot of different opportunities in low-risk situations and see what stuck.
How did you determine what would be next? What process did you go through to figure it out? Did you have a hard time seeing the path forward?
I kind of answered this above but I will add that I always thought it was so typical for athletes to go into coaching/writing/speaking and didn’t want to follow the well-traveled road. However, after exploring other options I realized that running is my craft. I spent 20 years learning the craft from many of the best coaches in the world and even though I no longer like to run personally I still love to be around athletes and I love to use my successes and failures from my career to help other people. I absolutely love coaching and staying involved in the running world and I love continuing to use and refine my craft.
What was your timeline for determining your next steps? Did you feel pressure or anxiety around this?
I just let it happen. I was blessed to be in a financial situation where I didn’t have to make anything happen so I just kind of let it unfold. I’m still letting it unfold.
Do you look back with any regrets or wish you had done anything differently in this process?
I am shocked I didn’t have a more challenging road when it came to retirement. I really thought I would have big problems when I retired but I am finding that I am loving life now as much as ever, probably even more than when I was competing. I will say this. Even though I knew the season of my running career was over in 2015 I have had a few times when I attempted to get back into running and wish I hadn’t. I guess I was just still a little curious if I could turn things around but I found every time I did this that I was still the same person and my body was still clearly done with competing. I’ve come to accept second-guessing myself now and again as part of the process but I see clearly now that it wasn’t helpful for me when working through retirement. I will also say this, in hindsight, I should have just taken a big break from running prior to retiring. I think it is easy to confuse needing a big break and needing to retire. I have kind of an “all or nothing” mentality which works against me at times. I wish I would have just stepped away from the sport for a few months (maybe even half a year) and then resume and see what happens. I don’t think it would have made a difference in the end but I think it would be a more thorough way of going about the process of retiring.
How long would you say it took before you felt like you had found your stride after retiring?
Minus the few episodes of getting back into it probably after about a year. I remember feeling like a fish out of water the first year. I was traveling to events like the Boston Marathon and doing signings and appearances and often thinking to myself “what am I doing here.” However, as I have increasingly turned my focus away from me and towards others I feel more at home doing speaking engagements and appearances as a retired athlete. The more I’m focused on “what do I have to give” the more I find myself at home in any circumstance.
What are you top 5 things you wish someone had taught you/ told you before you retired?
1. Change slowly. Take your time and be patient.
2. Take a big break before you pull the string on officially retiring
3. It’s ok to feel like a fish out of water from time to time
4. Go on vacation and take time to really soak in your career and celebrate what you’ve done in this season.
5. Your journey isn’t over. The death of one season is the birth of another. Everything you’ve learned is meant to serve you well in your next season and also meant to be passed down to the next generation.
Retirement for athletes can be a very scary thing – many people don’t know how to take that next step. Are there any resources you used that you found helpful?
The Bible. The Bible is the best psychology book and manual for life I’ve ever encountered. Spending lots of time with loved ones is also super helpful.
Anything else you’d like to add or that you think is relevant to add?
Everything is life is ever changing and evolving. The Buddhist philosophy of impermanence can seem scary but it really doesn’t have to be when viewed with a proper perspective. It’s a beautiful part of life that everything is dynamic. The “dynamicness” of life is what creates new sunrises and sunsets, death and new life, and the idea that we are all inter-connected in this beautiful cycle of life. Retirement is just one aspect of impermanence that doesn’t has to be painful or bad if we sit back and observe it, acknowledge it, get curious by it, and accept it as a beautiful aspect of what it means to be human.