When you think of race training plans, more than likely the name Hal Higdon will come to mind. Just Google "race training", "marathon training plan", "race training schedule", etc., and Hal's name will appear, usually at the top of the list. You may also know Hal from his prolific writing about running both in magazine articles and in books. Hal has contributed articles to Runner's World longer than any other writer. His first Runner's World article appeared in the magazine's second edition in 1966! I have many, many years' worth of Runner's World, but sorry Hal, I was only 1-year-old in '66.
Hal's not only an expert on running and race training, he's also an excellent athlete. He ran in eight Olympic trials and has won four World Masters Championships. He's also one of the founding members of the RRCA (Road Runners Club of America). Another thing you may not know about Hal is that he's a painter of Pop Art . He was an art major at Carleton College.
Recently I had the honor of interviewing Hal. Read on to learn more about this icon of the running world.
RD: Hal, thousands of runners across the country and world for that matter know of Hal Higdon the coach and trainer, but Hal Higdon the person isn’t as familiar to us. Share with us a little about your background. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Family?
Hal: I grew up on the south side of Chicago. My father was the editor of a trade magazine, my mother a housewife. In grade school, I was interested in art more than writing, my goal to someday write and draw a comic strip similar to Terry and the Pirates, drawn by my hero, Milton Caniff. In sports, I did the same things most boys did. I played baseball and football, but didn’t have the size or skill for success in those sports. During the summer, I swam a lot—not just hanging out at the beach, but some of my friends and I used to go for long distance swims of a mile or more in Lake Michigan. Also biked a lot, because that’s how we got places. No running, but I also walked a lot because parents in that era didn’t haul their kids around from activity to activity in SUVs.
RD: How long has running been a part of your life? Did you grow up in a sports oriented family?
Hal: I went out for track my sophomore year in high school and had some initial success, running 5:04.3 for the mile and placing 4th in our conference, but I skipped sports my junior year, then ran halfheartedly as a senior because I had so many other interests. I was an only child and my parents weren’t athletic, because parents were not athletic in those days. Nobody jogged. It was not an acceptable activity for anyone over the age of 17, I only began to recognize my potential when I went away to Carleton College and went out for cross-country.
RD: Most runners know about your prolific non-fiction writing which has mostly been about running. I believe you’ve published 35 books as well as many magazine articles. Marathon: the Ultimate Training Guide alone has sold over a quarter-million copies. But, I bet most runners will be surprised to learn that you’ve written a children’s fiction book too—The Horse That Played Center Field. It was even made into an animated film, if I recall correctly. And now you’ve written a fiction novel for adults titled Marathon. Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World even said, "With all of the training books on the market, someone finally has written a novel that captures the essence of the marathon." That had me hooked! Tell us a little about the book and how this book came to be.
Hal: Having studied English Literature in college, I suppose I always had the desire to write the Great American Novel. But fiction is a tough sell in today’s bo ok market. I sold several non-fiction books to publishers with only a 1- or 2-page query letter. For fiction, they want you to write eight-tenths of a novel before offering a contract, and usually it is a small contract. Nevertheless, I thought it might be fun to some day write a novel, and even had a couple of false starts. But more the problem, I didn’t have a subject that engaged me enough to make me want to set aside a half dozen years to work on one project. Finally, I found one: the 72 hours leading up to a major marathon. Also, I had accumulated enough knowledge about the subject over the years that writing Marathon was fun to get a lot of what I knew on paper.
RD: Many famous running personalities came to running either by stumbling into it or they discovered it was a great way to overcome some kind of adversity in their lives. What got you into running?
Hal: I was good at it. I won races. I earned letters. It impressed my high school girlfriend (she admitted later) that she was dating an athlete, even one who was not the starting quarterback on the football team. It brought a certain stability to my life and—although I did not realize it at the time—running led me away from negative activities like smoking and drinking. (Drugs were less a problem back when I was in school.) In many ways, I fell into running and enjoyed the feeling.
RD: What do you enjoy most about running? Is it the mental? Physical? Both?
Hal: As a freelance writer, I worked only 10 seconds from where I lived. It would be possible for me to spend much of my life never getting out of the house. Running allows me at least an hour a day to do just that. While running, I also can allow my mind to spin free. I have come up with ideas for articles and books while running.
RD: What other sports or activities do you enjoy either participating in or being a spectator of?
Hal: I probably spend as much time on a bike now as I do running. This is because my wife Rose and I have gotten into the habit of biking to nearby coffee shops three or four days a week. I also work out in a gym and, while down in Florida during the winter, swim (and run) in a lap pool. Spectator? Mainstream American sports bore me. Sitting in front of a TV set and watching four hours of baseball is like Purgatory. The same for NFL football or NBA basketball. But I did watch several of the World Cup soccer games and I love to come back from my morning bicycle rides and watch at least the last 10-20 kilometers of each Tour de France stage.
RD: Do you have a favorite training food? Pre-run? During-the-run? Post-run?
Hal: I don’t have favorite foods. I have good nutritional habits and believe in the Gold Standard of 55% carbohydrates, 30% fats and 15% protein. I follow the motto: “Eat a wide variety of lightly processed foods.” One of our favorite restaurants in Michigan City, Indiana where I live is a restaurant named Sahara that features a Mediterranean cuisine.
RD: Are you a lone runner or do you run with some buddies? What do you like about each?
Hal: Most of my career, I have been a solo runner, because of convenience. It’s easy just to head out the door and run, and when I was doing double workouts and averaging 100 miles a week, none of the neighbors wanted to get out of bed at 6:00 AM and join me. Yet I enjoyed getting together on weekends with friends to run in the Indiana Dunes State Park. Lately, I run so slowly, I can’t keep up with even the slowest runners, so I am content to run alone.
RD: I think it’s extremely important for runners to do strength (resistance) training especially for the upper-body and core. I’m a big advocate of functional multi-joint training that will increase strength, stability, and flexibility. I know from your books that you advocate similar thinking as long as the runner backs off the strength training as the miles begin to accumulate during marathon training. What are some of the key strength training exercises that you recommend runners do?
Hal: I suggest that runners simply go into the gym and play. They might want to start by getting a guided tour from a personal trainer, but find machines that are fun to use, where they don’t have to strain to look tough or match the weight that the guy (or gal) in front of you was lifting. I favor dumbbells, because they are easy to use and you can use them in a variety of motions. At home I have a couple of used Tide jugs that work as substitute dumbbells.
RD: I agree with you 100% on the use of dumbbells. They're much more functional and enable runners to do multi-joint exercises and because you're not locked into a fixed machine you're able get more full range of motion increasing stability, balance, and flexibility, as well as muscle strength and muscle endurance. I love the Tide jug idea!
RD: Several different approaches to running and running technique have been surfacing in recent years. Chi running, minimalist shoes, and barefoot running have become very popular with many runners. What is your take on these new approaches?
Hal: Barefoot running and the entire minimalist shoe movement is the Dr. Atkins approach to footwear. I say this even though I have been running barefoot for more than a half a century and have even set national records running barefoot on all-weather tracks. I do it on beaches and on golf courses, but never on the roads. I succeed because I have good biomechanics, but most runners have average biomechanics and can injure themselves if they suddenly go minimalist. There is some value to doing some barefoot running on forgiving surfaces, but for most people well designed shoes remain the way to go.
RD: Some fairly new training methods advocate less running, but more specific intense running combined with cross-training. F.I.R.S.T. is such a plan that has runners running only three days a week (intervals, tempo, long) and then two days of cross-training. How do you feel about these lesser-mileage plans?
Hal: We’re not on video, so you can’t see me shrugging. Ho hum. Everyone has to come up with something new to justify their existence. I probably have 60 different programs for races between 5-K and the marathon at all levels—novice, intermediate, advanced—and some of those programs feature three days of running and some feature cross-training and all go from less mileage to more mileage. I feel that runners need to start easy with a program that doesn’t extend themselves too much in the early weeks and months, then eventually figure out what works for their own particular interests and lifestyles.
RD: What’s the funniest or oddest thing that’s happened to you while on a run or on a running-related assignment?
Hal: It’s not funny or odd, but I continue to be amazed by the number of strangers who pick me out of a crowd and tell me they used one of my marathon training programs.
RD: What’s the worst running-related injury you’ve had? How did you get it?
Hal: During the last day of the 10-day, 350-mile Trans Indiana Run, which went from one end of the state to the other, I felt something pop in my leg. It was a stress fracture, though not a serious one. I finished the run with some pain, but after several weeks I was back running again. I have good biomechanics. I train smart. I rarely get injured.
RD: You’ve run over 100 marathons. Do you have a favorite race you run each year?
Hal: Certainly no favorite marathons. Since moving to Florida (winters) I have come to enjoy doing the Gate River Run (15-K) every year. I was a bit undertrained this year and only ran the 5-K, but I’ll be back. A couple of races that I usually run each year are Steve’s Run in Dowagiac, MI (10-K) and the Turkey Trot in Niles, MI (10-K). I don’t race that much anymore, and when I do I don’t take the race too seriously, preferring to start in the back of the pack.
RD: What do you feel has been your biggest accomplishment related to your career?
Hal: My Novice 1 Marathon Training Plan . I feel it’s the best training plan on the market for newcomers, but one woman who came to my booth at an Expo last fall told me she had used this program for 13 marathons in a row. The simplest thing I can say about Novice 1 is, “It works.” But if you’re talking competition, probably finishing 1st American at Boston in 1964. That plus my four world masters titles.
RD: What words of encouragement would you give to a group of non-runners or runner wannabes who are thinking about or just getting into running?
Hal: I don’t believe in pushing people to run—or even exercise. They need to supply their own motivation. So all I would say to them would be, “Try it.”
RD: What's next for Hal Higdon?
Hal: With the success of my novel, Marathon, I’m wondering now what to do for an encore. I have several plot ideas, but I’m not sure I want to jump too soon again into a multi-plot, multi-character book. My latest project is a book on the sport of cross-country, tentatively titled, Through the Woods. It’s part memoir, part novella. In fact, I’m not even sure which direction the book will take, but that's part of the fun of writing. I hope to have at least a preliminary version available to offer on Kindle by this fall.