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On Following Her Own Advice: A Q&A with Author Ali Nolan

After writing a ridiculously thorough guide on marathon training for women, Nolan is following the process of coming back slowly from her injuries and training for a fall marathon in 2022.

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When Ali Nolan set out to write a marathon guide, she wanted one that she would use; one that left no question marks and told the runners reading it exactly what to do. And that’s what Master the Marathon became. 

Nolan started running in high school, but not by choice. “I hated it. I hated running more than anything,” she says of her past cross-country days. And when she left school she vowed to herself that she’d never run again. 

The flip-side was a lifestyle of drinking and smoking that she calls self-destructive. “I hated that, too,” she says. 

When she was ready to leave that behind she was surprised to be called back to running. “Even though I hated running in high school, it always represented freedom because it was the only time I felt like I could be by myself at that point.” 

That first mile back, though it was a struggle and she remembers coughing through it, changed the trajectory of her life—and her career. She’s gone on to write for Runner’s World, Self, Women’s Health, and now has a book to help women change their life through marathon training. 

We talked to Nolan about what it was like researching and writing the book and how the process helped her own training. 

Women’s Running: What made you decide to put the marathon training knowledge you gained over the years into a book?

Ali Nolan: What I realized after my first marathon is that I used a combination plan. I built a plan using Hal Higdon, of course…The next plan I looked at I was like, sweet, this is for a woman and that just really speaks to me. It’s a little more conservative and I loved that. But when I looked for a book that could tell me exactly what to do as a female, that didn’t really exist. It existed in bits and pieces in like Kara Goucher’s book, there’s a lot of mentality stuff. There were some, but I didn’t really feel like there was a comprehensive guide. And so, I was like, I think other people can really relate to my very average running questions. 

And so I decided I’m just going to do all the research, consult experts because I’m certainly not an expert, and put it all together. So that was kind of the motivation. 

WR: What about the marathon speaks to you, over other distances you could have written about?

AN: Well, the half marathon is my favorite distance to actually run. But there’s just the allure of the marathon. I don’t know if it’s just the storyteller in me, but I love the fact that Pheidippides literally died in the end. I think that the marathon, with Kathrine Switzer and Bobbi Gibb represents so much of the women’s empowerment in the sport of running. We weren’t allowed to run [the marathon] until literally 1972. So first of all, the history.

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Second of all, I just think the distance is uncomfortable. I think half marathons are fun, but you can get through them and not feel like you can’t sit down for days on end. In the marathon, you have to be able to accept pain and you develop your own tenacity through every single cycle. So I think that’s why it always appeals to me and why I always want to run another. It sounds horrible, but it also sounds wonderful at the same time. 

WR: What advice do you have for new runners (and maybe they’re not even runners yet) that are seeing these fall marathons go off and are ready to push the register button and run their first marathon?

AN: First, I would say I’m so excited for them. I’ve been there. I know that feeling. 

My number one piece of advice is to take your training slow. I would say if you’re a new runner, allow yourself a year to build your mileage up to the point of a marathon. And if you are getting frustrated, run/walk is like the absolute best way to build your confidence and build your bones and muscles and tendons. And it’s so easy. Your Garmin watch literally has it. It’s just a matter of, you can do two minutes walking, 30 seconds running, and you can go up to 30 minutes then you can go from there. 

So I think just being slow and being patient with yourself, taking care of yourself in the process.

WR: The pre-base and base building sections in Master the Marathon were all about that. Can you talk a bit more about why you included that.

AN: The first draft I turned into my editor had the pre-base, all the strength, the nutrition, and it wasn’t until the last chapter that I’m like, ‘OK, now you can pick your race.’ And [my editor] was like, ‘That’s no fun.’ But it’s so absolutely necessary. 

I think I categorize beginners as running less than 15 miles per week, which is a big portion of runners. Not many are advanced. And to prevent injury, you have to build up your strength, especially in your hips and in your lower legs. And you’re going to get shin splints. I want to build in that time to back off as well. So yeah, I would say building up your body for sure and then just getting your mind used to running the longer distances too. 

WR: What was your favorite part of the book to write?

AN: I really liked the train your brain sections. I think there’s two chapters in there about mental strength. I talked to sports psychologists and I was really down with what they had to say, both in terms of building that grit to run the marathon and getting into the zone, using imagery to do that. 

But also, and I think this is super important for women, learning to be nice to ourselves. I learned a lot in the process of writing this about not beating ourselves up about the times or running, allowing ourselves to train slow, knowing that it’s going to make us faster in the long run. Not looking at our watch and being like, that’s just not gonna do it and instead reframing that and being like, really positive with ourselves, because ultimately that does make you a better athlete in general.

WR: Has writing the book given you a new perspective on your own training?

AN: I’ve been injured, which sucks. First, I had hamstring injuries, but I rehabbed that really well. I was so excited. And then I did that thing where you go out and run like a billion miles and I got plantar fasciitis, which I’ve had on and off for years. It turned into something chronic, it’s very annoying. It’s just finally starting to feel better. And because I wrote all that stuff about being careful with building your mileage back, that’s really switched.

And then in the process of that—because that wasn’t me before, like I wanted to go out and make sure that I was getting the absolute mileage that I was supposed to. Now if I missed that by two miles, I’m like, that’s OK. That’s what my body could tolerate that week. So that was just being more positive. 

The other thing is the strength training component, because basically every running coach that I talked to for this, when I would ask the same question like, ‘What is your number one advice for women?’, and they would all say that like most women runners need to ramp up their strength training game. So I put in all of those very basic strength movements because they’re easy and they actually help. So I’ve been doing that. I have to follow my own advice, I have to get stronger. That’s been a huge one for me. 

WR: Have you noticed any improvements in your strength yet?

AN: I feel like when I’m running my legs feel better. My arms, which I’m really working on, with planks and pushups—that’s really hard for me still. And lots of core stuff. I think that is actually really helping with the biomechanics that caused some injuries before, because I’m really feeling less pain when I’m running. I’m going to attribute that to the strength. 

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WR: Are you currently training for anything?

AN: I can tell you my game plan on running big distances. On Halloween I’m running a spooky 5K. That’s exciting. I’m planning to train through winter (it’s actually pretty nice in Utah to train) and running a spring half. I’m not sure which one it’s going to be yet. Somebody recommended one in Denver and I don’t know about the high altitude. I’d like to go lower and really fast. I’m hoping in May I’ll do that. And then I will do a maintenance plan and start training for a full next fall. Fingers crossed. That’s what the plan is. I’m taking recommendations for which races. 

WR: What do you hope women who read this book take away from it?

AN: I really hope that women feel like they can take on the marathon, but also that they can take on the world afterward. And that’s another reason why I love the marathon is because I really feel like you get that empowered feeling. But I really hope women just realize how powerful and capable they are. Even if they use this book and they get to a half marathon, I’m totally cool about that. I hope that they’re like, ‘Wow I’m so strong.’ I hope they’re inspired and motivated and also find joy in their running.