How 6 Coaches Trained Their Runners to Make the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team
The coaches of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team runners are unusually diverse, but they all know how to get a runner in peak marathon shape. Here’s how they did it.
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Last month’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta featured more than the typical number of surprises. The coaches of the podium runners were also unusually diverse, including a 2:09 marathoner, a 25-year-old, and a 77-year-old.
These coaches have at least one thing in common, however: They all know how to get a runner in peak marathon shape. Here’s a look at how they did it.
Ben Rosario, Coach of Aliphine Tuliamuk
Ben Rosario is coach of Marathon Trials winner Aliphine Tuliamuk. Rosario, 40-years-old and a former 2:18 marathoner, heads up the Hoka NAZ Elite team in Flagstaff, AZ (7000’ altitude). The team also includes Trials finishers Stephanie Bruce (6th) and Kellyn Taylor (8th).
From the team’s earliest days in 2014, Rosario’s runners have focused 90 percent on marathon performance, with occasional forays into the longer track distances. “We train to truly race 26.2 miles over the specific course and conditions we’ll face on race day,” notes Rosario.
This means that NAZ Elite runners like Tuliamuk do a lot of long runs, and a lot of running at close to marathon-goal-pace. One Rosario standby: a 24- to 26-mile run “with the majority of those miles at marathon pace.” He notes, nonetheless, that he’s less concerned with total weekly mileage than some other runners and coaches. Instead, he emphasizes “bang for the buck” workouts.
Everything happens for a reason, in the context of other marathon preparations, and is pointed toward the ultimate aim of race-day hardening and simulation. A favorite sharpener: “Assuming you’ve done all the other things that are necessary, it’s tough to beat just going out and running 15–16 miles at marathon effort,” Rosario says.
Jon Green, Coach of Molly Seidel
Jon Green is coach of Marathon Trials second-place finisher Molly Seidel. Green is a 25-year-old Georgetown graduate and Boston-area resident with a 5000-meter best of 13:52. Since Green has never raced a marathon or half-marathon himself, he turned to several friends for advice. These included Brandon Bonsey, who has coached at Georgetown and Syracuse, and Mike Smith, who coached Trials winner Galen Rupp (see below). “They suggested that I shouldn’t have Molly train any faster than 10K pace, because the faster work could wear the body down and require more recovery time, especially when she was pushing her mileage higher,” Green notes.
Since this was Seidel’s first marathon and marathon-buildup, Green concentrated on “keeping her healthy, confident, and enjoying the training.” An acknowledged super-talent with a Footlocker title and four NCAA championship wins on her resume, Seidel has struggled with an eating disorder and several injuries.
Key workouts included “anything around marathon pace or that specifically allowed her to work on tired legs,” says Green. As those efforts became easier and/or the paces grew faster, he explains, “They let her see that her fitness was progressing, which boosted her confidence, and made the training that much more enjoyable.”
Mark Rowland, Coach of Sally Kipyego
Mark Rowland is coach of Trials third-place finisher Sally Kipyego. Rowland, 58, is a former world-class steeplechase runner for Great Britain. He won the bronze medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where he ran 8:07.96, still the British record. He’s the head coach at Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene, OR.
Like Jon Green, Rowland has no background in marathon running or coaching, which he readily admits. “The marathon is another entity from track running, and it took me a while to get a good hold on it, especially the different paces at altitude and sea level,” Rowland says. He has been coaching Kipyego for a decade, including in 2012 when she won the silver medal (for Kenya) in the London Olympic 10,000 meters.
Rowland bases his marathon-training philosophy on a two-step process: First, get in great 10K shape, then spend 12 weeks on specific marathon work. He and Kipyego have developed a go-to marathon workout: a 15-mile run where she alternates 3-mile segments at half-marathon pace and marathon pace. Unlike most other marathon coaches, Rowland never adds up the weekly mileage. “I’ve got the numbers right in front of me,” he says, “but I coach the athlete, not the distance.”
The program follows a very orderly pattern, with key runs on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. This fits Kipyego’s mentality, and also allows her to plan around her family and babysitting duties (she has a nearly 3-year-old daughter, Emma.) Rowland likes to introduce a lot of workout variety into this framework. “We switch things around,” he says, “but keep much of the running within two to three-percent of marathon pace.”
Mike Smith, Coach of Galen Rupp
Mike Smith is the new coach (since last fall) of Trials winner Galen Rupp. Rupp also won the 2016 Marathon Trials in Los Angeles under the guidance of his longtime, recently banned coach Alberto Salazar. Smith, 39 and a former 2:19 marathon runner, is the full-time director of cross country and track and field at Northern Arizona University.
Smith recently did a lengthy interview with Jonathan Gault of LetsRun.com. In it, he talked mainly about how and why he developed a relationship with Rupp, and how he adjusted Rupp’s training. For example, Smith likes fartlek workouts, and Rupp had never done one.
Smith also believes in high-volume, low-rest intervals on the track. Rupp had grown accustomed to running fast 400s to get ready for the vicious final-lap sprints of most major track races. Those 400s required long rests for recovery. Smith introduced him to more moderate 400s, in large quantities (like 24 in a workout), but with short rests. At first, Rupp found these difficult. But he soon adapted, as his smooth running in the Atlanta Marathon Trials proved.
Lee Troop, Coach of Jacob Riley
Lee Troop is coach of Trials runner-up Jacob Riley. Now 47, Troop was a 3-time Olympic marathoner for Australia and has a PR of 2:09:49. Troop and Riley live in Boulder, CO. Since the Trials, Troop has extensively shared his philosophy and Riley’s training, including in this earlier PodiumRunner article.
Like other top Australian marathoners, including Derek Clayton, Rob de Castella, and Steve Moneghetti, Troop has a bare-bones, tough-knuckle approach to the marathon. It doesn’t take a lot of talk and analysis; there’s no reason to over-complicate the training. Just do the work, week in and week out, building toward a race-day peak.
Two times in his Trials buildup, Riley attacked a favorite Troop workout: an 18-mile “progression run” that started at a modest pace, steadily dialed it down every three miles, and finished with the last six miles at close to 5:00 pace. Six weeks before the Trials, Riley completed a three-hour training run, covering more than the marathon distance. This left him plenty of time to recover for his Feb. 29 date with destiny.
Dave Murray, Coach of Abdi Abdirahman
Dave Murray is coach of Trials third-placer Abdi Abdirahman. Murray, 77 and a retired University of Arizona distance coach, is probably the oldest individual to advise a U.S. Olympic marathoner. Of course, Abdi, now 43, is also the oldest U.S. Olympic marathoner ever. This is his fifth Olympic team; he made his first in 2000, missed only in 2016, and has been coached by Murray from the outset. “I’ve known Abdi so long he’s like another son to me,” Murray often says
“My most important idea is that the marathon is an event of strength over speed,” notes Murray. “We’re always building Abdi’s cardiovascular system.” Murray is also a big believer in altitude training, and Abdi generally moves from Tucson to Flagstaff for his summer training. To get ready for the Atlanta Marathon Trials, he relocated to Ethiopia for three months (at close to 9000 feet), staying in touch with Murray by text.
Murray asks Abdi to do “controlled long runs” every three weeks, making sure they don’t turn into race-like efforts. Another key session: tempo runs of 6- to 12-miles at marathon pace. Once again, with an emphasis on “controlled.” For somewhat faster work, Abdi tackles several sets of road repeats of 1000 meters-800 meters-400 meters, with a 60-second jog between repeats. “We always try to keep things under control, and I think that explains why Abdi is still running almost as fast now as in his 20s,” says Murray.