The Simple Training Shift That Made Molly Seidel a Marathoner
As the Olympic bronze medalist prepares to run the New York City Marathon, here's an insider look at Seidel’s training strategy and workouts that led to her marathon success.
Two years ago, Molly Seidel not only wasn’t on a path to becoming a world-class marathoner, she hadn’t even raced a half marathon yet. Back then, she had been hampered by injuries, was still focused on racing 10,000 meters on the track, and hadn’t even considered running in the Olympic marathon trials.
“It’s kind of funny, because at that point of my career, I was wondering if I was going to be doing this much longer,” she says. “I just hadn’t gotten much going, and I was struggling with injuries. I really didn’t know where I was headed.”
Today, as she approaches the 2021 New York City Marathon, the 27-year-old Flagstaff, Arizona-based runner has three strong marathons under her belt and, of course, a shiny Olympic bronze medal to her credit. No matter how fast she runs through the five boroughs on November 7, she’s clearly found her groove as a marathoner. And it all stems from a transformation in her approach to training.
Seidel’s dramatic evolution as a runner over the past two years can be traced to a somewhat simple shift in training philosophy that led to her emergence as a marathoner. In a nutshell, Seidel, with the help of coach Jonathan Green, has found success by focusing more on higher mileage and less on workout intensity.
“She was handling the mileage, but the intensity was bogging her down fatigue-wise,” Green says. Seidel is the type of runner who can race at a higher intensity level than she runs in her workouts. “That’s just what works for her. Once we started working together, we focused on mileage and, through lower intensity, we built her aerobic base and gave her a chance to run consistently.”
Before the shift, Seidel, who won four NCAA titles at Notre Dame, had turned pro but achieved only modest success while battling injuries, born in part, from disordered eating and struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder that led to bouts of depression and anxiety. Compounding Seidel’s lack of development was her training that had been focused on moderate mileage and higher intensity workouts while training with middle-distance runners on a regular basis.
When Seidel started training with Green in late 2019, he first put her on a new training regimen that pushed her weekly mileage from about 80 to 100 miles per week into the 110-115 range during the early winter of 2019-2020. The increase in volume was offset with less intensity. If in doubt, they erred on the conservative side when it came to harder workouts — mostly threshold work by way of long tempo runs, slower fartlek workouts, and long repeats at half marathon race pace. As her fitness blossomed, so, too, did her confidence.
At the time, Seidel was battling an ongoing hip injury so they were taking things month by month and weren’t really considering the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon as a goal race. Instead, they were focused on getting her ready to run the 10,000 at the track trials the following June.
Still, Seidel got fit enough under the new approach to crank out a solid, 1:09:35 effort at the Houston Half Marathon in mid-January, which qualified her for the marathon trials on February 29 in Atlanta. Even before that race, though, the change in training had helped her become healthier and happier than she had been in years. Emerging alongside a new level of fitness was the conviction and courage that made Seidel such a dominant runner in high school and college.
The rest is history, as she famously finished second (2:27:31) to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that would compete in the Tokyo Olympics. Her breakthrough quickly changed her focus to the marathon as her distance of choice and rekindled her competitive zest.
“I think more than anything, over the course of my professional career it’s been about figuring out what works for me than trying to fit it into any context of what I think another runner should do,” Seidel says. “And changing to more mileage-based training before adding intensity from tempos and threshold pace — and frankly never touching VO2 max pace — is what really works better for me.”
The Long Buildup to the Olympics
Even after her Atlanta breakthrough, however, Green admits Seidel was a work in progress. But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world and the Olympics were put on hold. As it turns out, the break was a perfect opportunity for Seidel to continue her progression and get stronger by building her mileage up to about 125 miles per week.
Without knowing when races would return, they made sure she stayed healthy and consistent, only gently adding in workouts with intensity during the truncated eight-week build-up to the 2020 London Marathon. The formula worked well again, as she placed sixth in a new PB of 2:25:13.
Turning to her buildup for the Olympics, Seidel continued to up her weekly mileage (to about 135 miles per week) and ever-so-carefully adding more intensity. But the intensity was continued to come from training at threshold pace and avoiding VO2 max efforts favored by many runners.
One of her most notable workouts during that training block was a hard, 5-mile tempo run she did in Portland, Oregon, just before starting a 10,000-meter race on the track. In the race, she clocked 32:02 and helped friend Makenna Myler qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials. With the slight gap between the tempo run and the 10,000 meter race, she wound up logging about 11 miles between 5:25 and 5:10 pace.
Two weeks later, she ran about the same pace (32:13) on a hilly road course while finishing fifth at the NY Mini 10K.
Green says he knew Seidel was in prime form heading into the Olympics but thought that might mean finishing anywhere from fifth to 20th depending on how the race played out. As it turned out, even his most optimistic prediction underestimated her by two places.
“We knew she was in far better shape than her 2:25 PB showed, and she was ready to mix it up,” Green says. “At the end of the day, Molly loves championship racing and racing in general. We knew that if everything fell into place that she was going to have a good day there. When it comes to race strategy and trusting her race intuition, she’s really smart about those aspects, and that obviously worked out well for her in Sapporo.”
To New York City and Beyond
Seidel and Green have taken a team approach to figuring out what works for her, and their success so far has been predicated on their close friendship, honest, open communication, and a knack for keeping things light. They both want to optimize her training for each race, but they also have longer-term goals that include the Paris Olympics in 2024.
Seidel’s post-Olympics build-up to the New York City Marathon has included peak weeks in the 120- to 130-mile range, a handful of threshold workouts and a rust-buster race effort at the Great North Run half marathon in England (7th, 1:11:55). Having two months to build up to a Marathon Major was definitely not enough — and there were “a few hiccups” along the way — but it was focused mostly on following what has worked over the past two years.
“We don’t always know what the right answer is, but it’s been fun to figure it out and learn,” Seidel says. “Every marathon build, we’ve gotten a little bit more experience, a little knowledge into what we can expect or what might work. And it seems like we’ve been doing something right.”
Key Workouts in Molly Seidel’s Training
Long Runs with Intensity
Green is known to have Seidel mix in some workout intensity into her long runs, depending on the week and the workout schedule. It not only provides more of a race-oriented spark to long runs, it’s also a convenient way to schedule the intensity into a training week given that the easy miles of a long run would still create muscular fatigue and necessitate recovery.
An example would be 8 to 12 miles around marathon race pace surrounded by a gradual warmup for 3 miles and a long and slow cool-down effort of about 3 miles, giving her 14 to 18 miles total. Those middle miles aren’t strictly pace work, they might be slightly slower or faster than goal pace, depending on if she’s training at altitude, where she is in her training cycle, and how fatigued she is.
Another variation has her running the middle 10 miles alternating 1K efforts over and under marathon pace (between 3:35 and 3:20-3:25 for 16K). Combined with a warm-up and cool-down, that winds up being a total of 16 zesty miles.
“That’s a pretty common thing we do and it’s pretty easy for her to do with other runners that are in Flagstaff,” Green says. “It’s a good way to group a long run effort and harder stimuli into one day.”
Mile Repeats at Threshold
One of her most common workouts during her build-up for the Olympic marathon (and again during her recent preparation for the New York City Marathon), starts with running an 8 x 1-mile threshold workout in the morning on the roads in Flagstaff (elevation 7,000 feet). Then in the afternoon, she’ll drive 45 minutes down to Sedona (elevation 4,350 feet) and do a similar, or slightly faster, workout on the track.
It’s a lot of volume, Green says, but it isn’t too much because the pace is controlled, starting near marathon pace down to a bit faster than half marathon pace (for Seidel, progressing from 5:25 to 5:17 per mile with 60 seconds rest in between.)
Seidel also does a variety of mile repeat workouts in singular sessions (or sometimes 4 x 2 miles). The key isn’t the number of reps, but running smoothly and keeping the effort below lactate threshold.