What It Takes to Run a Sub-Four-Minute Mile for 20 Years Straight
Two-time Olympic medalist Nick Willis credits his longevity to residing in a college town. And not doing too many vomit-inducing workouts.
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Last weekend, while competing in the Wanamaker Mile event at the Millrose Games in New York City, 38-year-old Nick Willis extended his own record by running a sub-four-minute mile for the 20th consecutive year. Willis, who on New Year’s Eve missed breaking the four-minute barrier on the same track by a mere .23 seconds, once again made things interesting. His split at the halfway mark was 1:59.99. Three-quarters of the way through the race, he was almost a full second off pace. Over the final 400 meters, however, Willis was able to summon just enough closing speed to make it home in 3:59.73. Afterwards, on his Instagram account, Willis posted a photo of the moment he crossed the finish line, his face contorted in a maniacal grimace. It was, Willis wrote, “the hardest sub-4 I’ve ever run.”
Even in a sport that abounds with older athletes doing remarkable things, Willis’s feat stands out. At the elite level, the mile is a young runner’s event; top end speed is essential. In the 1,500-meters—the more frequently contested “metric mile”—Olympic champions are typically in their twenties. (Last year’s gold medalist in Tokyo, Jakob Ingebrigsten of Norway, was 20 on race day.) Although he is perhaps no longer in a place where he can contend for a podium finish among the fastest milers in the world, Willis’s streak is a testament not only to his longevity, but also to a kind of courage. He could have set his sights on pursuing an obscure ultra record. Instead, he has chosen to remain in the ring, or, rather, on the oval, where there’s no hiding from the clock.
Since 2020, Willis has had a full-time job managing events and sports marketing for the running apparel brand Tracksmith. A graduate of the University of Michigan, he still resides in Ann Arbor with his wife and their two children and continues to train with coaching legend Ron Warhurst. I spoke to Willis about how he has maintained the physical and mental conditioning to stay so fast for so long.
Outside: When it comes to your training, what’s one thing that you have changed as you’ve gotten older and what’s one thing that has stayed consistent?
Willis: I think the answer actually combines those two questions. The temptation is to follow your normal patterns, but life gets in the way as you get older and you can’t maintain that same consistency in your training. So what I’ve changed is that I have to be much more intentional in my training. I think intentionality is the key for a lot of older runners—making sure that you don’t become too far removed from the higher intensity stuff: The hill sprints. The weight room. The track strides in spikes. If you go four or five months without doing any of that stuff it becomes harder and harder to return to it. When you are young, you’re playing pickup football on the beach with your friends and you are generally just exposing your body to some of those movements where agility is required. But as we get older and are spending more hours sitting at a desk, our bodies just aren’t using those muscle groups in the same way anymore. So the key is just to keep your body exposed to different movement patterns. The fact that I have had my training groups based around my coach Ron Warhurst in a college town all of these years means that there have always been people for me to run with who, after a long run, might put on their spikes and do some strides or sprints on the track. And so I’ve always kept that pattern going because I’ve had that social outlet and been exposed to that environment for longer than a lot of other athletes have.
From what I’ve read about your training, you do more tempo work and other longer stuff than is typical for elite-level middle distance runners and fewer high-intensity track sessions. Is that true?
I do the extremely high-intensity stuff frequently, which is more like training for a 400-meter runner. Like, 80- and 100-meter sprints. I’ve always done that since I arrived in Michigan 20 years ago. But I don’t do interval training, or haven’t done it nearly to the same frequency as most of my peers in the sport. The typical middle-distance training stuff, which has you leaning over a trash can after a workout. I’ve traditionally relied on the Arthur Lydiard approach of getting your engine as strong as possible by doing lots of mileage over varied terrain and doing sprint training to keep my fast-twitch fibers activated. During the last phase of training I’ll bring speed and strength together with the grindy, middle-distance type work. That stuff, the intervals, is what’s hard to maintain for a long time, mentally as well as physically, year after year.
When you say “that stuff,” you mean traditional repeats like 16×400?
Definitely. The stuff that has you leaning over the trash can. It’s hard to keep yourself motivated to keep doing that.
What about your diet? Has that changed as you’ve gotten older? There’s that cliché that high-mileage runners, but especially younger runners, can eat whatever they want because they burn so many calories.
I don’t know how much I really believe that age is a factor there. Your metabolism is such a small part of the equation of: calories in, calories out. Basically, I eat whatever I want within reason. If I eat poorly for too many days in a row, I feel depressed anyway, so I have a natural calibrator on that. I have a governor on my weight. I tend to fluctuate between an eight- or nine-pound range. When I hit the end of that range on either end, I’ll make an adjustment. But otherwise, I’m pretty care-free, although I probably eat way too many white foods. My standard diet is: Cereal for breakfast. A peanut butter sandwich for lunch. Pizza for dinner.
Are you sentimental about the mile as a distance in any particular way? After all, the four-minute barrier is a threshold that, more than 60 years after Roger Bannister first did it, has retained its luster.
I honestly believe the main reason why the mile has sustained its status in America compared to all the other countries is because nearly every single person you’ll ever talk to, they’ll know what their mile time is because in grade school you’ll be asked to do a timed mile run. So everyone has a reference point. And that’s a big deal in sports. Everyone knows whether the can dunk a basketball. Or touch the backboard. Or touch the net. So when you watch the best guys in the world getting above the rim, you marvel at it. But I have no idea about the skill required to shoot a puck at a hockey net because I’ve never held an ice hockey stick before.
There’s an interesting line in a recent profile on you from GQ where you say that in the most important races of your career you felt less pressure because you knew that you “hadn’t sacrificed everything for that moment.” Can you elaborate on that?
One of the things that people don’t tend to see in high-level sports, especially in my sport, is that, for the two or three people you might see celebrating after a successful race, there are a whole lot of athletes who are really down and out. On the bus ride back to the hotel, they’ll be contemplating their future and it can be a really somber moment for a lot of athletes. They might be wondering: “Man, what have I been doing with my life the last couple of years? I’ve got to get on with things.” I feel really fortunate with the choices my wife and I have made. Even after a bad race, I didn’t have any regrets about the commitments that I’d made to my sport. I’ve made small sacrifices—like not eating certain foods at certain times of the year, or not playing pickup basketball—but I haven’t sacrificed time with my family or my career aspirations.
How much of that do you attribute to a sense of financial stability? After all, you were quite successful as a pro runner, but it can be a financially hazardous career.
I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have had long-term support from, first Reebok, whom I was with for eight years, and then Adidas, whom I was with for seven. But there was also a one-and-a-half year period between those contracts where I didn’t have any guaranteed support. But I always felt secure in the fact that I was fortunate to have gotten a good degree from the University of Michigan and I was confident in my connections and alumni base at my university that I always had a healthy fallback option. Being a professional athlete was my job, but if there was ever a time when I felt like I wouldn’t be able to support my family, then I would have had no problem making decisions to prioritize taking care of them first.
In recent years, you’ve started playing pickup basketball and skateboarding. Those are sports which most professional track athletes are likely to avoid because there’s a relatively high risk of injury. Does it feel liberating to be able to do that stuff?
I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve been able to keep running during the 19th and 20th years of this mile streak. If I were exclusively running, I don’t think I’d have the same willingness to make the little sacrifices anymore. I’ve been really enjoying basketball, even though my skill level is far from adequate. My fitness is my number one asset on the court; I seem to score a lot more points in the second half. Part of what I really enjoyed about skateboarding the first year that I got back into it, was that I loved the element of risk that I hadn’t been able to experience when I was a professional athlete. The risk of injury actually made it more exciting. Running is a very rewarding sport. Extremely gratifying; it’s really the ultimate exercise in delayed gratification. But, let’s be honest. It’s not an exhilarating or fun sport in the moment. It’s about the reward that comes with the pursuit and the result afterwards.
Right. Because running is never going to be “fun” the way that basketball is fun.
And that’s why I think kids shouldn’t really get into serious distance running until they are adults. Because kids don’t usually have the same ability to appreciate delayed gratification. They need a reward immediately to be able to enjoy a sport and they’ll hate running if they get into it too seriously at too young an age.
You’ve said that, when you first became aware of your mile streak, you weren’t too excited by it. You didn’t feel the same sense of pride that you felt when reflecting on your best performances on the track. But over time, there was a shift in your perspective. Can you explain that?
The reason why I value my top performances so much is because I know that I got 99.99 percent out of my physical ability at the time. That’s a unique feeling: to know that there is nothing more I could have done. I cannot say that about the last two years. I’ve had a lot of other things going on in my life. But in some ways that’s the beauty of it: knowing that I got, say, 80 percent out of myself, whereas most 38-year-olds probably only get 50 percent out of their physical ability because they can’t make compromises to other areas of their life. So, to get 80 percent out of myself as a 38-year-old with a lot of other responsibilities is still quite an achievement. My ultimate challenge, once my running career is over, is whether there will still be another point in my life where I can say I got 99.99 percent out of myself again.