How to Train to Run Fast for Decades
Key workouts and training strategies that helped Nick Willis run a sub-4:00 mile 19 years in a row, Steve Spence sub-5:00 for 43 years, and Harry Nolan sub-6:00 for 57 years.
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There are fast milers who break records, win gold medals, and collect big prize money. Then there are milers who stay fast for a really long time. This second group accumulates little but the admiration of their fellow runners. We applaud the mental and physical toughness they display in bucking the tyranny of time.
Nick Willis, Steve Spence, and Harry Nolan belong to both groups, but primarily to the second, having run fast miles every year for multiple decades. Willis has run a sub-4:00 mile for 19 years in a row (and counting). Spence achieved a sub-5:00 for 43 straight years, and Nolan ran sub-6:00 for 57 consecutive years. All three are believed to be world-best streaks in the mile.
Nick Willis: 19 years sub-4:00
Willis’s latest sub-4:00 occurred just a few weeks ago when he ran a 3:58:63 on Jan. 19 in Clermont, Fla. Previously he shared the record with his countryman John Walker, who also achieved 18 straight years sub-4:00 from 1973 through 1990.
In his long career, Willis, now 37, has raced to a personal best of 3:49:83, and collected Olympic 1500-meter medals in 2008 (silver) and 2016 (bronze). He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., and works as an athlete experience manager for Tracksmith.
First sub-4:00 mile: Feb 8th, 2003.
Most recent sub-4:00: Jan. 19, 2021.
Go-to workout for a fast mile: In sharpening for the mile, Willis likes a workout that begins with a 3 mile warmup and 2 miles at tempo pace. On a track, he then runs 6 x 300 at his current 800 pace with long 4-minute recoveries. The session finishes with a 600 at 800 pace. “With the long recoveries, this workout provides a good test of speed,” he says. “I also maintain leg speed by doing 10-second hill sprints year-around. ‘Use it or lose it’ is the motto I follow for speed.
How Willis builds speed-endurance: Willis does a warmup, 4 miles at tempo pace, and 6 x 600 meters with 90-second recoveries. He starts the 600s at 3K pace and finishes them at a little-faster-than-mile pace. “This tells me I can handle the grind of the middle laps in the mile, and finish with a good kick,” he says.
Weekly mileage and long runs: Willis doesn’t worry much about his total weekly mileage, but is a big believer in going longer than normal once a week. He also aims to log at least 55 minutes of continuous running on his recovery days. “I normally run anywhere from 60 to 90 miles a week,” he says. It all depends on time of year and upcoming races.
Cross-training: Willis believes in the benefits of gym work, but admits that he doesn’t do “as much as I probably should.” It seems he’s having too much fun snowboarding and skateboarding with his two sons. These activities have provided an unexpected boost to his fitness. “They keep my body exposed to lots of different stimuli and stress,” he notes. “As long as I don’t crash off my skateboard, it keeps me agile, nimble, and better balanced. I think it has kept me more healthy for running.”
Maintaining motivation through the years: “I love running on trails, and with friends,” Willis says. “It’s not easy for me to share about real-life challenges when I’m sitting across from someone at a coffee shop, but my friends and I can open up to each other on a run.” He additionally credits his wife, coaches, and physical therapists with being “more invested in my success than I am at times.”
His two sons (the oldest is 7) also motivate Willis, as he wants to “model” the importance of hard work and good sportsmanship to both. “I’ve been finishing at the back of races the last couple of years,” he observes. “I want them to see that you can still love something, and be proud of your performance even when you aren’t winning.”
Coming up next: “Hey, 20 straight years is so close,” Willis says. “It seems like it would be a crime not to try for a nice round number.” Still, it won’t come easy. There’s the Olympics this summer to gear up for — not to mention the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding COVID. And if the Olympics do happen, a post-Olympic lull is almost inevitable. “Injuries are an obvious potential obstacle,” Willis notes. “If I face any setbacks, will I be willing to claw my way back?”
Steve Spence: 43 years sub-5:00
Steve Spence is a marathoner, not a miler. He has a marathon PR of 2:12:17 (1990) and won the bronze medal in the 1991 Tokyo World Championships Marathon. His daughter, Neely Spence-Gracey is an elite marathoner, too, with a best of 2:34:55.
Nonetheless, Spence started as a miler, like so many others, and won the state of Pennsylvania high school 1600-meter title in 1980 with a 4:12. Five years later he ran 3:59 in a downhill road mile in York, Penn. Still, in the mile world, he’s best known for his streak of 43 straight years breaking 5:00 at the distance. Now 58, Spence is a coach at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Penn.
First sub-5:00: Fall of 1976.
Most recent sub-5:00: January 12, 2018
Go-to workout for a fast mile: Spence considers it important to focus on his leg speed for three weeks before a sub-5 mile attempt. He has had success with a workout that consists of 4 x 200, 6 x 400, and 4 x 200. He runs the first 200s in 35 seconds, with a 200 jog-recovery; the 400s in 72 seconds with a 400 recovery; and the final set of 200s in 35/34/33/32 with a 200 recovery. “This session makes the leg turnover at 5:00 pace seem fairly comfortable,” he says.
Building speed-endurance: Spence often did a 12 x 300-meter workout to build his late-race endurance. He’d aim for 51–52 seconds per repeat (equivalent to about 68–70 seconds per 400), and take a 100-meter walk-recovery. As the workout progressed, he could feel the muscle lactate setting in a little earlier in each repeat. “This workout helped me build enough tolerance to make it through the third lap, and get to the point where I could smell the finish line,” he says.
He believes that anyone who wants to run fast miles or hard-sustained distances has to include lactate training workouts of one kind or another. He likes 60-second hill repeats with an easy jog down to the start point between repeats. “These accomplish the lactate-adaptation goal without the stress of doing fast track intervals,” he says.”
Weekly mileage and long runs: Early in his career as an elite marathoner, Spence of course ran up to and beyond 100 miles per week. In more recent times, when he was training to get ready for another annual sub-5:00 mile, he’d run about 40 to 50 miles a week with a long run in the 10-11 mile range.
Cross training: Spence says he has done strength work in the gym, plyometrics, and sometimes simple body-weight exercises in addition to his run training. “I feel that the supplemental work is very important,” he notes. He’s also a fan of core work, running drills, and riding his Elliptigo.
Maintaining motivation through the years: “I like to run, I like to feel fit and healthy, and I like to challenge myself,” says Spence. A college coach since his mid-30s, he thinks it’s important to be a positive role model in addition to an expert advisor. “I’m fortunate to be in a college environment,” he says, “and also to have a home environment where healthy lifestyle choices are valued.”
Coming up next: “I hope I’m wrong but I think my sub-5:00 days are behind me,” says Spence. For the past several months, he’s been running 5 to 7 miles every other day at about 7:30 pace with strides and strength work “but no workouts.” On Jan. 27, he decided to test his fitness with a mile time trial on the Shippensburg outdoor track. He ran 5:46, which at least gave him 46 straight years sub-6. “It was windy and cold, but the effort was more challenging than I had expected,” he reports.
Harry Nolan: 57 years sub-6:00
New Jersey’s Harry Nolan holds the record for the most consecutive years running the mile in less than 6:00 minutes: 57 years in a row. He has also run a marathon way back when in 2:22, and covered roughly 145,000 miles in his long running career.
Since turning 40, Nolan has mainly concentrated on track racing over distances from 800 meters to 5000 meters. In 1988, at 41, he ran 1:59, 4:15, and 14:59. At age 59, he was still breaking 5:00 in the mile. Nolan has also won many national age-group titles. Now 73, he looks forward to racing the 2022 World Masters Championships in the 75–79 age group.
First sub-6:00 mile: Spring, 1963 — 4:56 as a high school sophomore.
Most recent sub-6:00: Jan., 2019 — 5:57
Go-to workout for a fast mile: Like Spence, Nolan begins to concentrate on an upcoming mile race just a few weeks before he runs it. The rest of the year, he includes a mix of endurance and speed, but not necessarily at his targeted one-mile pace. In the several weeks before a mile, he likes to do all of the following:
Workout 1) warmup, then 1000 meters hard plus 6 x 500;
Workout 2) warmup, then 8 to 10 x 300; and
Workout 3) warmup, then 600 hard, 2 x 400 and 2 x 300.
He aims to cover all intervals at slightly faster than goal mile pace.
Building speed endurance: Nolan finds that 1000-meter repeats are the key to building speed-endurance. He’ll do 4 x 1000, plus several 400s and 300s. “The 1000s pay off in the third-quarter of the mile, which is always the hardest,” he notes. “I try to get comfortable with the first two and a half laps, then gut it out the last 600.”
When all else fails, he reverts to 8 to 10 x 400 — the “old high school workout,” as he terms it.
Weekly mileage: Nolan hasn’t let his age decrease his weekly training mileage. He’s still doing 50 to 60 miles a week. “You need to build endurance and strength in order to handle the tough track workouts a miler needs,” he says. “Weekly mileage is very important.”
Cross Training: Nolan has a full set of strength-training equipment in his basement, but he doesn’t use it — or at least not very much. Instead he does lots of lifting-related chores on his small farm. “I’ve built four barns and outbuildings in the last 30 years, which required a lot of lifting and moving wood, and working with cement.” He’ll take a 10-mile bike ride every once in a while, but deems it “more recreational than actual training.”
Maintaining motivation through the years: Nolan seems to regard this as an almost nonsensical question. Motivation? It’s barely a part of his vocabulary. “Everyone has some place that they especially like to be, maybe on the golf course or the beach or in a sports bar,” he observes. “For me, nothing is better than working out on a track or racing in a track meet.”
Coming up next: Nolan had triple bypass heart surgery in the summer of 2019, and his race times have slowed since then. However, he’s fit and training essentially as he always has. “I’m not sure I will ever break six minutes again,” he acknowledges, “but I keep training with the hope of getting back down into that range.”
Next up: The World Masters Track & Field Championships of 2022. He’ll be in a new age-group then, 75-79. “I hope to be competitive in my division,” he says.