Nick Willis: how he brings his A game to big races

One of the great things about social media is the insights you can get from top competitors that have embraced this ever evolving communications channel. Twitter in particular is rife with some pretty handy information if you know who to follow.

Serial major championship performer and Beijing Olympic Silver Medalist at 1500m, Nick Willis is one runner that has been tweeting some of his build-up to the London Olympics. Why is this interesting? Well I’m pretty hungry for knowledge on the area of tapering athletes for important races and learning more about some key workouts used to sharpen up and/or maintain the right level of fitness leading up to and during competition.

There are many comprehensive training programs out there that can show you how to train an athlete to a very high level of fitness, but there’s less information available about what to do as those important races draw closer. Do you back off volume and intensity or maintain the rage while dropping mileage and keeping any quality work short and sharp?

Willis races Kiprop, Riseley and Webb at the 2011 Melbourne Track Classic

To my way of thinking keeping up intensity and speed, while reducing volume and planning some good lead up races with plenty of recovery to freshen up seems to be a good mix. This is something I’ve talked to my coaching partner Mark Gorski about a lot, it’s great to be able to pick his brains on the kind of approaches that he found did and probably more importantly didn’t work over his racing career and what he’s used successfully coaching some handy runners in recent years.

As a pretty speedy 1500m man in his heyday it was no surprise that it was Mark who alerted me to Willis’ tweeting after a tough mile hit out at the recent Diamond League Meeting in London. This is where we can begin to see what Nick Willis and veteran coach Ron Warhurst have been planning and doing in the final weeks before the Olympics.

Willis’ approach is really about doing the simple things really well.

Mark has summed up Willis’ preparation as being based on a reliable formula that has been used time and again by many successful coaches and athletes. The interesting thing is that what he’s been doing isn’t a bunch of complicated sessions and weird work-outs. Here’s where I can let Willis’ generous tweeting tell the story of how the last few weeks have unfolded.

15 July 2012: Tune up racing as a training stimulus London Diamond League Mile

Front running a 3.53 mile, while surging as much as 40m ahead of the pack, but ultimately getting run down and relegated to 4th placing in the last 100m probably doesn’t sound like ideal preparation. But it’s a good way to test your limits by delving into the discomfort zone and then hanging on for dear life. You can see Nick Willis tiring badly towards the end, but he doesn’t completely fall apart and hangs on pretty well to hold off some big name competition, including fellow Olympic Medalist Bernard Lagat.

So what was the point of it? Searching out those limits or touching the wall as I’ve heard Mark describe it a few times is about as good a training stimulus you can get. Provided adequate recovery is allowed to let the body take on board such harsh treatment, it’s likely to respond well in coming races.

17 July 2012: Low intensity tempo run combined with speed work

So after a day that was either rest or easy running, Willis was back in the saddle with a 3 mile tempo and some 200s. Not an easy training session for regular runners such as me, but not a tough work-out for an elite 1500m runner.

21 July 2012: Monaco Diamond League 1500m

After three easy days of recovery Willis smashes his personal best time and the Oceania area record by running 3.30 in the 1500m behind Olympic 1500m Gold Medalist Asbel Kiprop’s outstanding world leading time of 3.28. Sitting back in the pack, as he’d tweeted must have felt easy as Willis came from 6th or more back in the final 100m to claim third in a very fast time.

22 July 2012: Keep the long runs ticking over to maintain fitness

After some easy days and no doubt lesser volume there’s no resting on his laurels for Willis as he rolls the legs over for 90 minutes and takes on board some treatment to aid recovery. Can’t say I fancy ice cold stream therapy myself!

26 July 2012: The death march workout

This is a classic and searching session and exactly the kind of thing I’ve been adding to the memory banks and repertoire. Interesting to note Willis reports no other hard training before hand, so this session is to be done fresh and fully recovered. Only 900m of hard running in this workout, but it sounds tough enough. I wonder if Willis made that video in the end? It would make for interesting viewing!

Personally I want to check to see if he got his arms pumping enough to satisfy Coach Ronnie or did he have to give Willis a famous Warhurst earful?

Anyone with other classic sessions to share that can be used ahead of big races, please throw in a comment at the end of this article: maybe something suitable for a 5 or 10k for the less rapid runners out there?

Mark is convinced this “death march” session has a special name – if anyone knows what it is, please leave a comment below.

30 July 2012: Easy does it tempo run and controlled reps

If running 3 miles in 15 minutes is easy, well it’s all relative people! When you can run 5k in the 13s I guess it wouldn’t be that taxing to ease around three miles in one quarter of an hour. The reps done here are not flat out, nor is there much volume, so the session is unlikely to cause much damage or fatigue in days following to keep things fresh.

31 July 2012: Keeping the legs turning over

Some easy 200s to keep the Willis wheels turning over, pretty close to just doing a few strides really.

1 August 2012: Rest day

Dropping in a rest day a couple of days out from the heats of the 1500m isn’t a bad idea and shows a lot of confidence that he’s done all the work necessary to perform well. No last minute hard running here, resting up for the multiple rounds of 1500m ahead is smart and disciplined, but I’d wager he’ll be bouncing off the walls by tomorrow!


So will all this great preparation from Nick Willis deliver another medal? Only time will tell, there’s always going to be some luck involved in racing well at this level, but you’d think he’s given himself every chance of bringing his A game when it counts.

This snap-shot of the last phase of what really is years worth of planning and hard work is the final sharpening of the pencil. Two weeks of tweets aren’t a silver bullet, but do illustrate one way of ensuring that all that hard work isn’t wasted.

It seems to have left Willis fresh, fast and brimming full of confidence following a recent personal record – not a bad way to kick off a major championship. I’m looking forward to seeing how he goes; based on past performances I suspect he’ll be there in good position when the whips are cracking.

Here’s Willis talking about his build-up and expectations courtesy of Runner’s Tribe

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So Nick Willis did make the 1500m final in London, success by most people’s standards. However when you’re expectations are to win a medal, perhaps even the big one a middling place in the final can seem like failure. Despite all the great preparation sometimes things just don’t click on the day, understanding why takes time and perhaps you’ll never know.
Here’s some reflection from the Willis camp that contemplates these issues.
While acceptance and the ability to move on is necessary, so is analysis, you don’t learn anything new without it. Perhaps Nick Willis will learn more from this perceived failure than from his Beijing success.

Tweets by Nick Willis, Words and images by

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4 Responses to Nick Willis: how he brings his A game to big races

  1. Adrian August 10, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

    What happened to Nick in the final? I was predicting a gold medal for him based on his performance in the semi – he cruised through.

    • Brian August 10, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

      If only I knew Adrian, there was a lot of money headed in his direction for the win. Did everything right in the lead up, heat and semi. He said afterwards that he might not have recovered well from the rounds and that he was feeling tired after the first lap, but wasn’t sure why. So no one really knows, not even Nick Willis.

  2. Robert Bodily August 3, 2012 at 6:34 am #

    Great post! Those are some incredible insights. I’m training for a marathon right now and I occasionally get discouraged and don’t want to keep running, but motivation is pumping through my veins now! Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Brian August 3, 2012 at 7:10 am #

      Thanks Robert, yes it’s great to get some insights from these top runners, find out how the pros do it, but anyone can follow this kind of thinking leading up to important races.