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Nick Willis’ advice for young runners

Willis encourages young runners to develop interests outside of running

Nick Willis is a two-time Olympic medallist with a personal best of 3:29.66 in the 1,500m. Willis has had a long, impressive career–and he reflected upon how he got there in a letter to his younger self.


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He writes, “I can see, Nick, that you are not always 100 per cent focused on running. You skip the odd training session, preferring to hang out with your mates playing basketball, touch rugby and cricket. You do feel guilt when not training but listen very carefully to what I am about to say: please don’t feel so guilty.”

He continues, “In the bigger picture, the fact that you’re not always fully focused on athletics at your age is irrelevant. You are a late developer and will experience a big growth spurt at the age of 16 and 17, so training hard in your younger years–when the body is most prone to injury–would have potentially damaging consequences.”

OFSAA 2019. Photo: Maxine Gravina

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Willis points to a something that many young runners can lose track of–that there’s plenty of time to get serious about running.

The European Journal of Sports Science looked at the workout programmes of elite distance runners during their first seven years of training. Researchers found no evidence that starting a structured training programme at a younger age was beneficial. For example, they found that world-class Kenyan runners began what they referred to as deliberate practice (DP) at age 18, the international-class Europeans started at 16 and the national-class European runners at 13. Deliberate practice in the context of this study meant the weekly inclusion of high-intensity training sessions. In their study, the runners who start deliberate practice later in their careers ultimately achieved the stronger results.

Willis’ personal experience echoes this principle, that developing yourself as a person and overall athlete can pay dividends when eventually choosing to compete at an elite level.

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Willis is set to race the Kalakaua Merrie Mile this weekend in Hawaii.