The sub-4 minute mile is one of the holy grails of distance running. Breaking the elusive barrier, once thought to be humanly impossible, notches your name amongst the greats of the sport, from Roger Bannister in 1954 to Matthew Centrowitz today.
A dozen or two college and post-collegiate runners smash the barrier each year. If the last few seasons are any indication, some high schoolers may sneak under 4 minutes too. But one runner’s quest for sub-4 holds different gravitas.
During the early minutes of January 1, 2022 at the Armory in New York City, New Zealander Nick Willis narrowly missed running under 4 minutes for the mile for the 20th consecutive year, clocking 4:00.22. Tracksmith documented the race on its website. (Willis is an athlete experience manager for the brand.) While he missed the mark on New Year’s Day, he will continue to chase the barrier this year. If he does break it, it will be the longest sub-4 streak in track and field history.
The streak began on February 8, 2003 in South Bend, Indiana. Willis, then just 19 years old, clocked 3:58.15 for fourth in a field that produced world-leading indoor times. All this occurred just a month before his training partner and high school phenom Hobbs Kessler was even born.
That college kid is now 38 years old. After two decades, a lot has happened. He won Olympic medals and set New Zealand national records. He married and had two children. But some things stayed the same—he’s still chasing sub-4-minute miles.
Just how has Willis been able to maintain such a long and fruitful running career? The two-time Olympic medalist shared his wisdom with Runner’s World, so you too can learn how to enjoy a lengthy running career.
Allow yourself to recover
It’s tempting to keep pushing when training is going well. But overdoing it can lead to burnout, or worse—injury.
Willis earned his first Olympic medal in the 1500-meter in 2008 as a 25-year-old. The young athlete was full of confidence going into the following seasons. However, injury after injury—culminating in knee surgery in 2010—hampered his attempts at another world medal.
Willis returned to form in 2012, setting an Oceania continent record of 3:30.35. But despite the success, he nearly finished last in the 2012 1500-meter Olympic final, citing burnout.
Willis learned to embrace recovery. He takes an off-day every Monday after his hard 18- to 20-mile Sunday long run. He pays close attention to his heart rate, using it as a benchmark for health. If it’s too high, he says, “It means my body’s fighting an infection or that I had really bad sleep. Obviously my body needs to recover, so I reconsider running that day. If I have symptoms of a Molly Seidel Ready for Her First Boston, then I’ll use my pulse as a gauge for when it's appropriate for me to get back into running again.”
At Willis’s current age, recovery is even more important. He doesn’t put any volume expectations on recovery runs and is lax on weekly mileage. He relies on an age-old running adage: “Make the hard days hard and the easy days easier.”
Willis likens getting sick or injured to having a scab. If you keep picking at it, it’s going to take longer to heal. Runners tend to try to massage, stretch, or test out injuries, which can prolong or aggravate them. But if you allow them to heal, the scab will fall off on its own.
Utilize time away
Willis reached his peak career achievements between 2014 and 2016. He ran his personal bests of 3:49.83 for the mile and 3:29.66 for the 1500-meter in 2014. He earned an Olympic bronze medal in 2016. He now credits those difficult years struggling with injury for prolonging his career.
Many of his injuries were so severe that he wasn’t allowed to run at all. So he utilized those periods of time—sometimes three to four months long—to take emotional breaks from competition. Once he healed up, he found he was much more appreciative of running and excited for racing.
“Most of us who run a lot, it’s a huge part of our day, our week, and our year,” Willis says. “To lose that is really hard.”
He encourages anyone taking forced time off—whether due to injury, mental health, or sickness—to allow yourself to grieve. Take a week to 10 days to go through the stages of grief, then try to accept your situation. Afterwards, it’ll be easier to focus on other elements of your life. Eventually, when you run again, you’ll enjoy it that much more.
Be the athlete you are now
In the years following his 2016 Olympic bronze medal, Willis struggled to accept that he wasn’t the same athlete he used to be. He was already 33 in Rio, older than many of his rivals in that 1500-meter race. With every year that passed, he became more and more frustrated.
“I wasn’t willing to allow the goalposts to move,” he says. “I thought I had to live up to these perfect standards, and if I didn’t, I was just disappointed the whole time.” It wasn’t until 2020—when COVID-19 cancellations forced him to take a yearlong break from racing—that he was able to reflect on his current state of fitness.
Willis encourages anyone going through a similar rut—regardless of competitive level—to set goals for the athlete you are now, not the one you once were.
“Still challenge yourself, but do it relative to your ability, not other people’s,” he says. “Then we can really feel that jubilation and joy that we first discovered when we got into the sport.”
Surround yourself with a community
Willis contributes much of his success to the people around him. He lives near his alma mater of Michigan, which leaves him with no shortage of elite distance runners to train with.
“I’ve always trained with people who are 20 to 27 years of age, primarily,” he says. “They haven’t changed because that's always just all of the students in town, undergrad or graduate or postgraduate. It’s kept things fun and energetic.”
Not everyone has access to elite training partners, but most runners have access to Best Jogging Strollers. Having just one training partner can make a world of difference for getting out the door.
Besides training partners, there’s another support system that contributes to running community—family. On top of his training schedule, Willis is a husband and father of two. Instead of separating the two worlds, Willis brings them together. His wife helps coach him, so she’s there through every step of his training journey. His children come to practice and hang out with the training group afterward, who act as role models to the seven-year-old and three-year-old boys.
Run for the enjoyment of it
Leading up to his New Year’s Eve sub-4 attempt, Willis allowed himself to have some fun while being athletic.
This past autumn, Willis and his track club played in a recreational basketball league. He found that it activated the sprint speed he normally doesn’t touch until mid-winter.
As long as you avoid unnecessary injury, you can still be a good runner while participating in other sports or athletic activities. It might even improve some aspects, whether strength or explosiveness.
Roger Bannister in 1954 he does plan to be a little more loose with his running. “I've always done it from such a serious standpoint,” he says. “Even as a freshman in college I was so dialed in, like a professional athlete with my mentality.” He might even race a new distance this season for fun, such as the 200- or 400-meter dash.
So rest assured, Willis isn’t going anywhere. Just don’t expect to see him at every elite-level meet. “I’ve learned through wisdom over the years to realize that running is not the be-all and end-all. So when you can’t do it, make the most of it. But when you can, always really enjoy it.”