Series07 Jul 2014

Work, rest and play – Nick Willis


Distance runner Nick Willis of New Zealand (© Getty Images)

Nick Willis, the 2008 Olympic 1500m silver medallist, is among the world's best middle-distance runners.

The 31-year-old has been in the form of his life this year, setting PBs for the mile indoors (3:53.02) and out (3:49.83) and the 5000m (13:20.33), as well as breaking the New Zealand 3000m record with 7:36.91 at the IAAF World Challenge meeting in Ostrava.

The US-based runner is expected to be part of the Asia-Pacific team at this year’s IAAF Continental Cup later this year. Here he offers a glimpse into his life by answering our work, rest and play questions.


What is your favourite training session?

Nick Willis: I prefer hill reps to training on the track. A favourite workout of mine is a 3 x nine minute loop I do close to my locality. The first 800m is flat, which I run at a tempo pace, and the last 1000m is uphill. I love that because I can go as hard as I like on the hill and reach a point of complete exhaustion, but then the next day you feel good again because I am not pounding my legs as to the same extent (as running on a flat track).

What is your least favourite session?

NW: I hate running 400s on the track. Mentally, running a full lap in training is really hard. Growing up in Lower Hutt (in New Zealand) it was always so windy we would always prefer to run 200m or 300m reps. Even a 600m rep is easier because in my mind I can split it into two 300m reps.

What are your three favourite things about being an athlete?

NW: I enjoy being my own boss, which allows me the flexibility to schedule my training around the rest of my life. Second, athletics has given me the opportunity to travel the world and see some amazing places. Coming from New Zealand you can get a little bit of island fever and I’ve been extremely blessed to see much of the world at someone else’s expense. My third favourite thing has been the opportunity to really experience getting 100 per cent out of myself as a runner. That is so difficult to achieve in many other facets of life.

Do you have an all-time favourite training venue?

NW: Wanaka in New Zealand. The trails are perfect. There are incredible views and there is also no running track.


Do you have a favourite place to relax?

NW: The golf course. As a runner, there are so many sporting activities I can't do because they pose too great a risk of injury. Golf is my one outlet to test myself and be competitive without worrying about my performance as a runner.

Describe your perfect non-training day.

NW: I would have my son (Lachlan, born in July 2013) sleep in and I would sneak out and play a round of golf in about 90 minutes. If I have a cart, I can play golf pretty quickly. Then I'd return home and enjoy the rest of the day hanging out with family and friends.

If you could name one athlete in the world with whom to relax, who would it be?

NW: By brother, Steve (a now retired sub-four-minute miler). We can be competitive, hang out on the golf course, spend time with our families and then go fishing.

What is your all-time favourite movie?

NW: It is always a toss-up between The Empire Strikes Back or The Return of the King. I appreciate the darker side to The Empire Strikes Back compared to Star Wars, which adds a bit more tension to the movie.

Describe your perfect meal and drink with which to relax.

NW: Really good Italian pizza with sparkling water and a side of olives. I love Italian food.


When did your passion for basketball begin?

NW: The basketball card craze came to New Zealand when I was seven or eight years old. I think back then I was spending all my pocket money on basketball cards. It was around the time of the US “Dream Team” at the Barcelona Olympics. I think that is when the NBA really took off to a global audience. Back then the Chicago Bulls were at their peak and I remember playing basketball every day.

Do you ever play today?

NW: I don't play competitively. I've had two knee surgeries, so making lateral movements is probably not the wisest choice. I do go out to the basketball court two or three times a week to shoot. One day last year I was quite unmotivated to go for a run so I went for a 60-minute run with my basketball and ran to many of the basketball courts around town (in Ann Arbor, Michigan). I did an Allen Iverson (the now retired former NBA player) because as I recall there is a video of him running through the streets of Philadelphia with a basketball.  

Do you have an all-time favourite team?

NW: The Detroit Pistons, except they are having a tough time of it at the moment, so it is pretty hard to support them.

Are there any transferable skills between athletics and basketball?

NW: I remember playing basketball every lunchtime at high school and it was a fantastic complement to training. It was like I was training twice a day (one running sessions plus one basketball session) without realising it. Playing basketball really helped my agility and plyometric skills and helped my explosiveness – something that middle-distance runners sometimes lack.

Which track and field athlete would make the best basketball player?

NW: My guess is David Oliver. I have no idea whether he has the skills, but from what I've learned from my time living in America is that pretty much every kid knows the basics of basketball.  He's also got the biggest shoulders in track and field. I'm sure he could get some rebounds.

Steve Landells for the IAAF