Nick Willis heads for the hills
New Zealand middle distance runner Nick Willis has bowed to science at last by embarking on the first altitude training stint of his career.
Willis has just begun a five-week training phase in the hills of New Mexico, hopeful it can lift his middle-distance running career to another plateau ahead of the 2012 London Olympics.
Having defied conventional thinking until now by training exclusively at sea level, Olympic 1500m silver medallist Willis admitted it was time to put a self-confessed stubborn streak to one side, along with the tradition of spending Christmas at home in Wellington.
He believes a stint in Alberquerque, at nearly 2000m altitude through the heart of the United States winter will have the sort of benefits he had previously chosen to shun, partly because altitude training can have negative repercussions if not done properly.
"In the past I've had success without it, so it was a 'I don't need it' sort of deal. I'm a big believer in having balance in life and it never seemed to be the right time to do it," Willis said today.
Hip and knee operations at altitude in Vail, Colorado over the past 18 months brought him in contact with scientists who repeatedly told him what could be achieved by the sort of specialised training widely credited for the phenomenal talent of African athletes.
A final "selling point" came in June when physiologists at the US Olympic training centre pointed out how much Willis was running against the grain of modern athletics.
"They said I was the only athlete in the last two Olympics, in a distant event, to win a medal without training at altitude," he said.
"And there have only been few in the last 40 years. Maybe John Walker might be another one.
"So it was something I wanted to start exploring and if I was going to try it, I wanted to do it the year before the Olympics as opposed to 2012."
Willis, 27, hasn't competed since his 1500m bronze medal run at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi two months ago. It capped a quiet year spent largely recovering from injury.
He was spending his first days at Alberquerque training lightly alongside wife Sierra to allow the body to adjust before increasing his workload under the eye of long-time coach Ron Warhurst.
"You've got to do a lot more gradual training, what my coach calls the 'tooth grind', where it hurts but you can stick at it for a long time as opposed to the really ball-busting sessions I might do on a track."
The benefits - his body should have adapted to carrying more oxygen in the blood - may be seen as soon he returns for two weeks' training at sea level in Michigan ahead of his first race of the season, in Boston on February 5.
However, he will reserve judgement on the merits of altitude training until after a second stint in March/April and, ultimately, his performance at August's world championships in Daegu, Korea.