Harry Wilson was most known as the coach of world record holder and gold medalist, but he also coached other notable British runners.  Before we get into the core of his training beliefs, looking at some of the extra stuff he had his athletes do is needed.  Wilson seems to have placed some emphasis on running technique, or form, and making it as efficient as possible.  In his book, Running My Way, he shows pictures of what he considers good form, and also suggests doing different exercises to help alleviate inefficiencies in the runners form.  These include doing hill runs to improve leg strength.  The hills ranged from steep grass or sand hills of 60-100m, or long 300-500m hills.  For the short hills he recommends 8-10 reps with a slow walk down rest period.  For the longer reps, he suggests 6-8 reps with a quick jog down.  In addition to hills used for strengthening legs, Wilson also suggested strong stomach and back muscles, stretching and some arm exercises.  These include push ups, sit ups, squat thrusts, and various light weight arm exercises.  Other form drills suggested are sprint drills such as bounding, high knee lifts and quick stepping.  Now on to the training of his runners.

Wilson’s training ideas included a very long, 24 week, base period where aerobic development was stressed.  During this period aerobic runs were done that were either easy (recovery), medium, or fast “steady-state” runs.  By looking at other sources, it can be seen that easy steady-state runs were done at 7minute pace, medium paced aerobic runs were probably done at 5:45-6min pace, and hard aerobic efforts done at around 5:20-5:30 pace.  These paces are based on 5mi and 10mi runs recorded by one of Ovett’s training partner (35min for 5mi, 58/60min for 10mi, 52-55min for 10mi).  Wilson divides the 24 week period into 4 or 5 week periods.  Wilson divides the training for aerobic running into categories of easy, medium, and high aerobic levels. The first 4 weeks, 100% of the training is low level, the next 4 weeks 95% is low level and 5% med/high level, the next 5 weeks is 80% low level and 20% med/high level.  After this the next 4 weeks is 75% low level and 25% med/high level.  Then a reduced load week is included and then another increase occurs in intensity the last 6 weeks with 70% being low/medium level and 30% high level aerobic.  In addition to steady state runs, aerobic repeats with short recovery are used.  These include repeats of 6x1000m w/ 30-60sec rest, or 4x2000m w/ 1-2min recovery jogs.  No times are given for these repeats, but it is suggested that the pulse rate be kept at around 150-160bpm during the interval at the start of the base period.  As the period progresses, the pulse is allowed to raise 15 beats above this level for higher end aerobic running.  In addition to this aerobic training during the base period, a small amount of anaerobic training and pure speed is done.  This is done to “keep the fast-twitch muscle fitness ticking” and to “remind your body of the other energy process.”  The mileage during this period for a runner such as Steve Ovett was reported to run an average of 100mpw with a high of 120.  In addition to this, Wilson recommends one recuperation day per week which consists of an easy relaxed run.

To give you an idea of this training during the “Endurance” or Base Phase, a typical early week for a 1,500m runner running twice per day, would consist of two medium-steady-state runs, two fast steady-state runs, and the rest easy steady state runs.  A middle week would consist of two longer aerobic repeats, one fast steady run, two medium steady runs, and the rest easy runs with 30min of sprint drills and 15min of mobility exercises included.  A later week towards the end of this phase would consist of two days of long repeats, one medium steady run, one progressive run (8km steady, 1mi easy, 1mi fast), one day of 8x400m with 300m jog at a pace 4 or so seconds slower than mile pace, and sprint and mobility drills.  In addition to this cross country races are sometimes raced during this phase.

The next phase of Wilson’s training is the pre-competition phase.  This period lasts 13 weeks and is broken into cycles of 3 weeks, 3 weeks, 1 recuperation week, 3 weeks, and 3 more weeks.  Broken down in percentage of what to focus on for a 1,500m runner it looks like this:


Type of training 3 weeks 3 weeks 1 week 3 weeks 3 weeks
Endurance 70% 65% Recuperation week 60% 54%
Intervals and Fartlek 20% 25% 15% 12%
Speedwork 5% 5% 5% 5%
Strength & mobility 5% 5% 5% 5%
Repetition 0 0 15% 12%
Race Practice 0 0 0 12%

Now to define what Wilson means by these terms.  The basis of many of these training stimuli was to improve oxygen debt tolerance according to Wilson.  Interval training was a variation on Reindell and  Gerschlers original interval training in that the heart rate was stressed to 180 bpm and then during the  recovery returned to 120bpm, then the stress repeated.  Wilson is big on progressing these workouts  as your fitness improved.  This could be done by decreasing rest, increasing pace, increasing the number  run, or increasing the distance run.  Some examples given of this type of training for a 3:42 1,500m runner  is 8x400m in 62 with 200m jog, , 6x500m hill with jog down, or 12x200m with 200m jog.  In addition to these workouts sometimes ladder workouts such as 3×800, 4×400, 5×200 and set workouts such as 3x 5x400m with 200 jog and 400m jog between sets.  Besides regular intervals, Wilson used what he considered high intensity intervals too.  These were described as “sets of small numbers of very fast repetitions with only a short recovery between the fast runs, but a significantly longer recovery between sets.”

An example of this might be a couple sets of 4×400 in 58/60 with 30sec rest between intervals  and 4/5 minutes between set.  Another variation of intervals is relaxed intervals.  This is when you  run a set of intervals but try and run them as smooth as you can without pressing.  An example of  this might be 8×300 in 42 when you could press and run these all in 40-41. This is often used in  between races to get benefits of interval training while working on running a fast pace as relaxed as  possible without tension.

Repetition training is another form of training used by Wilson. It is defined as running repetitions  over a given distance at a high quality and with more rest than interval running.  The pace should be at or faster than race pace.  An example of this type of training would be 3-4x800m in 2 minutes with a 4 minute recovery, or 2x2000m at 5k pace with 5 minute recovery.  Wilson uses this during the late pre-competition period and during the early competition period.  Race Practice sessions is a type of interval training where you practice what could occur in a race, such as surges or going out fast.

Wilson further classifies them into different interval types where the pace is either slowed or sped or varied throughout.  These include Split intervals (3x400m w/ first 200m slower than pace, 2nd 200m faster), tired surges (400m faster than race-pace, 100m jog, 100m sprint), pace injectors (600m broken up into 200m at race pace, 200m at 2/3sec faster than race pace, and 200m at race pace), and pace increases (600’s increasing pace by 2sec every 200m).  Strength and mobility has already been talked about in the beginning and include drills, push ups, sit ups, etc. Speed work includes short sprints such as 3x60m accelerations and variations on these, including 60m split up into acceleration and striding among the three 20m sections (ex: 20m fast, 20m stride, 20m fast).  In addition to this short hills can be included into this.

The next period of training was called the Track competition phase.  The main work has already been doing leading up to this period and the main purpose was to race and maintain fitness between these races.  As Wilson put it “your training should be sufficiently comprehensive to maintain all the various aspects of fitness, yet not so severe that it takes away the freshness that is needed to produce good race results.”  Also, he suggests that there is no need to continue trying to set workout PR’s during this time.

Wilson gives samples of two week cycles between main distance races.  These cycles include two relaxed intervals, one race practice session, and a repetition session in the 14 day period.  In addition to these main workouts, easy and steady runs are done, as are strides and some sprint and mobility drills.

Looking at Wilson’s training from a Modern Perspective

The first thing I noticed was the heavy emphasis on aerobic development. His athletes spent 24 weeks with the emphasis being on developing the aerobic system.  In cases like Ovett’s, the mileage was also at a pretty high level.  Besides just pure mileage, there were variations on the distance run and the speed run for normal runs.  The intensity ranged from easy aerobic runs to high end aerobic runs.  The fast steady-state runs were no doubt walking on aerobic threshold and lactate threshold depending on the length of it.  In addition to this, the aerobic intervals, such as 6x1000m with 30sec rest, is a classic example of Lactate Threshold intervals.  So as you can see, the training does an excelent job of working on the entire spectrum of the aerobic system, from low quality aerobic runs to working on the lactate threshold with higher quality threshold runs or threshold intervals.  Besides aerobic development, mobility and sprint drills were used too.  Spring drills included either short hill sprints, 60m accelerations, or bounding and high knee drills.  Doing this type of work during the endurance, or base, phase shows that you can not neglect a certain system for an extended period of time.  Even while the aerobic system was emphasized, these short sprints worked on the neuromuscular system, including the creatine-phosphate energy system.  Later in the period a small amount of faster repeats are called for on the track, to keep the anaerobic system in check.  This doesn’t seem like the gut renching anaerobic stuff that will later come, but more of an introduction to and transition to anaerobic training.  Again, this emphasizes Wilson’s belief that you can never get to far away from one energy system.  All of them need to be worked throughout, but you emphasize different ones at different times of the year.  One interesting thing to note, is that there is a lack of the traditional long run in Wilson’s training.

After a lengthy endurance phase, Wilson’s training progresses into a 12 week cycle where harder workouts take center stage.  Endurance work is still done throughout, but it doesn’t take the main emphasis.  It looks as though endurance workouts become more low and medium steady-state runs, so that the medium runs serve the purpose of maintening the aerobic system, and the low intensity runs serve the purpose of recovering between harder workouts.  It also should be said that the aerobic intervals, that work on the lactate threshold, are still done throughout this period.  This continuing to work on the Lactate threshold ensures that the anaerobic work does not lower, or take away from, the lactate threshold which occurs if too much anaerobic work is done with not enough support from LT work.  There’s not a lot of what we’d call aerobic capacity workouts in Wilson’s training for a 1,500m runner.  In looking at his 5k/10k training more of that is present because it is race specific.  In later stages, the aerobic intervals could be considered a form of aerobic capacity, or VO2 training, as he says that you can raise the pulse from the 150/160 range to the 175 range at times.  This would seem to work the aerobic capacity, but it’s not clear.  Also, fartlek’s migh have been a form of aerobic capacity training for the 1,500m runner.  The main part of his training during this period was the regular intervals.  These appear to be your classic anaerobic intervals of 200+ meters in length.  I would term these as lactate tolerance workouts as they are run at about mile pace with relatively short rest.  In addition to this type of anaerobic training, repetitions are done.  These are longer efforts at race pace, or faster than race pace efforts that are more intense then regular intervals, thus requiering more rest.  These are just like what I called in the training section Anaerobic Capacity workouts.  It’s interesting to see that Wilson also includes pace changing workouts that may help in the athletes ability to kick, start out fast, or surge during races.  In addition to these types of anaerobic training, speed work, or sprint work, was included throughout.  Further showing the importance of continually working on the neuromuscluar system.  It also should be noted that long hills were included periodically in the training for strength.

After this period, Wilson’s athlete would go into the track competition phase.  During this phase racing was the emphasis and the goal was to maintain or slightly increase fitness.  In his book, he said that some of his athletes would like to be 90% fit coming into this phase and the final 10% was come from racing it self.  Anyways, during this time, the key is to maintain what you have spent the past 36 weeks building up.  For this reason, relaxed intervals are used as a kind of anaerobic maintenance workout.  They are run fast and hard, but not to your maximum.  This does the job of keeping you in touch with your anaerobic system without taxing it to the extreme.  Also, once every two weeks a repetition workout is done.  This serves a similar purpose as a “blowout” workout that I described in the training section.  It’s an intense anaerobic workout, but there is plenty of recovery so the emphasis is on running the repeat, not the rest interval.  Besides this, one race practice workout may be done to get a sence of race pace, surging, and different race strategies.  Also, sprint work is still done, only at a reduced load.  The thing to take away from this period of training is that racing is number one, and everything else is done to maintain what you’ve built up.  Wilson’s training does this well as there are some hard but not maximum effort workouts to maintain anaerobic abilities, easy and medium steady state runs to work the aerobic system, and sprint work to work the neuromuscular system.

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from Wilson’s training is that no system is ever neglected.  Throughout the year almost every system, whether it’s aerobic, anaerobic, or neuromuscular, is worked on.  The difference is that a certain one is emphasized more during the different phases of training.  During each phase he works on developing the system to its max and then maintaining it through to the racing period.

Sources: Training My Way by Harry Wilson  and an article in the British Milers Club magazine on training with Steve Ovett

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    1. Keith Pritchard on February 19, 2017 at 5:59 pm

      Steve Ovett was and still is my hero in running,and I am still running age 66.

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