What We Mortals Can Learn From the 4-Minute Mile

The experts said it couldn’t be done

According to legend, experts said for years that the human body was simply not capable of a 4-minute mile.  It wasn’t just dangerous; it was impossible.

Further legends hold that people had tried for over a thousand years to break the barrier, even tying bulls behind them to increase the incentive to do the impossible.

In the 1940’s, the mile record was pushed to 4:01, where it stood for nine years, as runners struggled with the idea that, just maybe, the experts had it right.  Perhaps the human body had reached its limit.

The breakthrough

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier, running the distance in 3:59.4.  As part of his training, he relentlessly visualized the achievement in order to create a sense of certainty in his mind and body.

Barely a year after Bannister’s accomplishment,  someone else ran a mile in under 4 minutes. Then some more runners did. Now, it’s almost routine.  Even strong high-schoolers today run 4-minute miles.  [Note: this used to say “24 people broke the 4-minute mark within a year of Bannister.  This is wrong; see the comments.]

What does this mean for us?

I don’t know about you, but for me, a 4-minute mile is probably not in the cards.  (5 minutes?  Maybe one day.)  That’s not the point.  The point is this: It took a sense of extreme certainty for Roger Bannister to do what was considered un-doable.  He alone was able to create that certainty in himself without seeing any proof that it could be done.

But once he crashed through that barrier, the rest of the world saw that it was possible, and the previous record that had stood for nine years was broken routinely.

New Agers call it the Law of Attraction, scientists call it the RAS

I love this story.  I don’t know how much of it is true; I sense that some of the details have become overblown in an effort to dramatize.  Either way, it doesn’t matter.  I’ve witnessed firsthand what a little certainty can do.

When you become certain of something, when every part of your makeup believes it because you focus on it every single day, something “magical” happens.  Not New Age magical, but science magical.  We have a system in our bodies called the reticular activating system (RAS) that helps our brains decide what information to focus on and what to delete.

When you have a clearly-defined purpose, a mission, and when you live every moment in a state of certainty that you’ll achieve it, you influence what your RAS filters out and what lights it up.  As a result, you pay special attention things that help you achieve what you’re after, things you otherwise would have never noticed.

When I was trying to qualify for Boston, I wrote a post about how certain I had been that I’d do it, as documented by a grad-school application letter I wrote.  There was no reason for this certainty.  But I found it somewhere in myself, and it’s for that reason alone that I eventually did qualify last year.  (You’ve seen the new page about all my best BQ posts, right?)

And now, it’s that way with ultramarathons.  Before I knew that people even ran 100-milers, someone told me that a friend of mine was running them.  I didn’t believe it; I thought something had gotten garbled in the chain of communication.  But I found an ultra group and started training with them, guys and girls who do 50’s and 100’s all the time.  They’re not superhuman; they’re runners like me.  Some faster, some slower.  But now I’m certain.

Later this year I’ll run a 50-miler (the JFK 50-miler is a likely candidate), and I’ll run a 100 after that.  Of this I’m certain.

Where could you use a little certainty?  What would it take, short of proof, to make you believe?

This post is part of a series on motivation for running.  Check out the rest!

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Comments

  1. I think we should be friends! I just qualified for Boston last October (I’m running it next month), and I want to do the JFK 50 miler this year, and one day do a 100 miler. We seem to have very similar goals!

  2. Matt, don’t disagree that Bannister’s breakthrough changed perceptions of what was possible. But just for the record, within a year of his sub-four mile only Landy had joined him in breaking the four-minute barrier (Landy shattered it, going 3:57.9 six weeks after Bannister’s achievement). Thirteen months after Bannister, an additional three runners broke four minutes in one race. Then it was another year before anyone else did so.
    .-= Pete´s last blog ..Race Report: Red Lizard 5-Miler =-.

    • Dammit, then Tony Robbins has misled me! Much as I love the guy, he is prone to hyperbole. I actually tried to verify the number and found it surprisingly hard to get an answer. You seem to know a lot of running history; where do find stats like that?

      In the course of trying to find that, I did find out that it wasn’t really “experts” that said it couldn’t be done; it was more the popular opinion. Those who truly knew running thought it was possible. That’s why I called it a legend.

      Oh well, like you said, the story still has a nice lesson, but it’s certainly a little less powerful.

      • I had always heard the story told similarly to the way you did, Matt. Then last year I read Neal Bascomb’s great book, “The Perfect Mile,” and was surprised to learn that after Bannister went sub-four in May 1954 and Landy broke through in June, it wasn’t until May 1955 that anyone else went under four minutes. This led me to noodling around the Web in search of more comprehensive info. I found a chronological list — but didn’t bookmark it and can’t find it right now! However, I did copy and paste the list up to 1960 into a Word file. Here’s that data:
        6 May 54 Roger Bannister UK 3:59.4
        21 Jun 54 John Landy Aus 3:57.9
        28 May 55 László Tábori Hun 3:59.0
        28 May 55 Chris Chataway UK 3:59.8
        28 May 55 Brian Hewson UK 3:59.8
        5 May 56 Jim Bailey Aus 3:58.6
        1 Jun 56 Ronnie Delany Ire 3:59.0
        1 Jun 56 Gunnar Nielsen Den 3:59.1
        6 Aug 56 Derek Ibbotson UK 3:59.4
        26 Aug 56 István Rózsavölgyi Hun 3:59.0
        23 Mar 57 Merv Lincoln Aus 3:58.9
        1 Jun 57 Don Bowden USA 3:58.7
        19 Jul 57 Stanislav Jungwirth Cze 3:59.1
        19 Jul 57 Ken Wood UK 3:59.3
        19 Jul 57 Dan Waern Swe 3:59.3
        7 Aug 57 Olavi Vuorisalo Fin 3:59.1
        4 Sep 57 Roger Moens Bel 3:58.9
        25 Jan 58 Herb Elliott Aus 3:59.9
        6 Aug 58 Murray Halberg NZ 3:57.5
        6 Aug 58 Albie Thomas Aus 3:58.6
        3 Sep 58 Zbigniew Orywal Pol 3:59.7
        28 May 59 Siegfried Valentin Ger 3:56.5
        .-= Pete´s last blog ..Race Report: Red Lizard 5-Miler =-.

        • Thanks, Pete. You are the source of a wealth of good information about running! It’s amazing that Landy got down below 3:58 almost immediately after Bannister broke 4, and then that record stood for another 4 years.

          Besides the “certainty” thing, is there a good reason why the times steadily improved in that decade? Were there technological improvements, or innovations in training? I can understand why the standards improve over longer time periods; this just seems like such a short time.

          • Consider this: The mile record in 1900 was around 4:15; in 1923, Nurmi ran 4:10.4; by the end of the ’30s the record was down to 4:06.4; and by the end of the ’40s, it was at 4:01.6. Looked at in that context, breaking 4:00—first one man, then a parade of others—was just a step along the way in an inevitable march. The people who study this stuff argue about whether it’s a linear progression or a curved asymptotic progression. Tim Noakes suggests that it’s both—that “the linear part of the curve is hidden in our prehistory before the advent of the stopwatch.” I notice that the current record—Hicham El Guerrouj’s 3:43.13—has stood since July 1999. That’s the longest gap between mile records in nearly 100 years. Have we finally closed in on the limits of human performance?

            But back to the ’50s. Noakes attributes the accelerating gains in performance to the adoption of better training methods after Zatopek showed the way with interval training in the early 1950s. Added factors that might have played a role: a post-war growth in the pool of runners; the psychological component we’ve talked about; and Benzedrine. How influential that last factor might have been is unknown, but of course there was no testing back then, amphetamines were definitely becoming more present in the culture and their possible benefits in athletics were known.

            As for Landy, despite that amazing 3:57.9, his most glorious mile might have been one in which he ran 4:04.2. It was at the 1956 Australian national championships. Here’s how one of the players in the drama, the great Ron Clarke, told the tale in his autobiography:

            “For two and a half laps the crowd watched enthralled. Robbie Morgan-Morris went through the first lap in 59 seconds followed closely by myself, Alec Henderson, John Plummer and the favourite [Landy]. At the half-mile Robbie was still there and the time was 2:02. I loped along behind him, anxious to finish at least among the first three runners and improve my best mile time. Soon after the third lap I took the lead and then on a bend occurred an incident that stunned everybody. … Alec came up on the inside of John. He evidently tried also to wedge his way through between me and the kerb, and in doing so accidentally clipped my heel. I lost balance and went sprawling on to the track while Alec staggered on to the verge of the arena, recovered and ran on. John had no other choice but to jump over me, his spikes lacerating my right arm as he did so. I was in such a daze that I felt no pain. Within seconds the whole field was jumping over me or running wide. Then John did a foolish, but typically thoughtful thing—he came back to say he was sorry and see if I was alright. The mile title, his bid for the world record, even the approaching Olympics… all were forgotten as the champion made his spontaneous gesture to the raw stripling floundering in the cinders.”

            But that’s not the end of the story! As authors Peter Cochrane and Brian Hoepper wrote, “Even more amazing is that Landy did race on. He took off, caught the field in the final lap on the back straight, hauled in the front-runners and won in the remarkable time of 4:04.2.”
            .-= Pete´s last blog ..Race Report: Red Lizard 5-Miler =-.

        • David D says:

          You are listing here the number of times the record was broken. Which is high. Tony Robbins was referencing the number of other athletes who also ran sub 4 minutes (without necessarily breaking the record again) – an even higher number

          • Robins said “24 people broke the 4-minute mark within a year of Bannister.” That is wildly inaccurate. As the list — which is clearly not a mile-record progression list — shows, within a year exactly one man had joined Bannister in the sub-four club and even by 1960 just 20 additional men had gone sub-four. That is to say, even by 1960 we still hadn’t gotten to 24 sub-four milers.

  3. Ah Sir Roger Bannister makes me feel proud to be British ;-)
    .-= Shane´s last blog ..30 day vegetarian challenge update Week 2 =-.

  4. I hope you get to do JFK. It is a fantastic race!
    .-= Devon´s last blog ..The Weekly Muffin: Gluten-Free Apple Cinnamon Granola Muffins =-.

    • Devon, have you run it? I think I’d ideally like to do a race that has more trail and less towpath, but there just aren’t any nearby at times that work for me. But JFK definitely draws crowds and feels more like a marathon than an ultra, so that’s cool.

      • I have run it, this past year. It is an AWESOME race. Sure more trail less towpath (and not 8 miles of road at the end) would be nice, but to have that big of a field, it is what it is. And I really didn’t mind the towpath. Soft enough surface and you get to have your trail fun at the beginning. The AT section is not for the weak-hearted especially when weather is involved. Lots of rocks covered with wet late fall leaves! I think it maintains the best parts of the ultra feel that we all like but has a big race feel too. If you have any more questions or get in and want more specifics, just email me.
        .-= Devon´s last blog ..Restaurant Review: Anchor & Hope =-.

  5. Very cool! Sub 4 minutes….just unbelievable! I agree that the power of certainty is amazing. I could use some certainty in branching out and trying a new career path ;)
    .-= Erica´s last blog ..Fruit Not Fat Blog =-.

  6. Sub 4-minutes?!? That’s completely insane (in a good way!)
    .-= Sarah (Running to Slow Things Down)´s last blog ..Temp[eh] Tantrum =-.

  7. I can’t even imagine running 100, but I have no doubt whatsoever that you will do it!
    .-= meatlessmama´s last blog ..Ode to Reusable Bags =-.

  8. The brain is an amazing thing. I read a story about a POW in the Vietnam war. Every day, he played 18 holes of golf… in his mind.

    When he was released, he had lowered his handicap. I have no doubt you’ll complete the 100. Here’s to you!
    .-= Debbie Lattuga´s last blog ..Running a Marathon | Get Some Training =-.

  9. I need some certainty that I will find a career path that I love. I started a certificate program (2, actually) this year that will hopefully move me in the right direction, but I’m still scared I’m going to need to go back to school for a “real” degree before I can make the change I want. It’s awfully frustrating.
    .-= Kara (@ Kara’s Marathon)´s last blog ..Weekend mini-recap and arms challenge! =-.

  10. Andy Green says:

    Some very interesting stuff in the article. I was in a mile race in 1965 at White City, London when 8 runners beat the 4 minute mile. At that time it was a world record.
    Roger Bannister had a tie especially made for athletes who broke the 4 mins. He sent these out to the runners until he ran out of ties. I wonder how many athletes actually still have them. I know Seb Coe received one- its in his book.

  11. Does Tony use the Roger Bannister example a lot, or did you get that from his video with Frank Kern? If so, isn’t it just one of the greatest? There are several great parts of the video, but my favorite is when he draws that little sketch and talks about how certainty allows you to tap into more potential and the positive momentum you can essentially build from that. Any time I have a friend who seems like they are at a low point in life, I make it a point to send that video to them because it just seems so obviously true to me, even if his 4 min mile example is apparently inaccurate.

    I actually started writing my own article on the topic, but I wanted to do some additional research on the subject. That’s how I stumbled upon your article, which is very well done by the way. I also really like the design of your blog… I promise I won’t copy anything, but I might need to use it as a source of influence when I finally upgrade mine from the default WordPress theme.

  12. Pete walker says:

    My question is out of the world population, approximately how many known people are presently capable of running a four minute mile? I’m guessing one or two hundred, but I can’t find any sources. WikiAnswers says 17, but doesn’t give any sources, & I think that’s way low.

  13. Robin Tracy says:

    What do you mean by “first” ?
    8th May 1770, John Bannister is reported to have run a mile in four minutes – in response to a wager. In those times much athletics was spurred on by wagers.
    We tend to under estimate performances from earlier generations – Use Google to search for “John Bannister” , “1770” and “four minute miles” for these record achievements; reveal some earlier “firsts” – was he running alone and un-paced ? Peter Radford has articles on the subject.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Understanding is a matter of a role. Someone could have a great understanding of gyany things, which others may consider to be “wasteful” due to their CURRENT understanding. The beauty is to wait until the “time is right,” for then all of the sudden, more people will have similar understanding. This phenomenon has happened throughout history. If we believe that running a mile should be done by everyone no faster than in 5 minutes, then we are setting a limit. All organized ideologies have those limits for the organization to survive “unchanged.” Change will only happen when it is extremely necessary and under great pressure. To better understand this phenomenon, I would suggest to read this link: http://www.nomeatathlete.com/4-minute-mile-certainty/ […]

  2. […] The link below is a blog talking about the psychology of the 4 minute mile:  http://www.nomeatathlete.com/4-minute-mile-certainty/ […]

  3. […] For decades in the 19th and 20th century, doctors and scientists made the argument that inevitable biological limits made it impossible to break the 4 minute mile. Now it is quite common for high school students to do so.  It’s not that human biology has radically evolved to allow higher levels of physical achievement; the primary thing that has changed is the awareness that such a feat can be accomplished.  The belief that such acts were impossible caused them to be so. […]

  4. […] a time when medical science thought that breaking the 4 minute mile was humanly impossible until Roger Bannister dispelled such a notion in 1954. James “the Beast” Nielsen takes us to another level […]

  5. […] you know, it was once so firmly believed that running a sub-4 minute mile was impossible that there were scientific articles in physiology journals proving that it was impossible for the […]

  6. […] it’s exciting! For me, this revolution kind of feels like the equivalent of that memorable Roger Bannister story I remember hearing so many times to describe the impact of belief on human consciousness and […]

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