The first recorded winning running time for one mile was Richard Webster, at a time of 4 minutes and 36 seconds, in England in 1865.
By 1964, a high schooler, American Jim Ryun, was able to break the four-minute mile at 3:59. That year, I was a junior in high school, but not a runner.
The next year, Ryun set a new record, with a time of 3:55.3.
By 1994, the first man over 40, Irishman Eamonn Coghlan, was able to run a mile in under four minutes.
In 1999, a Moroccan, Hicham El Guerrouj, set the current world record, running a mile in 3.43.13, beating Bannister’s time by nearly 17 seconds.
Why Can So Many Men Run a Sub-Four-Minute Mile Today, When Before 1954, No One Could?
Bannister had a fast, powerful final lap kick. Other runners had noticed and started to compensate by picking up the pace earlier in the race.
Though Bannister set a British record for the 1500-meter race, he finished fourth in the 1952 Olympics, out of medal range.
He set his sights on beating the four-minute mile. A run 10 days before the 1952 Olympics had convinced him it was within reach.
Wasn’t It Supposed to Be Physically Impossible?
Bannister claimed that it was sportswriters who created the myth that no one could break the four-minute mile. The reason the previous record had stood for nine years was that World War II interrupted the training of runners.
An Australian, John Landy, was also trying to break the four-minute mile in 1954, the same year that Bannister was competing.
While Landy had competed in several races before Bannister’s accomplishment, in all he fell just short of the sub-4-minute mile.
Landy finally did break the 4-minute mile just 46 days after Bannister, setting a new world record of 3.58.0.
Two months later the two competed in the same race. Neither achieved Landy’s then world-record and Bannister won.
Who Was Bannister’s Coach?
Franz Stampfl introduced Bannister to interval training, adding high intensity to the mix, systematically progressing to greater speeds.
Stampfl, an Austrian athlete and coach who had emigrated to England on Hitler’s rise, was, nevertheless, arrested and incarcerated in the run-up to World War II. On a ship carrying prisoners between Canada and Australia, the ship sank.
Stampfl survived by swimming for eight hours in icy water before rescue. This convinced him the human body was capable of much more than previously believed.
On this theory, he developed a low volume, high-intensity interval training approach.
Interval training involves running as hard as you can for short bursts of time, then jogging or resting for half that time. It is reported that Bannister’s regimen included running 440 meters, then jogging for 200 meters, ten or twelve times in a row.
Repeating a regimen like this takes less time than the then-traditional method of steady running, with lots of walking as part of the training. This is called the volume approach. That is, a high volume of low intensity exercise.
It takes more time than the interval approach, with its short bursts of intense exercise.
Bannister reportedly trained during his half-hour lunches in medical school.
Training today mixes the steady, high volume and high intensity interval approaches.
Click here for a history of training for runners.
What Is a Rabbit?
A pacer, or pacemaker or rabbit is someone who runs at a pace that is sustainable, yet designed to beat a record, for the entire race. This is so that star athletes, especially when they are trying to set records, won’t run too fast in the early stages and give out near the end.
Bannister had two pacers, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, for different segments of his world-record setting race.
Though other runners were in the race, Bannister was not trying to beat anyone else. He was trying to beat the world record.
You can think of pacers as being like the transparent yellow line on a football field on tv that tells viewers how far a team has to go to make a first down.
The pacer is telling the racer how fast they have to run to beat the record they are trying for. Pacers no longer have to finish a race, but they have to start with everyone.
Can I Watch It?
Thanks to YouTube, you can see this famous run, narrated by Roger Bannister himself.
Click here to watch the YouTube video of Roger Bannister when he broke the 4-minute mile.
Do you remember when this famous world record was set?
Were you ever a runner? Do your grandchildren know?
What records do you think will be broken in their lifetimes?
To you and helping your grandchildren enjoy the excitement of sports.
Carol Covin, Granny-Guru
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Who First Broke the 4-Minute Mile?