First Four-Minute Mile

4 min readMay 7, 2021

May 6, 2021 — Sixty-seven years ago today, “Mt. Everest of Athletics” was conquered. A young medical student from Oxford University by the name of Roger Bannister became the first man to break 4-minute barrier to run one-mile with the time of 3:59.4. Bannister was a very busy medical student at the time and he only had one-hour during lunch time to train. His training was quite “exacting” — his goal was to break 4-minute for the mile. So his training, influenced by Coach Franz Stampfle, was mainly in a form of interval training such as 15X150m, 10X400m (58.9sec), 2X1200m (with 1000m recovery) or 7X800m (with 400m recovery in 2:00) (*Reference: Susumu Takahashi). He frequently checked his race-fitness by conducting 800m Time Trial. Another interesting point with his training was that he was not afraid to take it very easy before important competition. Reportedly he took 6 days completely off before his record attempt.

From left to right: Chris Brasher-Roger Bannister-Franz Stampfle-Chris Chatterway

It was more or less the first time the concept of “pacing” was practiced, carefully choreographed by Austria’s revolutionary coach, Franz Stampfle. It was rather a small duel competition between AAA (British Amateur Athletic Association) vs Oxford University team at Iffley Road Track with Bannister and two of his teammates and pacers, Chris Chatterway and Chris Brasher representing AAA; and Alan Gordon, George Dole and Nigel Miller from Oxford University. While Stampfle was not so much of a “coach” in a sense of someone consulting day-to-day workouts but more of an advisor; a life-changing advice he did provide to Bannister on that historic day — the story goes that Bannister was rather hesitant because of swirling wind and wanted to opt for waiting 10-days for White City Stadium Meet. “If you don’t try today,” Stampfle told Bannister, “you might not get another chance…With the proper motivation, your mind can overcome any sort of adversity…”(p130 from “Fast Track” by Bill Squires and Raymond Krise, 1982). Now the challenge was set. Brasher led the first lap in 57.5 and the second lap in 60.7…then Chatterway took the lead and led the 3rd lap in 62.3. Someone shouted that, if he could cover the final lap in 59-seconds, he could break 4-minutes…. Bannister took off 300m to go and…the rest is history (*the video clip HERE).

Since Bannister’s first sub-four-minute mile, more than 1400 runners ran the mile faster than four-minute. But the first one always remains one-and-the-only. One of the most famous “Flying Finns”, indomitable Paavo Nurmi, set the world mile record of 4:10.4 in 1923. During the World War II and right after the war ended, two Swedes — Arne Anderson and Gunder Hagg — with “revolutionary” training method called Fartlek (=Speed Play), raced each other for total of 6 world mile records from 4:06.2 down to 4:01.4, set by Hagg in July 1945. For 9 years, all the runners around the world attempted to break 4-minutes. It was said to be the race between Australia’s John Landy, fresh from Southern Hemisphere’s winter build-up and ready for long European season, and America’s Wes Santee with good tracks in the USA. Thanks to mind-making advice from Coach Stampfle, Bannister had his history-making run in such early season. John Landy, now that the psychological barrier had been taken away, would run 1.4 seconds faster than Bannister mere 6 weeks after Bannister’s first sub-four minute mile. These two would race against each other in what is now known as “Miracle Mile” 3 months later at British Empire Games in Vancouver, BC. Bannister, basically a quicker runner, beat Landy in the thrilling final sprint. But that was pretty much the end of Bannister’s athletic career. After a few more mile and 1500m races, he retired at the end of 1954 season to concentrate on his medical career.

Bannister had competed in 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games and ran 3:46.3 for 1500m — good enough for British record but missed out a medal by finishing 4th. But his name is forever engraved in the athletic history as the first man to run the mile under 4-minutes. However, when asked whether the 4-minute mile was his proudest achievement, he said he felt prouder of his contribution to academic medicine through research into the responses of the nervous system. Sir Roger Bannister passed away on March 3, 2018 at the age of 88. — Nobby Hashizume

*There is an interesting documentary by BBC called “The Four Minute Mile” (produced in 1988) and it’s pretty good!! The story is the parallel of Roger Bannister in England and John Landy in Australia…and America’s Wes Santee. Gotta love the character of Percy Cerutty!! It is available in 2 parts at YouTube (Part-1, Part-2).