The story goes that Bannister crushed the 4 minute mile mark, and allowed runners to dream of the impossible. No longer held back by this psychological barrier, swarms of runners went under the barrier. It’s touted as a story of humans holding themselves back, and what can occur if we release the shackles on our mind. How many crushed through the barrier after Bannister? Well, if you go to the wrong well-meaning inspirational site, they might tell you twenty-four within a year.
The reality is less dramatic.
Only Landy broke four the rest of the 1954 season, and in 1955, three more joined Bannister and Landy, all coming from the same race. Within 2.5 years, there were 10 runners sub-4, so an improvement, but not a flood of individuals.
But it was still a breakthrough, right? He still showed
people what was possible. I mean he broke a world record that was on the books for 9 years! And after he broke it, the mile was taken to another level. Herb Elliott dropped the record down to 3:54.5 within 4 years! Surely, a psychological breakthrough was the key!
It makes for a compelling narrative, one that is thrown around at success seminars left and right, meant to inspire you to let go of your psychological barriers. But is it true, did Bannister usher in a new era?
Why we were stuck
The progression of the World Records during the 1940’s and 50’s is a unique mix of history getting in the way of athletics natural progression. In the early 1940’s Arne Anderson and Gunder Hagg traded the mile world record getting it down to 4:01.4 in 1945. And there it stayed until Bannister broke it 9 years later. Why the stagnation?
The obvious answer is, it was 1945 and we had just completed that little thing called World War 2. You see, during the war years, the Swedes (Anderson and Hagg) had the freedom to continue their athletic careers, chasing records, while the rest of the world, for the most part, was put on hold. Not only that, but we lost scores of top talent to deaths and injuries during the war. For a popularized example, see Unbroken hero Louis Zamperini. So not only were we hurt athletically during the war, but also during the post war era.
Additionally, while Hagg and Anderson were taking their shots, in 1946, they were banned from competing as they were labeled professionals for taking money, which was against the amateur rules of the day. At the ripe age of 27, less than a year after he ran 4:01.4, Hagg’s career was finished.
The Other Events
You don’t have to take agree with my conclusions based on my story telling ability. Look at the other mid and long distance events and you see the exact same pattern: stagnation and progression. This should not occur if the reason for the stop and start was the mental barrier of breaking four.
In the 5k, the world record, set by Hagg, sat at 13:58.2 for 12 years, until Emil Zatopek came along in 1954 to run 13:57.2. Here’s the perfect counter example to the barrier breaking idea. Hagg crushed a barrier (the 14-minute one) and instead of seeing the floodgates opened, we had stagnation. No one thought, hmm Hagg just became the first man to run under 14-minutes, so we all can!
But it gets even more interesting, when we look at what happened in the years after Zatopek. Take a look at the record progression:
13:56.6- Vladimir Kuts- 1954
13:51.6- Chris Chataway- 1954
13:51.2- Vladimir Kuts- 1954
13:50.8- Sandor Iharos- 1955
13:46.8- Vladimir Kuts- 1955
13:40.6- Sandor Iharos- 1955
13:36.8- Gordon Pirie 1956
13:35.0- Vladimir Kuts- 1957
After stagnating for 13 years, the 5k record improved an astonishing 20 seconds in the next two years! Look familiar? That’s about the rate of progression we saw in the mile world record during the same time frame.
But it’s not just the mile and 5k. Look at the men’s 800m, where the world record was set in 1939 at 1:46.6, and you see the same pattern. That record stood for 16 years until Roger Moens dropped it to 1:45.7 in 1955. Again, stagnation. Here we didn’t see the deluge of performers sub 1:45.7 like in the other cases, but by 1962, Peter Snell lopped another 1.4 seconds off the mark to run 1:44.3. Stagnation and breakthrough were the name of the game.
Not surprisingly, the same thing happened in the 10k. Viljo Heino set the world record in 1944 at 29:35.4. Five years later, Emil Zatopek broke it running 29:28.2. By the time 1956 rolled around, they’d cut a full minute off the record with Vladimir Kuts running 28:30.4!
What about the marathon you might ask? Stuck at 2:25 from 1947 until 1952, when it was dropped to 2:20 by Jim Peters. By 1958, we were all the way down to 2:15.
In every case during this time period, you see the same pattern, stagnation during the war years followed by massive improvements in the 1950’s. Something changed in the sport, not the psychology.
To the 1,500m we go!
I know, you get it, everyone was improving during this time frame, but there still had to be some sort of barrier surrounding the 4-minute mile, right? It’s too big of a mental barrier not to. I mean, we’ve been told that doctors said it was impossible and a runner’s heart would explode! It HAD to be a barrier.
Well, one way to find out is to look at the mile’s close cousin, the 1,500m. The 1,500m is the more commonly run Olympic version of the mile. Even in the 1940’s and 50’s most countries ran the 1,500m, with the exception being the ones who still used imperial measurements. The logic goes then, that if the barrier with the mile was a psychological one, then the 1,500m times should have improved at a faster rate. Why? Because there is no barrier to running 3:43 or 42 or 41 in the 1,500m. It’s another number. What we should have seen were 1,500m times that were faster than their mile equivalence. This would demonstrate that athletes were capable of running sub 4 minute miles, but just couldn’t quite get there mentally.
To convert a 1,500m time to the mile, it’s not simply about keeping the same speed for the extra 109.334 meters. Why not? Because when you run a 1,500m you are maxed out, exhausted at the finish line. So we have to assume that to make it another 109 meters, we’d need to slow just a bit. So when converting 1,500m times to mile, we add in a small degree of slowing, plus the added distance.
Depending on the conversion you use, we get 3:42.2 for the equalent of a 4:00.0 mile . The standard conversion is to multiply by 1.08 seconds. So what do we see when we line up the 1,500m and mile world record progressions?
In the table below, I’ve taken the progression of the 1,500m world record and compared it to the mile WR during that same year. I’ve eliminated some small progressions (i.e. in 1957 we went from 3:40.6 to 3:40.2, etc. before we got to 3:38.1). The point is to compare the best 1,500m and the best mile during that same time period. If the barrier was a psychological one, there should be a slight mismatch in their progression.
|Predicted Mile based on 1,500
|ACTUAL Fastest mile at the time
What you clearly see is that they track nicely with each other. Sure, occasionally the 1,500m predicts ever so slightly faster than the best mile, or vice versa. But from a year to year basis, they track really well. The first time a man ran a 1,500m under the mile conversion, the four minute mile was already broken.
What this shows us is that the issue wasn’t massively psychological. If it was, we would have seen athletes running 1,500m races much faster than their corresponding mile time. Instead, we see that the progression matches up nicely. People were stuck on 4 minutes at the same time they were stuck on 3:43. Do we really think that runners were stuck on a mythical 3:43.0 barrier?
The point isn’t to discount Bannister’s amazing record. It was an astonishing feat. Instead, it’s to show the tidy narrative of psychological breakthrough, unleashing the potential of humans to realize they too can run under 4 minutes is a false one.As we can see in the 800, 1,500m, and 5k, the stagnation and breakthrough during that time frame were the norm. It’s much more likely that the stagnation was attributed to the war and the breakthrough was a return to sport along with the modernization of training which occurred during the 50’s and early 60’s. The sport began making its transition to modernity with modern coaches like Franz Stampfl, Lydiard, Cerutty, and others beginning their work.
While the psychology of the breakthrough after the first sub 4-minute mile makes for a wonderfully inspiring story, the reality is much different. It’s strange to say, but World War 2 might have created the 4 minute barrier. Not doctors saying we couldn’t do it, or people not believing. A massive war that put a halt to every record imaginable. It just so happened that we were just on the wrong side of 4 minutes when the stagnation occurred.