Running Down Your 4-Minute Mile

Home/Mindset/Running Down Your 4-Minute Mile
Forever thought of as the Perfect Mile – and written as such by Neal Bascomb in The Perfect Mile – the four-minute mile might also be our greatest example of the mind’s role in achievement and breaking through barriers. Before the four-minute mile was the perfect mile, though, it was the impossible mile.  Literally impossible.  Conventional wisdom was that the human body had physiological limitations that would keep it from running the mile in less than four minutes.  Ironically, it would be self-imposed psychological limitations that would play the largest role in the pursuit towards four minutes. For 99% of the runners, its entirely likely that notion existed somewhere in their mind – however subconscious it might be. Think of how easy it is for all of us to buy what the broader society is selling – its more comfortable, its our default even. But doing so never, ever leaves a mark. And it never makes history.

Take a look at the mile times of the world record holders, looking first at the near graph of mile world-records from 1895 – 1944. Across nearly 50 years of running the mile, you can see that the record time was lowered approximately 14 seconds.  On the graphs, the vertical lines approximate every decade, so that you can see how steep the lowering of the times were across ten-year periods.  The most drastic of these drops occurred between 1934-1944, with 5 seconds getting taken off the record time. For most of the running world, though, the fact that the record fell to 04:01.6 was entirely too significant.  It was practically at the (perceived) conventional ceiling of the human body – the four-minute mile.

 Its amazing to see it on the graph, because if you look at the second graph, the running world followed its most precipitous decade (a decline of 5 seconds off the record) with one that saw a mere .2 seconds drop over ten years. Same period of time, with the latter decade being able to cut off an amount of time that represented only 4% of what was dropped over the previous decade.


How does this happen?


First, the four-minute mile is connected to the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, the concept introduced in last week’s post. Through it, the idea of the body achieving what the mind believes was discussed.  Of course, the impact of this happens both ways, and the four-minute mile barrier became accepted as a final barrier and, thus, a limiter of performance.  It did so because once its set, it impacts goal setting, training, and everyday life.  Until 1954 . . . .

When Roger Bannister – who along with Wes Santee of Kansas and John Landy of Australia chased the mark – broke four minutes in the mile, it was a profound paradigm shift.  As is typically required of any performance that breaks barriers, Bannister thought and trained beyond conventional norms.  One reason there was a plateau in the mile time was due to conventional thought and action.  As is well known, if you keep doing things the way you have always done them, you need not expect any different results than before.  Conventional thought is like a warm bed during a cold winter night – its easy to get into, and difficult to get of.   Its pervasive and ubiquitous and often its even difficult for us to even ascertain when we are falling into it.

A part of that, is the self-fulfilling prophecy that plays such an important role in shaping much of our lives.  When our minds buy into certain beliefs – as in whether something is possible or impossible – it shapes the way we do everything.  How we practice and train, how we set certain goals and how motivated we are to chase them, how we set course on the rest of life, what we expect out of ourselves and out of others, etc. And, again, much of this we do being guided subconsciously.  This is another reason I love the four-minute mile so much as a lesson, because its clean a metaphor for what we do in life.  For several decades, it was easy – and convenient – to think that four minutes was the ceiling, was the mark that couldn’t be supplanted.  So we train according, and as we get closer and closer to it, a part of mind becomes satisfied with making progress towards something we are not going to be getting anyway.  Thus, we are literally doing as best as (we believe) can be done. And, eventually, complacency ensures.

But a funny thing happened when Bannister ran the mile in less than four minutes.  We realized it was possible! And the power of possibility is sometimes all it takes for the mind to switch over, and for the subconscious to drive us at a different level.  Shortly after Bannister, Landy broke Bannister’s mark. And while it took decades to near the mark without breaking – and a decade to lower the world record .2 seconds – a year after Bannister did the impossible three runners actually broke four minutes in a single race! Within four years, 19 runners would go on to break four minutes.  That’s going from impossible to 19 runners in four short years!

How? The body is a powerful tool, something that can accomplish some great feats.  But it will never be as powerful as the mind; and when the mind began believing that four minutes was possible, runners thought differently, trained differently, lived differently. They, in essence, expected differently.

Before this, with roots in the self-fulfilling prophecy, runners accepted the four-minute “limit,” allowing it become their reality.  We do this throughout life, often lacking awareness of doing so.  We create “realities” (lower-case realities, socially-constructed realities that we build up around us based upon our perceptions of what is real) and the choose steps along the way to maintain these “realities.” Much of this occurs through the Confirmation Bias, the idea that we (often subconsciously) choose a “reality” or a “truth” and then seek examples in life to support this; thus, confirming what we already believe to be true.

So the mind sets the reality – real or not – and then chooses evidence to support this reality.  Its why generations of cultures can buy into erroneous beliefs concerning differences in race, gender, religion, etc.  Such erroneous thought can actually be made true, then, when people throughout society buy-in and accept these “realities” and act according.  The Confirmation Bias is one of the most powerful and convenient Cognitive Biases out there.

How Does This Impact Me?


No matter what we are trying to achieve, to get what we have never had, we must do what we have never done. Its as simple as that – though that doesn’t mean its easy.  We should constantly examine our goals:

  • Does our end goal represent where we want to be, what we want to achieve, etc.?
  • Have I set my sub-goals appropriately to pursue each goal ahead of it effectively?
  • At each level, am I preparing, training, and living appropriately to achieve that goal?

And if I am working the same and training the same towards one goal as I was to achieve the previous goal, I can expect some disappointment ahead.  I if I want to lower my mile time below four minutes, I can train the same as I did to get it to 4:05.

Your Mind Matters.

               We know how pervasive the self-fulfilling prophecy is, and how readily we support cognitive biases like the Confirmation Bias.  Thus, we cant run the risk of leaving our own “realities” to our subconscious.  We need to step outside of that and consciously examine conventional “barriers” we are buying into, to question any “facts” have we mindlessly accepted, and to deconstruct any “realties” we have maintained without scrutiny. Remember, the Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living (Socrates).

               Included in the deconstruction and review of our realities is an awareness of where we have allowed Confirmation Bias to creep in and shape our “truths.” With every decision you make and goal you set, keep alternative options and opposing viewpoints close at hand.  Never make a decision when “all signs” point to doing so.  All signs only point to something obvious when you have subconsciously blinded yourself from the alternatives.

This applies most to us in the process of goal setting.  Are my goals large enough?  Is my goal of a four-minute mile attainable?  More importantly, can I go lower? How do I know either way? Nothing great was ever achieved or history ever made without someone setting out to accomplish that specifically. Roger Bannister had one goal – Break Four Minutes, and every training element was implemented to get him there.

This also applies to questions on how we go about achieving our goals.  If everybody else is doing something a certain way, am I ok with the outcomes they are getting? I am ok with the lives they are living?  As a coach, I must constantly assess and re-assess if my methods of training my athletes are getting us to where we are wanting to go.  Question Everything.

◊ Goal-Focused.

               Finally, be able to zero in on what you want, on your goals.  The greatest effect of questioning everything and a consistent examination of your life is the trust you can place in the process you have created.  If something does not contribute to the process or the outcome, it needs to be eliminated.  Bannister knew of every step that needed to be taken during that miracle mile, but also every step needed on and off the track over the years leading up to it.  Likewise, after living examined lives (and careers) and ensuring they are built upon relevant, appropriate, and robust goals, we must remain engrossed in their pursuit. 

After all, greatness – and history – awaits.

No comments yet.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.