The Four-Minute Mile: Why Some People Achieve the Impossible and Others Don’t.
On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister, a 25-year-old medical student, worked his usual morning shift at St. Mary’s Hospital and took an afternoon train from Paddington Station to Oxford in preparation for a one-mile race against Oxford University.
For nearly a decade up till that day, Bannister ran mostly out of fear to escape bullies and aerial bombs he heard during the Battle of Britain (World War II). “I imagined bombs and machine guns raining on me if I didn’t go my fastest,” he wrote in his memoirs. 
Despite his passion for running, Bannister wasn’t exactly a top running prospect. His commitment as a full-time medical student on regular hospital shifts left him with little time to practice—training was limited to a mere three weekly half-hour sessions—and lack of coaching forced him to create his own system to prepare for races.
Shortly after Bannister arrived at Iffley Road Track in Oxford, nearly 1,200 spectators gathered to watch the race under damp weather conditions. Six runners, including Bannister, prepared to run the race of their lives.
Like Bannister, the vast majority of mile runners had one goal in mind aside from winning: to break the four-minute mile. Since 1886, the most talented runners and best coaches had given their all and yet failed to run a mile in under four minutes. According to Bannister, the four-minute mile had become “rather like an Everest—a barrier that seemed to defy all attempts to break it—an awesome reminder that man’s striving might be in vain.” 
At 6.00 pm, the race kicked off. Two runners, Brasher and Chataway took the lead during the first three minutes of the race. On the final leg of the race with less than 275 yards to go, Bannister powered through with his signature explosive kick, took the lead and won the race.
There was an ere of silence all around the stadium as the crowd held their breath to hear the announcement of the race times. Then suddenly, the race commentator announced that Roger Bannister, a medical student, had set a new World Record time of 3 minutes fifty-nine and four-tenths of a second, becoming the first ever person in history to break the mythical barrier of the four-minute mile.
But the story isn’t over yet.
Within 46 days, Bannister’s rival, John Landy, ran a four-minute mile and broke the record with a time of 3 minutes 57.9 seconds. A year later, three runners ran four-minute miles in a single race.
By the end of 1978, over 200 runners had broken the once impossible barrier of the four-minute mile.
Why did Bannister, of all people, break the four-minute mile? Was the sudden spurt of four-minute mile runners shortly after Bannister proved it was possible, a coincidence? Most importantly, what can we learn from this about achieving the impossible despite limitations?
The Missing Link
“Faith is the highest form of knowledge.”
Prior to Bannister’s world record, the spotlight was on his rival, John Landy, a talented Australian runner tipped to break the four-minute mile.
In December 1952, Landy missed the mark on a big stage, running a time of four minutes and 2 seconds. After the race, Landy shook hands with the prime minister, retreated to his locker room and came out to speak to reporters wearing a look of frustration on his face:
“Frankly, I think the four-minute mile is beyond my capabilities. Two seconds may not sound much, but to me it’s like trying to break through a brick wall. Someone may achieve the four-minute mile the world is wanting so desperately, but I don’t think I can.” 
Unlike Bannister, Landy believed the four-minute mile was out of his reach. His repeated failures and those of other runners cemented his belief that it was an impossible feat. And yet, a few months after Bannister destroyed the myth, Landy broke the record, and thousands of runners subsequently did so too.
One of the best explanations for this phenomenon is the theory of self-efficacy developed by the renowned psychologist, Albert Bandura. According to Bandura (1997), self-efficacy is defined as “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments.”
The self-efficacy theory suggests that individuals with high self-efficacy are more likely to take the most action towards their goals, persist in the face of adversity and push the barriers of what they believe is possible. They are also more likely to tap into states of flow that improve mental and physical performance.
Even though Landy was the more talented runner, he lacked the self-efficacy that Bannister had. Bannister’s high self-efficacy enabled him to audaciously step outside the realms of what was possible at the time.
How do people like Bannister develop high self-efficacy? They cultivate the discipline of reframing failures and obstacles as positive opportunities for growth. Unlike those with low self-efficacy, individuals with high levels of self-efficacy tend to be committed to the process of achieving their goals and yet remain unattached to the outcome. They don’t strive for perfection and avoid beating themselves up after making mistakes.
In short, the key difference between individuals with low versus high self-efficacy, is that the latter has a growth mindset whilst the former has a fixed mindset.
Break Your Four-Minute Mile
“The man who can drive himself further when the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”
By all indicators, Bannister shouldn’t have broken the four-minute mile. Experts believed that a combination of perfect weather, an elite training regime, an outstanding runner and stellar track conditions, were required to break the four-minute mile. And yet, Bannister, a full-time medical student broke the record on a cold day, on a wet track and with a subpar training regime.
Most importantly, Bannister broke the psychological barrier that had held back the greatest runners for over a century. Other runners now believed wholeheartedly that it was possible. It is no surprise then that within a few years, several other runners broke the four-minute mile too.
For the majority of us who will never attempt to break a running record, the four-minute mile represents the limiting beliefs of what we think is possible to achieve in our lives.
Like Landy, we tend to limit our goals in business, relationships, finance, health and profession within the realm of what society says is possible or impossible. But throughout history, there are a handful of people like Bannister, who break the limits of what’s possible and leave a lasting legacy.
What makes them different isn’t their talent, skills or resources, but their belief system. They’d rather take the lead, step outside their comfort zone and risk failure, than wait in their comfort zone for permission from others to achieve the impossible.
Followers wait for leaders to show them what’s possible. Leaders break the barriers of what’s possible.
Which one will you choose to be?
- The First Four Minutes By Sir Roger Bannister.
- Roger Bannister, The Four Minute Mile, The Lyons Press, 1955, p.188.
- The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It.
- Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: the exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.
- Gould, D., Dieffenbach, K., & Moffett, A. (2002). Psychological characteristics and their development in Olympic champions. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 172-204.
- Vealey, R. S., & Knight, B. J. (2002, September). Multidimensional sport-confidence: A conceptual and psychometric extension. Paper presented at the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology Conference, Tucson, AZ.