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The Perfect Mile: Lost Lesson From First 4-minute Mile

[I’ve always loved the story of Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile barrier--Sports Illustrated named it the twentieth century’s greatest sporting achievement. Psychological as well as physical, it opened the floodgates for those who followed. Before Bannister, coaches and athletes questioned whether the human body was capable of running the mile under four minutes. They feared that the human body would be damaged at that speed. As Steve Chandler wrote in 17 Lies That Are Holding You Back & The Truth That Will Set You Free, after Bannister turned his dream into reality, runners "expanded their minds and accomplished even bigger things." 

Now there’s a book about the era and the athletes--and how it was done. My friend Dick Winett calls it the perfect book about the perfect mile. His perceptive review highlights the lost lesson that can make your training more efficient and productive. Learn how to open the floodgates on your own performance.]  

  Book Review

By Richard A. Winett, Ph.D.

Publisher and Editor of Master Trainer

  The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes To Achieve It

By Neal Bascomb, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004

The Perfect Mile is simply the most perfect book that I’ve ever read.  Neal Bascomb is a terrific writer and here he weaves together a great story about Roger Bannister from England, John Landy from Australia, and Wes Santee from the United States in their pursuit more than 50 years ago of the sub 4-minute mile.  It is compelling personalities, history, and details about training and racing all rolled into one incredible read.

Fifty years ago was the bare beginnings of almost instant world-wide communication about news and sporting events and the advent of sports as lucrative, big time entertainment. Bannister, Landy, and Santee were very much from the prior era where sport and running was all about personal transcendence and not about money. As amateurs, there simply was no money that they received for racing, even ‘under the table’.

There are many wonderful perspectives that you can take in reading this book and the one that I relished the most was reading about Roger Bannister’s training. Bannister was a medical student and had very minimal time to train plus he often worked 12-16 hours per day. By way of contrast, Landy and Santee and most runners then and now were training hours per day. Bannister’s ideal was that athletics, even for top athletes, should just be one part of a well-rounded, useful, and productive life.

More than fifty years ago, Bannister using his scientific background realized that the way to properly train was to understand the stimulus responsible for improvements in fitness and performance for specific events and then to fine-tune workouts to produce some ‘overload’ but with minimal time required for recovery.  Bascomb used a quote from Bannister to explain his training approach:

‘Does it work? Does it not? You learn by your mistakes. It’s so subtle. If you run so hard that you can’t recover, you haven’t done any good. It’s stressing the machinery to the point where if you had a graph and plotted performance against stress, the line at first will proceed smoothly upwards, but there comes a point when more stress becomes counterproductive and the line falls.’ (p. 105)

Using the simple principles of stress and recovery, Bannister trained about 30 minutes most days of the week. Before his focused pursuit of the 4-minute mile, many of his runs in the country–side were long steady warm-ups to reach five or so minutes of running at a high level of perceived exertion. The runs, however, weren’t timed.

Once the entire focus became the 4-minute mile, Bannister’s workouts almost exclusively were interval workouts on the track. The goal was over several months to gradually reduce the time for his 400-meter repeats with two or three minutes between repeats. In 1954, he was greatly aided in these workouts by two friends and great athletes (Brasher and Chataway) who trained with him almost every day.

A fascinating point to consider is that as minimal and precise as Bannister’s training was compared to training then and now, a better understanding of training principles could have made Bannister’s training even more specific, briefer, and less frequent. For example, both to increase aerobic capacity and performance, a long interval between repeats is not optimal. A much shorter interval would have made the training more specific to the mile event. And, since Bannister primarily raced miles and half miles, there was no reason to run 10 400-meter repeats. With a short interval between repeats, training would have been more specific to the goals and likely more effective. Then too, Bannister’s training also could have been more effective if he trained less frequently to allow for more recovery time.

The lessons from Bannister’s training have been lost during the last 50 years. A top miler often trains for hours a day doing speed work and overdistance work. The great increase in the volume of training and its ‘sophistication’ are seen as the reason that world-class male milers can run in the low 3:40’s.

Bannister only got to 3:58.8. It was several months after his and the world’s first sub-four minute mile. It was the perfect race in the perfect mile event in the Empire Games in Vancouver, with Bannister’s super kick at the end just beating John Landy.

So, of course, the notion is that while Bannister was gifted, he was not gifted enough to compete with any of today’s top milers and his training was just quaint. Consider, however, that Bannister and his contemporaries were running in what today would be considered bedroom slippers with spikes on cinder tracks that at times were even muddy. Suppose much better shoes are worth a few seconds in the mile and suppose that running on fast synthetic tracks is worth perhaps even more. Where would that put Bannister today?

Whether your interest is in the intricacies of training, the details of the races, history and personalities, or if you just want a great read, The Perfect Mile is a book you should not miss.

[For more information about the advantages of interval training, see articles 10, 11 and 12 above, and our book Challenge Yourself. To learn more about Richard Winett and Master Trainer, a newsletter published every other month about lifetime bodybuilding and masters athletes, visit www.ageless-athletes.com.]

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