There is something magical about the mile. Often considered the blue-ribbon event in athletics, the mile has caught the imagination of track athletics fans ever since Roger Bannister ran 3:59:40 in Oxford, England on 6th May 1954, breaking the once believed impossible feat of running this distance in under four minutes.
What does running a 4-minute mile feel like? Well, imagine you were to jump on a treadmill, set the pace to 15mph or 24 km/h, and attempt to stay on the treadmill for the next 240 seconds! That’s what running a 4-minute mile would be like.
The training, preparation needed, and characteristics of the individual who is in pursuit of dipping under the mythical barrier are the areas that we will consider in this article.
In this guide, we will look at:
- Physiological Characteristics Of The Mile
- Speed As A Prerequisite
- Leg Strength As A Prerequisite
- How Much Preparation Do You Need To Run A 4-Minute Mile?
- Typical Training For Those Aiming To Break The Barrier of the 4-Minute Mile
Let’s jump in!
It is clear to say that running a sub 4-minute mile is by no means an easy feat and is a major achievement that is denied to thousands of athletes.
It is normally those runners who can count on having had the talent, physiological makeup, consistent training, and a combination of the right conditions who have been able to do it.
Some runners just dip under the mile and others can take a massive chunk of their PB to do it (John Buckner went from 4:02 to 3:53 in one race). The famous Scottish athlete, Gordon Pirie achieved it by the closest of margins (a tenth of a second) in a race against the great Herb Elliot.
Others such as Steve Scott (USA) managed to run over 100 times inside the time.
Physiological characteristics of the mile
The mile event is a 50% aerobic and 50% anaerobic activity. When moving from an aerobic to an anaerobic state, your body will start to fatigue with the onset of lactic acid.
Thus, the athlete looking to get there will need to commit to training their body to be both aerobically fit and to have the ability to cope with the accumulation of lactic acid in their muscles. Therefore, lactate tolerance is a key factor in their potential over the mile distance.
Taking the aerobic element first, leading physiologists are all in agreement that the oxygen uptake (VO2 max) is best improved by work in the range of 80-100% VO2 max.
The importance of having a high VO2 max is sometimes overlooked. Sub-four milers must acquire a VO2 max that exceeds 70mls/kg/min.
Based on Frank Horwill’s 5 paces model (% of aerobic state), jogging (100%) and marathon speed (95%) would be referred to as pure aerobic running. However, the following paces would also be considered to be predominantly aerobic running: 10km speed – 90%, 5km speed – 80% and 3km speed – 60%.
So, in addition to slow aerobic running – long runs and foundation runs at marathon speed, the athlete needs to build into their schedule around 20% of their running in the 80-100% zone.
In terms of improving their lactate tolerance – one effective way of improving your lactate tolerance is by running tempos.
The appropriate pace for tempo runs is at the point where your body changes from working aerobically to working anaerobically; sometimes known as the anaerobic threshold.
Someone looking to run a sub four-minute mile is likely to run their tempos at the following paces: around 3 minutes 7 seconds per km or 5 minutes per mile.
In addition, interval training at paces considered anaerobic will enhance their ability to run at speeds quicker than what they are aiming to hold for the mile distance and therefore increase their chances of preparing their body to achieve the goal.
According to Frank Horwill, the anaerobic requirement for the paces listed is as follows: 100m – 100%, 200m -95%, 400m – 83%, 800m – 67% and the mile – 50%.
Speed as a prerequisite
The individual’s best time for the 800m appears to have a direct effect on their mile potential. It is generally regarded that an athlete should be able to run the 800 in 1:51:50.
For instance, the former mile world record holder John Landy had a best for 800m of 1:51:30 and ran a 3:58 mile.
Your 800m potential is limited by how much speed you have over 400m, so you must get exposure to sprinting as early as possible in your athletics journey.
Some of the world-class milers spent many of their formative years as teenage athletes racing over 200m and 400m to develop that speed that is required.
Steve Ovett for instance was the English Schools 400m champion at the age of 15 and later went on to break the world record in the mile twice in his illustrious career.
Frank Horwill was fond of saying “Don’t lose sight of speed.” Therefore, the importance of emphasising the development of speed within the long-term athlete framework is paramount.
Athletes will be able to run sessions at their 800m pace such as 3 x 4 x 200m with 30 seconds between reps, 6 minutes between sets, at paces of 27.5/28 seconds. Certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Also, they are likely to be able to run sub 50 seconds if they toed the line in a 400m race.
So, getting involved in as many 4x 400 relay races at a young age would benefit the athlete with sub 4-minute mile ambitions.
Leg Strength As A Prerequisite
An athlete’s leg strength has a direct impact on how fast they can run. Hills are an excellent way to develop leg strength.
There are several different sessions that you can do. A classic session that can be used throughout the season running 6-10 repeats, with a jog back recovery, on a hill of 100m with a moderate gradient.
Strength training is another effective way to build specific leg strength. It can help increase your stride length, leading to greater sprinting speed.
Some of the key exercises to include are squats, lunges, burpees, squat-thrusts, one-legged squats and calf raises. Complete 10-15 repetitions of each exercise and do two full circuits.
Sebastian Coe and his coach understood the importance of leg strength. Therefore he devoted his winter to weight-training three times a week, hill running and complimented it with a session at his estimated 5km pace.
How Much Preparation Do You Need To Run A 4-Minute Mile?
The age when an athlete is most likely to break a four-minute mile for the first time is now 22.
Back in the 1960s, the youngest-ever sub four-minute mile man was 17-year-old Jim Ryun, who went on to break world records at the mile, 1,500m, half-mile and 800m.
However, in recent decades, the likes of Alan Webb (3:53 as a high school athlete) and in May 2022, Gary Martin, a high school athlete ran a sub 4-minute mile in 3:57:98 without assistance from a pacer.
The Norwegian athlete, current Olympic champion of 1500m, Jakob Ingebrigtsen, is officially the youngest runner to run a sub four-minute mile, when in May 2017 he ran 3:58:07 at the age of 16 and 250 days.
Typical Training For Those Aiming To Break The Barrier of the 4-Minute Mile
There have been different approaches to training miles over the years. The famous coach from New Zealand, Arthur Lydiard was a firm believer in the need to build up a solid aerobic base and had his athletes build up to 100 miles a week of steady running for 10 weeks, followed by weeks of fartlek-type hill running down some monstrous sand dunes.
One of his proteges, Peter Snell went on to be unbeaten over the 1500m and mile distances throughout his entire career.
In contrast, Sebastian Coe and his coach understood and emphasised the importance of leg strength and therefore he devoted his winter to weight-training three times a week and hill running.
In terms of the physiological requirements as discussed earlier in Frank Horwill’s 5 paces training model, we can look at the type of sessions that those looking to achieve the feat would likely be undertaking:
- Aerobic: Run a half-marathon at tempo pace of 5 minutes/mile or 3.07 minutes/km.
- Anaerobic: 2 sets of (1 x 400 + 1 x 800 + 1 x 300), holding 15 secs per 100m throughout. Take 30 secs rest after 400m, 60 secs rest after 800m and a lap walk after 300m before repeating.
- Anaerobic: Classic session of 4 x 400, 4 secs per 400m faster than per 400m for mile time. Therefore, run 400ms in 56 secs, 3 mins rest.
- Anaerobic, 5k pace: Run 5 x 1K at 8 secs per 400m slower than mile time. Target mile 4:00 (60 / 400), run at 68 / 400 = 2:50, with 60 secs rest.
Taking Another Approach
If you don’t quite have the ingredients for getting close to running under the 4-minute mile barrier, you could perhaps employ an unorthodox method that was followed by Northern Irish athlete Allan Bogle.
In his quest to have the running of a sub 4-minute mile included in his running achievements, he studied the terrains of various places throughout Northern Ireland in the hunt for a steep enough downhill section that would give him the best possible chance of dipping under the magical number. See here how it gets on!
To see how you measure up to average mile times, take a look at our article: What’s a good mile time?