The Man Who Broke the Barrier

Roger Bannister at the finish line.
Image source: Norman Potter/Getty Images

Before May 6, 1954, running the distance of a mile in less than four minutes was seen as impossible. Many people had attempted to break this since 1886, but none triumphed. The four-minute time seemed like an insurmountable barrier. People thought that it’s not physically possible for the human body to go that fast. There were no running apps back then to help you train. No massage guns nor foam rollers to soothe your sore muscles after an arduous run. Completing a sub-four-minute mile run seemed beyond reach.

British athlete Roger Bannister thought otherwise.

On that Thursday, Bannister showed the world that nothing is insurmountable. But not without his share of doubts.

Bannister almost changed his mind hours before the event. The weather that day wasn’t on his side. The wind was blowing at 20 mph, and the rain kept pouring in the morning.

He postponed his decision until 5 pm.

“When I noticed that the wind had settled the flag, I talked to myself and realized that I must do it,” Bannister recalled during his 1994 interview with The Times. The words of Franz Stampfl, coach of his teammate Chris Brasher, rang in his head, “If you pass it up today, you may never forgive yourself for the rest of your life.”

So with leather spikes at his feet and a burning desire in his heart, he ran at the Iffley Road cinder track in Oxford. Eventually, the race fatigue caught up on him.

He narrated, “There’s a moment when time seems to slow up and the finishing line, instead of getting nearer … it almost seems to recede. I was very, very tired, indeed, and I more or less flung myself at the tape. And then, feeling faint, I really had no knowledge for a few seconds as to what was happening.”

Then the announcement came.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number forty one, R. G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which—subject to ratification—will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was three…”

The crowd of about 1,200 roared and drowned out the announcer’s voice.

For the first time, someone finally made it. Bannister did it.

He completed the historic mile run within 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds.

As Mike Kupper of Los Angeles Times put it, Bannister’s achievement was the athletic equivalent of landing the moon. In November 2005, Forbes magazine declared his feat as the Greatest Athletic Achievement of the past 150 years.

And as they say, great things start from small beginnings.

Let’s trace the path of a trailblazer named Bannister.

Growing up, there’s no sign that Bannister would take a special place in sports history.

Roger Bannister was born in Harrow, England. Their family evacuated to Bath, England during World War II where Bannister used to run anywhere and everywhere. Running is the easiest way to get around the area. After some time, they moved back to London where Bannister played rugby and tried rowing for a while. He started medical school in Oxford in 1946.

Bannister was not a remarkable runner back then. He walked in an ungraceful manner (read: awkward) and hardly made it to the third squad of Oxford’s track team. His average run was barely breaking five minutes per mile. He would pay threepence to enter Paddington Park and run during his lunch break.

But on March 22, 1947, Bannister’s breakthrough unfolded. The organizers of a mile race between Oxford’s first team and Cambridge assigned him as a pacer. Instead of stopping after half a mile, he kept on running and won. He defeated the elite runners.

Bannister didn’t turn back since.

In 1952, he competed in 1500 meters in the Helsinki Olympics where he was among the favorites. At the time, he had already established himself as the best 1500 runner and miler in Britain. But the events team declared that there would be a semifinals. Contestants should complete the three rounds in consecutive days.

He knew that his chances to win the Olympics became slimmer.

True enough, he ran out of steam during the final race and finished a disappointing fourth. His loss drew criticisms both from the press and the public. He took time out after the Olympics to discern if he would  continue running.

Turns out, his Olympic failure paved the way to a bigger win.

Bannister bounced back, worked harder, and opened the door to a world of possibilities.

Roger Bannister holding a trophy.
Image source: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

After his devastating Olympic loss, Bannister set a new goal for himself. He aimed to be the first person to finish a sub-four-minute mile run.

He told USA Today in 1994, “There was a real urgency to break the record in 1954. It was clear that John Landy or Wes Santee would break it soon if I didn’t get there first.”

To reach his goal, Bannister devoted half an hour each day to run and do speed workouts. He intensified his lung capacity through intense sprint exercises. It’s the most that he could allot to training given his busy schedule as a medical student. He also asked for the help of his Olympian friends Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher to become his pacers. They would meet every weekend to practice and plan.

Bannister with Brasher and Chataway
Roger Banister (middle) with Chris Brasher (left) and Chris Chataway (right) posed together after the monumental run. Image source: Norman Potter/Getty Images

The team chose to do the attempt during a dual track meet between British Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) and Oxford University. Bannister was part of the AAA. Despite the unfavorable weather condition that day, Bannister set the record.

But not for long.

Australian runner John Landy managed to run a mile within 3:57.9 six weeks later in Turku, Finland.  And during the Commonwealth race in Vancouver dubbed as “The Miracle Mile,” both of them broke the four-minute mark. Bannister won the race and hung his spikes shortly after that. He was 25.

Yes, Bannister’s world record lasted only for 46 days, but it has long-lasting significance. He shattered the limiting belief that prevented hundreds of runners before him to run the mile under the four-minute mark. Today, over 1,400 male runners had already pulled off the feat.

Sebastian Coe, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, said it best, “The world’s best runners had been attempting the four-minute barrier for a quarter of a century. It was as much of a psychological barrier as it was a physical barrier. Bannister’s assault allowed mankind to enter a world filled with new possibilities.”

Today, this world of new possibilities got bigger with the advancement of technology.

Like Bannister, you can go beyond your limits, too. And make a history of your own.

If there’s one thing that Sir Roger Bannister taught those who know his tale, it’s to remember how powerful the mind is. You can do more. You can be more. Especially with the modern gadgets that are readily available.

Runners can use traction cleats, foot pods, and smart watches to perfect their stride, keep track of their record, and grow as athletes.

Unfortunately, some athletes don’t make it past their goal even with the wonders of technology. Reason: they underestimate the power of recovery.

Even Bannister took time to relax and recover. In fact, a few weeks before his famed four-minute-mile run, he went to Scotland to unwind and take a break from his training. His training regimen involved two principles: race-specific training and enhancement of recovery. These principles remain significant today.

Krista Schultz recommends paying attention to recovery to avoid burnout and injuries. Schultz is the Galesburg Half Marathon overall female champion and an Ironman finisher. “It will also help you reach your potential in the sport because your body will be prepared to perform when the time comes,” she explains.

There are various ways to aid your recovery:

  • Hydrate. Eat well. Nothing beats the basics, you know?
  • Sleep. According to Dan McCarthy, High Performance Consultant at USA Swimming, “Sleep is the time when the body recovers from the stresses loaded upon it, and the repair of muscle and connective tissue begins. Naps are an excellent tool for athletes in training and on game day as well.” So don’t feel guilty if you found yourself longing to hit the sack after an exhausting workout.
  • Take a break. Do the workouts start to take their toll on you? Relax the Bannister way. Go rock-climbing. Hide somewhere nice. And breathe. It might just save you from physical, emotional, and mental fatigue.
  • Get a massage. Some athletes consider getting a massage essential before a triathlon or Ironman tournament. Greg Lehman, a physiotherapist and chiropractor, points out, “Massage may also help with recovery after a workout and may help get us out of a stress dominated state of our nervous system.”

In an article published in the Journal of Athletic Training, studies show that massage can relieve Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) by approximately 30%. It can reduce swelling as well. Athletes may experience DOMS for up to four days if left untreated.

Not everyone can afford a regular massage, though.

Good thing, there are handheld sports recovery devices that can be used with ease. One example of which is massage guns. Massage guns have the same effect as a deep tissue massage. They’re just more convenient and affordable. And in today’s generation where many people tend to over train, speedy recovery is the key.

Hydrogen against gray background and red logo.

Aside from its post-workout benefits, massage guns can also prepare your muscles before you start your training. The pulses from the gun mobilize your sympathetic nervous system that primes your body to run.

Along with hard work and discipline, a reliable sports recovery device might be what you need to reach your breakthrough.

Creating a mark in history is a tough feat, but with the right mindset and the right tools, nothing is impossible.

Bannister made his mark by challenging the prevailing beliefs during his time. He shifted his mindset and kept his willpower burning. Now it’s your turn.

Are you willing to surpass yourself and push beyond your limits? Are you willing to do what it takes to be better?

Be empowered by Sir Roger Bannister’s words, “Sport, like all of life, is about taking risks.”

Are you up for the challenge?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Leave A Comment