Bannister Beats the Four-Minute Mile

British runner Roger Bannister surpassed a significant milestone in track athletics by becoming the first athlete to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. His record time was 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

Summary of Event

On a windy spring afternoon in 1954, twenty-five-year-old British medical student Roger Bannister completed a mile race in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, breaking a physical and psychological barrier that had eluded middle-distance runners for decades. Since the development of standardized timing and measurement techniques in the mid-nineteenth century, the times of amateur and professional mile-runners had gradually decreased, yet the progress of runners toward a four-minute mile had slowed as record times crept closer to the mythical obstacle. Athletes;Roger Bannister[Bannister]
“Miracle Mile, the”[Miracle Mile]
Track-and-field athletics[Track and field athletics]
Four-minute mile run[four minute mile run]
[kw]Bannister Beats the Four-Minute Mile (May 6, 1954)
[kw]Four-Minute Mile, Bannister Beats the (May 6, 1954)[Four Minute Mile, Bannister Beats the]
Athletes;Roger Bannister[Bannister]
“Miracle Mile, the”[Miracle Mile]
Track-and-field athletics[Track and field athletics]
Four-minute mile run[four minute mile run]
[g]Europe;May 6, 1954: Bannister Beats the Four-Minute Mile[04460]
[g]United Kingdom;May 6, 1954: Bannister Beats the Four-Minute Mile[04460]
[c]Sports;May 6, 1954: Bannister Beats the Four-Minute Mile[04460]
Bannister, Roger
Brasher, Chris
Chataway, Christopher
Stampfl, Franz
McWhirter, Norris
Landy, John
Santee, Wes

Some observers and practitioners of the sport considered a sub-four minute run to be an impossible feat, even for the most conditioned of human bodies. A few people even suggested that any runner attempting such a feat would be risking death. Yet the world record for the mile had been broken several times in the early twentieth century, and it was gradually approaching the four-minute mark by midcentury. Gunder Hägg Hägg, Gunder of Sweden had set a new mile record of 4 minutes, 1.4 seconds on July 17, 1945, a mark that still stood in 1954 as Bannister prepared to break the four-minute barrier.

Hägg and fellow Swede Arne Andersson Andersson, Arne had moved gradually closer to the mark in limited competition during World War II, yet, in the years immediately following the war, only a few runners, such as Emil Zátopek Zátopek, Emil of Czechoslovakia, were considered realistic candidates to break the barrier. By the mid-1950’s, however, several promising young athletes had emerged to challenge the four-minute mile. Bannister, Australian John Landy, and American college student Wes Santee were considered most likely to surpass the milestone, although many skeptics continued to insist that such a feat was beyond human capability.

Bannister had decided to pursue a sub-four-minute mile after finishing in a disappointing fourth place in the fifteen-hundred-meter race at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland. Maintaining the busy schedule of a medical student, Bannister sought to maximize limited training time with intensive workouts often completed on his lunch hour. He was an early practitioner of interval training, a technique involving the repetition of short-distance runs at a targeted pace. A typical training session for Bannister included ten quarter-mile repetitions on a track at slightly less than one minute per repetition, interspersed with short rest periods.

Driven by a fascination with human physiology and a desire to balance sport and intellectual life, Bannister maintained his grueling athletic and academic schedule as his rivals, Landy and Santee, also trained intensively to break the four-minute barrier. Media reports of the race to achieve the milestone raised the profile of track and field athletics and brought increased notoriety and pressure to the three athletes. The British press touted Bannister as the best hope for Great Britain to reclaim its tradition of athletic achievement in international competition, but the press had been critical of Bannister following his performance in Helsinki. After failing to break the four-minute barrier during the 1953 season, Bannister, who had always devised his own training regimen without the aid of a formal coach, began training under the renowned Austrian coach Franz Stampfl.

Bannister chose the May 6, 1954, track-and-field meet between Oxford University and the British Amateur Athletic Association Amateur Athletic Association, British (AAA) to attempt to break the four-minute-mile barrier. High winds reaching speeds of 25 miles per hour reportedly prompted Bannister earlier in the day to consider postponing his attempt, but with the winds abating as race time approached, he conferred with AAA teammates Chris Brasher and Christopher Chataway, who would serve as his pacesetters. With the encouragement of Brasher and Chataway, Bannister decided to challenge the mark that afternoon.

The mile race, event number nine of the meet, began at 6:00 p.m. With Brasher setting the pace, Bannister pulled away from his competitors early, running the first quarter-mile lap in 57.5 seconds. Timekeeper and public-address announcer Norris McWhirter, a sports journalist and friend of Bannister, called out the times at each half-lap to assist Brasher and Bannister with their pacing—an unusual but permissible practice. As the two men crossed the half-mile mark in slightly less than 2 minutes, the assembled athletes and spectators started to pay attention. At 660 yards, Chataway moved ahead of Bannister and took over pacesetting duties from Brasher. Bannister began the final lap at 3 minutes, 0.4 seconds, leaving him just under a minute to make history.

Bannister maintained his pace through the first half of the final lap, summoning a final burst of speed for the last 220 yards. Fighting exhaustion and oxygen depletion, he collapsed after crossing the finish line, followed by many of the twelve hundred assembled spectators rushing the track. Supported by Stampfl and his teammates, Bannister struggled for air as officials verified his finishing time. Minutes later, McWhirter announced the results of the race. After he said “three,” the crowd erupted in cheers, drowning out the rest of the announcement.

Bannister, already well known among British sports fans, became a global celebrity, as media worldwide reported the news of his sub-four-minute mile. Santee, disappointed at the news, came close to breaking the four-minute barrier in subsequent attempts but never succeeded, leaving the sport after college for a military career. Landy intensified his own efforts to break the barrier; also a practitioner of interval training, he increased both the number and pace of his interval repetitions. At a meet in Turku, Finland, just forty-six days after Bannister’s historic run, Landy set a new mile record with a run of 3 minutes, 58 seconds.

After defeating Landy in their only head-to-head competition at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games (with a time of 3 minutes, 58.8 seconds) and winning the 1,500-meter race at the European Championships, Bannister retired to pursue a career as a neurologist. In 1955, the American magazine Sports Illustrated named Bannister its first Sportsman of the Year.


The race between three runners from three different continents to run a sub-four-minute mile brought renewed popularity to track-and-field athletics in the postwar era. The fact that Bannister emerged victorious restored athletic prestige and national pride to Britain and helped popularize the sport of running there. His performance inspired subsequent generations of British runners, such as Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, both of whom broke the world mile record multiple times in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Bannister himself downplayed the magnitude of his achievement in later years, insisting that his accomplishments as a neurologist were more significant. He had often stated that he regarded sport as but one component of a well-rounded life rather than a life itself. Yet Bannister remained involved in the sport of track-and-field athletics, becoming the first chairman of the English Sports Council, a government agency responsible for the planning and funding of amateur sports. In recognition of his contributions to sport and medicine, Queen Elizabeth knighted Bannister in 1975.

Although sports scientists and running experts have questioned the significance of the four-minute mile, its symbolic value has led many to consider Bannister’s “miracle mile” one of the most significant sporting achievements of the twentieth century. The breaking of the four-minute-mile barrier demonstrated to the world that the feat was physically and psychologically attainable. That Bannister trained for his historic run with a relatively low-mileage regimen is a source of amazement among competitive runners and enthusiasts, and it stands in sharp contrast to modern training regimens, in which runners often average one hundred miles per week. Bannister’s use of interval training helped to popularize the practice, which became a mainstay of training for competitive runners. Athletes;Roger Bannister[Bannister]
“Miracle Mile, the”[Miracle Mile]
Track-and-field athletics[Track and field athletics]
Four-minute mile run[four minute mile run]

Further Reading

  • Bale, John. Roger Bannister and the Four-Minute Mile: Sports Myth and Sports History. New York: Routledge, 2005. This account of Bannister’s athletic career includes a history of the training methods of middle-distance runners and the significance of the four-minute mile from the perspective of modern sports science.
  • Bannister, Roger. The Four Minute Mile, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Lyons Press, 2004. Bannister’s only autobiography, written a year after his historic mile run. Provides a detailed account of his childhood and life outside the world of athletics.
  • Bascomb, Neal. The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less than Four Minutes to Achieve It. Waterville, Maine: Thorndike Press, 2004. This journalistic narrative of the battle among Bannister, Landy, and Santee to break the four-minute mile includes biographical information on each runner and detailed discussion of training methods, coaching, and running strategy.

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