Frank Horwill



  • These articles were first published many year's ago and whilst some are as relevant today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Running a Four Minute Mile

By Frank Horwill

Here's a training programme designed to crack the ultimate goal: the sub-four-minute mile

Although a man of 40 years of age, Eamonn Coghlan, has run a mile in under four minutes, achieving this feat is still a major accomplishment denied to tens of thousands of other athletes.

First breaks into this domain have been unexpectedly spectacular. Some runners crash through the barrier, while others creep across it. For example, John Buckner (GB) went from 4:02 for the distance to 3:53 in one quantum leap. However, the first sub-four-minute man, Roger Bannister, made it by only six-tenths of a second. The late Gordon Pirie, a former 3km world record holder, cut it finer - he made it by a tenth of a second in a race against Herb Elliott (Australia) in Ireland. On hearing the result, Pirie screamed out 'I've done, I've done it!' and ran to each competitor in the race with the same message. It has to be admitted that he was always close to it with a previous best of 4:00.9. It was his one and only sub-four run, whereas Steve Scott (USA) has chalked up 100 runs inside the time.

Some have attained their goal by unusual means. Terry Sullivan (Southern Rhodesia, as was) bought a book written by Bannister's coach. He started at page 1 and did precisely what was written, becoming the only man on the African continent to duck under the barrier.

How to spot the signs

What are the indications that one is ready to join the select few to achieve this magical state? Years ago, when 880yds was raced, it was accepted that a time of 1:52 was the minimum speed necessary. Today, for the 800m, it would be half-a-second faster. But former mile record holder John Landy (Australia) cut it fine; his best 800m was only 1:51.3, yet he ran a 3:58 mile.

The 800m time appears to have a direct effect on miling aspirations. Noureddine Morceli, with a mile time of 3:44.39, has an 800m time of 1:43.99, which if multiplied by two is 3:27.98, 16.41 secs short of his mile time. Seb Coe's best mile is 3:47.33; his 800m time, 1:41.73, when doubled, is 23.87 secs short of his mile figure. Said Aouita's best mile is 3:46.76, his 800m time is 1:43.86 - 19.04 secs short.

If we take an average of these deficits it is 19.6 secs, and if we apply that as a measure to one's 800m time, we get an estimate of our miling potential, eg, 1:52/800m X 2 = 3:44 + 19 = 4:03. It is clear that an athlete with an 800m time of 1:50 and less has a better chance of running a sub-four mile.

But all is not lost for the non-speedy athlete. One of my runners in 1970 had a reading of only 1:51 for 800m but he ran a 3:56 mile. Using the previous calculations, his combined 800m time was only 14 secs short of his mile time. Thus we have a range of 14-19 secs deficit to measure miling potential. The important omitted factor in this case was his 3 km time, 7mins.49 secs. If we halve this we get 3:54.5, and the customary deduction to ascertain the 1,500m time is less 15 secs. In this case it comes to 3:39.5, the equivalent of a 3:56.5 / mile (adding 17secs to the 1,500m time).

How much preparation?

The age when an athlete is most likely to break four minutes for the first time is now 22. Two decades ago it was 24. The youngest-ever sub-four man was 17-year-old Jim Ryun, who went on to break world records at the mile, 1,500m, half-mile and 800m. The 1,500m gold medal escaped him in two Olympics. He suffered all his athletic life from asthma.

Opinions differ as to the preparatory work required leading up to the track season. Arthur Lydiard (NZ) advocated building up to 100 miles a week of steady running for 10 weeks, followed by six weeks of extensive, fartlek-type hill running. In stark contrast, Bannister did only 28 miles a week in the winter, most of it on an ash track, five laps to the mile, consisting mainly of 10 X 440 yds in 66secs, with 440 yds jog recovery in a fast two minutes. Each month the time for the repetitions was reduced by a second. He also did 3 x 1½ miles on the track at 14:30 pace for 5km. He reached the stage when the 440 yd reps were being done in 56 secs. Lydiard's protege, Peter Snell, 16 years after Bannister's best time of 3:58.8 was to run 4.5 secs faster on three-and-a-half times the quantity of training.

Sebastian Coe devoted his winter to weight-training three times a week, hill running and a session at his estimated 5km pace (13:20). He was able to run 7 X 800m well under 2:08s with 45 secs rest. His longest run was 10 miles at sub-6 mins/mile and shorter runs at 5½ mins/mile. He started each track season with an indoor race at 3km in under eight minutes.

Study the physiological make-up of the mile

If opinions differed as to what winter work produced the best results, there was some unanimity about the necessity of frequent weekly track sessions during the summer. A sub-four-minute aspirant can do no better than look at the physiological make-up of the mile race. The total oxygen requirement is nearly 40 litres, of which only half can be breathed in - thus it is half-aerobic and half-anaerobic.

Aerobic running comes in many guises. There is pure aerobic running: jogging - 100%, marathon speed - 98%. But there is also predominantly aerobic running: 10km speed - 90%, 5km speed - 80% and 3km speed - 60%. The difference in actual execution is 4secs per 400m, or 16 secs per mile. For example, if the marathon pace is 6:00 / mile (90 secs / 400m), half-marathon pace would be 5:44 / mile, 10km pace would be 5:28 / mile, 5km pace 5:12 / mile and 3km pace 4:56 / mile. This, of course, works in reverse. Given a 1,500m time of 4:00 (64 secs / 400), the 3km pace would be 68 / 400 and the 5km pace 72 secs / 400.

The anaerobic requirement is as follows: 100m - 100%, 200m -95%, 400m - 83%, 800m - 67% and the mile - 50%.

Physiologists are agreed that the oxygen uptake (VO2 max) is best improved by work in the range of 80-100% VO2 max. Sub-four milers must acquire a VO2 max in excess of 75mls/kg/min. The maximum for runners is around 82mls/kg/min. This 80 - 100% zone will rule out jogging and marathon pace running. Half-marathon pace work just gets into the pathway at the slower end, while the athlete's 3km speed occupies the other faster, predominantly aerobic pathway.

A programme to break the barrier

We are now in a position to compile a programme based on physiological data to break the four-minute barrier for the mile:

Day 1 - (Aerobic, 80% VO2 max). Run half-marathon distance 64secs per mile slower than for one's best mile time. Example: best mile time 4:10, run 5:14 / mile or as near as possible to this.

Day 2 - (Anaerobic, 110% VO2max). 2 x 1 x 400 + 1 x 800 + 1 x 300, at 15 secs per 100m throughout. Take 30 secs rest after 400m, 60secs rest after 800m and a lap walk after 300m before repeating.

Day 3 - (Aerobic, 90% VO2 max). Run 10km 48 secs / mile slower than for one's best mile time. Example: best mile 4:10, run 4:58 / mile.

Day 4 - (Anaerobic, 130% VO2 max). 4 x 400, 4 secs per 400m faster than per 400m for best mile time. Example: best mile 4:08 (62/400), run 400ms in 58 secs, 3 mins rest.

Day 5 - (Aerobic, 95% VO2max). Run 5 x 1K at 8 secs per 400m slower than for best mile time. Example: Best mile 4:04 (61 / 400), run at 69 / 400 = 2:52, with 60 secs rest.

Day 6 - REST.

Day 7 - (Anaerobic). 1 x 350, 1 x 300, 1 x 250, 1 x 200, 1 x 150. All full out, with 400m walk after each. N.B. Race every other seventh day instead of this session.

On Day 5, alternate this session each week with an aerobic 100% VO2 max session of 4 by1,500m, 4 secs per 400m slower than for one's best mile time. Example: best mile time 4:02 (60.5 / 400m), run 64.5 / 400, with 3mins rest after each.

There is a competitive pattern called 'psycho-logical race preparation'. This is where each month starts with an over-distance race, either 5km or 3km, then an under-distance race, either 400m or 800m, then the specialist distance, in this case 1,500m or a mile. The first confirms endurance, the second speed and the last brings both together.

Beware the third lap

The great destroyer of sub-four ambitions is the third lap. Partly to blame for this is the conversion of 440yd tracks to 400m. Many athletes believe that the ability to run three minutes or just under for three circuits of a metric track puts them in line for a sub-four mile. However, 1,200m in three minutes is 3:45 pace for 1,500m, which converts to a 4:03 mile. A more meaningful time for three laps of a metric track is 2:55, which is 3:39 speed for 1,500m, or around 3:57 for the mile.

While the old-time milers made a point of running a three-quarters of a mile time trial each week (Jack Lovelock, 1936 Olympic 1,500m gold medallist and world-record holder, wrote in his diary: ‘Running three minutes for three laps is becoming too easy’), I have noticed a reluctance to do this even among good-class club athletes.

One method of overcoming this reluctance is to ask the runner to cover 800m at level pace for his best 1,500m time, and then to sprint the next 100m full out (900m total), repeated three times. Gradually the sprint zone is extended by 100m a time until the entire third lap is sprinted. By this means, a runner may cover the first 800m in 2:08 (64 / 400), and then run the third lap in 60 secs. I have seen the 800m covered in two minutes and the third lap in 54 seconds using this method. This, of course, is good tactical training; it helps in creating a 'break' and covering one.

I have been fortunate in my 35 years of coaching to have assisted five athletes in breaking the four-minute barrier. Three of them had left previous coaches because they were not happy with their progress. They all had talent, but they all had idiosyncrasies which had prevented them from achieving their goal. One athlete developed sores at the corner of his mouth as he got fitter. He had a vitamin B complex deficiency, and when it was corrected he had no difficulty in running several sub-four miles. Sometimes it is things like this that make the difference between success and failure.