What Do People Mean by the Four-Minute Mile?

The countdown to the 2024 Olympic Games is well and truly on now, with just a few months to go until the biggest sporting extravaganza on the planet gets underway. The Games will feature all the usual, traditional events, such as swimming, track and field, and gymnastics, as well as some more unusual ones, including surfing, BMX freestyle and breaking (competitive breakdancing).

If you tune into the Games for long enough, especially if you are watching a track event, such as the 1500m, but potentially in any discipline where the commentators or experts are discussing world records and the pushing of boundaries, you will probably hear talk of “the four-minute mile”.

If this is baffling you entirely then we’re here to help, whilst even if you understand a little about this term, we’ll also provide more information and a few stats and facts.


Arne Andersson & Gunder Hagg
Arne Andersson (left) & Gunder Hägg (right)

When we talk about running a four-minute mile, or breaking the four-minute mile, we are referring to an athlete running a mile in under four minutes. For context, that would equate to doing a marathon in around one hour and 45 minutes, compared to the men’s world record of a shade over two hours, or covering 100m more than 16 times at just under 15 seconds per sprint.

For a long time, it was not thought possible for humans to run so quickly over such a distance. Interest in running a mile in four minutes began in the mid-19th century, with one of that era’s great athletes attempting to do so in 1863. In Newmarket, now most closely associated with the racing of horses, William Lang recorded a time of four minutes and two seconds. However, this run was purely downhill, illustrating how far away a genuine four-minute mile was at that time.

The first official time for the mile after the creation of the International Amateur Athletics Federation (which changed its name to the International Association of Athletics Federations, and more recently, to World Athletics), did not come until 1913. US runner, John Paul Jones, recorded a time of 4:14.4 (four minutes, 14.4 seconds), and this was steadily brought down through the 1920s and 1930s, before a pair of Swedes, Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson, beat each other’s record several times in the early 1940s.

However, after Hägg clocked a time of 4:01.4 at Malmo in the summer of 1945, his record stood for almost a decade. Try as they might, the world’s fastest men could not take that time any lower and some believed that the human body was actually incapable of covering a mile quicker.

Roger Bannister Makes History in 1954

Landy & Bannister
John Landy (left) & Roger Bannister (right)

Almost 10 years on from Hagg’s world-record mile, English athlete, Roger Bannister, took to the track at Oxford University on the 6th of May, 1954, determined to make history. Using a couple of other English athletes as pacemakers, including Chris Basher who would go on to set up the London Marathon, Bannister surged into the history books.

He came in at 3:59.4 to create a new world record and to break a psychological barrier that had existed for many years. Athletes simply believed it was not possible and it is generally accepted that this is what preserved Hagg’s record for so long.

Barrier Broken & Record Tumbles

With Bannister’s place in athletic history assured, his contemporaries now saw that a sub-four-minute mile was possible. Just a few weeks later, Australian athlete, John Landy, took over a second off Bannister’s time, recording 3:58.0 at a meeting in Turku, Finland. Not long after that, at the 1954 Commonwealth Games, both men broke the four-minute mark, the first time two athletes had done so in the same race.

There was no new world record but Bannister narrowly beat the Aussie in a time of 3:58.8 in a race known as the Miracle Mile. To commemorate the momentous occasion a statue of the two athletes was created and sits outside Vancouver’s Empire Stadium where the race took place.

The following year three runners, three different ones too, would all break the mark previously believed to be impossible, in the same race. At the British Games, at London’s White City Stadium, Hungarian Laszlo Tabori finished first in exactly 3:59, with two UK athletes 0.8 seconds behind. Brian Hewson was awarded second, with Chris Chataway, who had been the second pacer when Bannister ran the first four-minute mile, in third.

Landy’s record stood for just over three years but in the months and years after Bannister’s feat, a number of runners achieved the four-minute mile. Since Bannister made history, the world record has improved steadily, rarely being held for more than a year or so, barring the odd exception.

Current Mile World Record

Hisham El-Guerrouj
Hisham El-Guerrouj (Credit Sebastien via Wikipedia)

The current world record for the mile is an incredible 3:43.14 and that record has now stood for around a quarter of a century. Moroccan great and double Olympic gold medalist, Hicham El Guerrouj, holds the world record but the length of time he has done so does not really tell the full story.

Since 1976 the mile has been the only non-metric distance for which athletics’ governing body records an official world record. Whilst there may be a world record, the distance of a mile is rarely raced at the top level, with the 1,500m, a slightly shorter distance (around 93% of a mile) becoming the more prestigious, and common, distance.

The mile never featured at the Olympics but, as alluded to above, it did at the Commonwealth Games. However, the last time it featured was back in 1966, when Kenya’s Kip Keino won in 3:55.34. Given it is not raced at any major championships, including the Worlds, it is not something that many athletes aim for.

Four Minutes Still Significant & Still Elite

Whilst the mile is not a typical race distance, being able to complete a sub-four-minute mile remains an elite achievement. Around 1,800 people have done it officially, whereas, for example, almost 7,000 people have scaled Mount Everest.

Moreover, the concept of the four-minute mile remains very significant in terms of a general benchmark. Modern great Jakob Ingebrigtsen set a record over two miles (another rarely raced distance), completing it in 7:54.10, with “two sub-fours” being the way it was judged. Ingebrigtsen is also one of the most recent men to have attempted to break the one-mile record, running 3:43.73 in 2023.

More than any of that, however, the idea of the four-minute mile is still hugely relevant because it serves as an example of how limiting the human mind can be. We are generally capable of far more than we believe, and believing is the first step to achieving any goal. Modern athletes are far less restricted by ideas about the limits of the human body and far keener to push the boundaries, as we are seeing in the quest to break two hours in the marathon, the amazing endurance feats witnessed in races like the Barkley Marathons, and indeed so many other areas.