Before 1954, the common belief was that man was not physically capable of breaking the 4 minute barrier — that man could not run a mile under 4 minutes. It had never been done before. For years, men had attempted to do so and failed.
There were strings of performances where many had come within 3 seconds of breaking that record — Gunder Hagg came in at 4:01 once — but never had anyone broke the 4 minute barrier. The 4:01 record clocked in 1945 would stand for 9 years, until Roger Bannister came along.
On 6th May 1954, Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute barrier. Under less than favorable conditions, he clocked the time of 3:59.4, becoming the first man to run a sub 4 minute mile. Since then, over a thousand runners have gone on to run the 4 minute mile. Today, the 4 minute barrier is the standard of all professional middle distance runners.
What changed? Certainly, runners may have gotten stronger with better training techniques. They certainly have better running gear.
But here’s what happened. After Roger Bannister ran the sub 4 minute mile, every athlete got on the track knowing that the 4 minute mile was humanly possible; that it could be done. They competed believing that they too could do it.
John Landy, Bannister’s closest competitor, smashed the record with a 3:57.9 timing just 46 days after Bannister accomplished the feat. He had clocked multiple 4:02 performances before, but this was a full 4 seconds faster than his personal best. Here were some of his remarks before Bannister first ran the 4 minute mile.
“Frankly, I think the four-minute mile is beyond my capabilities. Two seconds may not sound much, but to me it’s like trying to break through a brick wall. Someone may achieve the four-minute mile the world is wanting so desperately, but I don’t think I can.”
To Landy, the 4 minute mile seemed impossible to accomplish. But that changed when his rival accomplished the feat before his very eyes.
The Power of Belief
Said Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” Do your abilities matter? They certainly do. It’s unlikely that I will ever be able to run a 4 minute mile in the next 12 months — perhaps I could do it if I dedicated the next 5 years of my life to this task — but you could. It is our confidence and innate beliefs that take us over the edge.
Before beginning any task, you must be able to visualize yourself in that moment when you have already accomplished it. The modern athlete uses vivid, highly detailed internal images and run-throughs of their performance, with all of their senses engaged. They can see their moment of triumph before it actually happens.
Brain studies now reveal that thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions. Mental imagery impacts many cognitive processes in the brain: motor control, attention, perception, planning, and memory. So the brain is getting trained for actual performance during visualization.
Muhammad Ali was certainly on to something with his remark — “I said I was the greatest before I knew I was”.
Your 4 Minute Mile
Find your own hero that has done something you’ve always dreamed of doing. Having someone who has ‘been there, done that’ will allow you to tap onto his experience. The best work in the world has been done by people who stood on the shoulders of giants who have come before them.
More importantly, it allows you to ask yourself: “If he can do it, why can’t I?” In the same way that Landy had Bannister to stretch his beliefs, having a precedent will allow you to dream bigger than you ever would alone.
“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” — Napoleon Hill
What’s your personal 4 minute mile? What are the mental barriers that you can’t overcome? What are the beliefs that are holding you back?
Overcome them, and you are on your way to where you want to go.
Because you are your only limit.