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Elite runners and coaches explain what it takes to run a sub-4-minute mile

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On Iffley Road in Oxford, England, sits a track stadium. Though ordinary, the venue’s magic lies in its mythology as the place where Roger Bannister became the first person to ever run the mile in less than four minutes.

It was there in May 1954 that Bannister, running 1,609 meters in 3:59.4, started an elite club. Only around 1,500 people or so have joined it since, and two-time Olympian Leo Manzano is proud to be among them.

About a two-hour drive away from what is now the Roger Bannister running track, Manzano took silver in the 1500-meter final at the 2012 London Olympics. He surged from sixth to second place in the last 100 meters and became the first American to medal in the event since 1968. Manzano made running the race in 3:34.79 look easy, but it wasn’t. Running that fast for that long never is.

“People only see the tip of the iceberg,” Manzano told Yahoo Sports. “... So it’s all these years of hard work coming to fruition in probably under four minutes.”

Manzano first broke the four-minute mile barrier when he ran a 3:59.86 in Omaha, Nebraska, at the Big 12 Indoor Championships in 2005. At the time, he was a freshman at the University of Texas, where he was a five-time NCAA champion and 11-time All-American. He ran a personal best in the mile — 3:50.64 — at the IAAF Diamond League meets in 2010.

Video of Manzano’s races from his running career, including his silver-medal effort at the 2012 Olympics, showcase his powerful kick. Running a sub-four mile requires speed. It requires endurance.

That’s why Pete Watson creates strength-oriented workouts for his athletes. Watson, who has trained elite milers such as Mike Marsella, Alex Rogers and Sam Worley, has been the men’s distance coach at Texas since 2018.

For some workouts, Watson has his milers complete five 600-meter intervals at slightly more than a target mile pace, so times between 1:27 and 1:31 per rep. Runners get about 90 seconds to two minutes of rest in between intervals. Other times, the athletes go on a four-mile tempo run at around a 4:55 mile pace before finishing the workout with 200-meter strides on the track.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18:  Runner Leonel Manzano poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot at Quixote Studios on November 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18: Runner Leonel Manzano poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot at Quixote Studios on November 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Speed work is so important when it comes to breaking the four-minute mile barrier because an athlete must run the first three laps in at most 60 seconds each and sprint the final one in even less time than that.

“They have to be strong enough that 60 seconds doesn’t feel fast,” Watson told Yahoo Sports.

With more knowledge about training, nutrition and recovery, more athletes continue to break the four-minute mile barrier. It’s become the standard for high-level middle-distance runners, but still, relatively few break that threshold.

Watson said one common trait elite milers have is that they’re well-rounded. They can run top-tier 3k and 5k times. They excel in cross country. He also said they’re usually very fit and lean.

But it’s not so simple as that. Running is a science. It all comes down to speed endurance, an ability to produce a high force outlet for four minutes at a certain velocity.

Some athletes enjoy physiological gifts like naturally higher levels of ferritin, a protein that helps create healthy red blood cells and allows them to carry more oxygen, said Jonathan Marcus, a running coach and educator who has trained national championship and Olympic Trials qualifiers.

But, he added, with the right conditioning and nutrition, a runner can build up their biological capacity to do something as strenuous as running a mile in less than four minutes.

Then there’s physics. Pre-stretched muscles contract more powerfully, meaning they have a shorter ground contact time and allow a runner to move faster, Marcus said. Slower runners must recreate every step, which produces a micro stopping and starting effect.

“Slower runners — the way they run is foot on the brake, foot on the gas,” Marcus told Yahoo Sports. “Faster runners, foot’s just on the gas.”

Manzano ran his first sub-four mile at an indoor meet. Many other milers have done the same. Only the most elite athletes are unaffected by outdoor conditions like heat and wind. Most need a perfect environment with perfect temperature and perfect pacemakers to break four in the mile. That’s why meets at the University of Washington and Boston University, where athletes often break four, are basically like time trials, Watson said.

Before Bannister became the first person to ever break the barrier, running a mile in under four minutes was thought to be near impossible. Once he did it, more people joined the club. Manzano thinks achieving the athletic feat is a mental barrier as much as it is physical.

“I’ve known guys that just keep running either 4:01 or 4:00 flat and … for some reason, they just can’t seem to break through,” Manzano said.

Two of Watson’s current runners at Texas, Crayton Carrozza and Yusuf Bizimana, have broken the barrier, while others have remained stuck in the 4:00 or 4:01 range. It’s when runners put too much emphasis on the barrier that they don’t break it — when they focus too much on their pace or too much on their splits, Watson said.

Sometimes, he sees the panic set in for athletes mid-race.

“If you think the barrier is something you can’t do, you’re never going to do it,” Watson said. “ … Some guys, they’re just killers. Other guys are a little more introspective on things and overanalyze things and they put those barriers. It’s the ones who don’t think it’s fast that … are successful in doing it.”

When Manzano still competed professionally, he often ran 60-90 miles each week. Long solo runs got lonely and interval work proved challenging. Ultimately, breaking the four-minute mile takes hard work and dedication, along with belief in oneself, he said.

For many, running a mile that fast seems painful and tiring, an impossible feat. Manzano would describe it differently.

“Exhilarating,” he said.

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 9 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 9 slideshow embed

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