What if Roger Bannister Trained Today?
LØPE MAGAZINE – Special Edition, May 2020
Words and Illustrations by Liam Boylan-Pett
This is an excerpt from Upon Further Review, a book of the greatest what-ifs in sports history, by Mike Pesca. It is published with permission of the author.
* * *
Back in 2017, I wrote a piece for Mike Pesca’s Upon Further Review, a book about the greatest sports hypotheticals. I was tasked with unearthing how fast Roger Bannister would have been if he trained today. The book was published shortly after Bannister died. On the 64th anniversary of Bannister’s historic run, enjoy this excerpt from Upon Further Review, as I wonder how fast Roger Bannister would be, had he trained in modern times.
* * *
It’s June 21, 2017. Runners all around the world—high schoolers and professionals alike—are posting the same image on Instagram. It’s a grainy, black-and-white photo of John Landy from sixty-three years ago. He’s in white short shorts, a dark tank top, and a race bib numbered 2. The captions are different but the same, paying homage to the man who, on that June day in 1954, became the first human being to run a sub-four-minute mile.
One man isn’t posting a photo, though. Roger Bannister isn’t joining the celebration. About two months before Landy’s historic feat, Bannister was in the best shape of his life. He figured he was going to be the first person to dip under that magical four-minute barrier. Life is weird, though. Two months before the race that would make John Landy a name synonymous with speed and the limits of human achievement, Roger Bannister marked a milestone of a different sort. He became the first human to be cryogenically frozen. He was unfrozen in May 2017, and, after urinating for, you guessed it, three minutes and fifty-nine seconds, he was told to join a professional running group. These scientists wanted to see how fast he could be. Bannister, too, was invested in gauging his land speed. He was far less interested in commenting on a photo of his one-time rival John Landy on some palm-sized computer that doubled as a phone.
We should now admit, for the two readers who were unsure of the nature of this enterprise, or of science, that no, Roger Bannister was never actually frozen. In fact, on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds to become the first man under four. But suppose he hadn’t. What if an in-his-prime Roger Bannister was transported to the present day? How fast could he go?
Sure, had Bannister been cryogenically frozen, a few interesting occurrences would have transpired. The Oceana region for a time would have taken over the world of athleticism thanks to Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand summiting Everest and the Australian Landy conquering the mile. But for our purposes there is the more fundamental question: How fast would Bannister be today? With sponsorship money for pro athletes and technological advancements in training, tracks, and racing shoes, would he still be one of the best in the world? Or would a thawed-out Bannister have looked at the current world record in the mile—3 minutes, 43.13 seconds—and said, “I have no chance”?
Physically, Bannister had the tools, then and now—prefrozen and unfrozen—to be one of the world’s best. But while many of today’s best milers run upward of eighty miles per week, Bannister found time to work out while getting his medical degree. In fact, before he broke four for the first time, Bannister took the previous five days off from running—which would be a laughable scenario given today’s training standards. Even so, Bannister was the best miler in the world in 1954, and some think he could be one of the world’s best in the 2010s, too.
Dr. Michael Joyner certainly believes in him. “Bannister would be at least 3 percent better today than he was in 1954,” Joyner, an expert in human performance at the Mayo Clinic, says confidently. For Bannister, a three percent improvement would equal 7.16 seconds. With a personal record of 3 minutes, 58.8 seconds—a race in which he beat Landy head-to-head in August 1954—Joyner believes Bannister would, at the very least, be a 3 minute, 51 second miler in today’s track and field landscape.
“The 3 percent puts him at 3:51 or so,” Joyner says. “Then I’d give him a second or two thanks to more competitive races. That puts him under 3 minutes, 50 seconds. Then give him a second or two for training past the age of twenty-five and having a longer competitive career. Would he have run 3 minutes, 45 seconds in a real world? We don’t know. But is it reasonable to think he could dip under 3:50? Yes.”
Joyner published a 1991 paper in the Journal of Applied Physiology predicting that a human could run a marathon in 1:57:58. In 1991 that prediction seemed crazy, but after Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge ran 2 hours, 25 seconds in a controlled Nike-sponsored race with the help of multiple pacers and ideal conditions, Joyner is looking more and more like a seer. (Editor’s note: Kipchoge would, of course, go on to break 2 hours in another controlled race in 2019.) Joyner believes that VO2 max (an athlete’s aerobic capacity, or how well oxygen is transported through the body), lactate threshold (the point at which the burning occurs in your legs while running), and running economy (stride efficiency) are the three most important aspects to distance running. While we have learned more and more about these areas in recent years, Joyner has seen testing results that show runners from the 1950s reaching similar levels of VO2 max and lactate threshold as the athletes of today. Athletes have been training hard enough to build up VO2 for a while now, he says. “This idea that current athletes are substantially better in sports like running,” Joyner says, “it’s just not there.”
Joyner isn’t saying that Bannister would be the best miler in the world today, but he does believe Bannister had the tools to mix it up with the top athletes—especially when considering the advancements in technology in 2017 compared to 1954.
First off, tracks and racing shoes were terrible in comparison to the speedy surfaces and lightweight shoes available today.
In Bannister’s heyday, tracks were made of packed cinders, crushed rocks that have a similar firmness to pumice. Cinder tracks weren’t exactly slow—especially the new one at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, where Bannister broke four in 1954—but compared to the all-weather synthetic tracks of today, cinder tracks are akin to running in grass instead of running on cement. Cinder tracks are much softer than synthetic tracks—meaning that a runner uses much more energy to push off against the ground than he or she would against the hard surface of a track, which is much bouncier. Many estimates say a cinder track is good to slow a runner down about one to two seconds per lap.
In a TED Talk from 2014, David Epstein researched cinder tracks, and, with the help of biomechanics experts, discovered that cinder tracks are about 1.5 percent slower than the synthetic tracks athletes race on today. Epstein is the best-selling author of The Sports Gene, a book on the science of extraordinary athletic performance. A runner himself, he’s very intrigued by how fast Bannister would run today—and Epstein thinks Bannister could have been a great. “Having looked at his training logs and having talked to him,” Epstein says, “I think he’d potentially be a sub-3:50 guy.”
Getting to sub-3:50 would be possible not only because of a newer track—state-of- the-art shoes would help, too. Not as much as you’d think, however.
Spencer White is the vice president of the Saucony Human Performance & Innovation Lab in Waltham, Massachusetts. There, Saucony uses high-tech equipment and high-speed cameras to measure how shoes affect an athlete’s foot strike and body movement. White says that racing spikes haven’t advanced as much as we might think they have.
Bannister broke four minutes in a custom pair of track spikes that weighed a reported 4.5 ounces. Saucony’s lightest distance spike weighs 2.8 ounces (Nike’s Zoom Victory weighs 4.1 ounces). White calculates that every three ounces in spike weight translates to an improvement of one percent in speed, meaning Bannister’s spikes weren’t holding him back much based on weight.
In terms of construction, Bannister’s spikes were made from thin leather and had permanent half-inch spikes jutting out of the leather soles to cut through the cinders. With each step, those spikes sliced into the cinders and then skidded back out. “Pushing the spikes in and then pulling them out adds a tiny bit of time,” White says, “but the tiny things add up.”
White says that spike and track technology have purposefully advanced in tandem. The give of the track interacts with the firmness of the shoe, which affects the amount of spring a runner has in each step. Newer spikes are made with more cushioning thanks to lightweight
foam and plastic spike plates. The biggest advantage in today’s spikes, according to White, is that extra bit of cushioning that doesn’t compromise the weight of the shoe—and more cushioning makes for a more comfortable shoe. And while it is very hard to put a number on it, a less pained runner is, in general, a swifter runner.
The next major area to consider is Bannister’s training, which, compared to a modern runner, might be considered not training.
Kyle Merber is a 3:52 miler in the United States. His sponsorships and race winnings allow him to run full-time. Merber runs 80 to 90 miles per week mixing in workouts (something like 3 × 800 meters at 1 minute, 55 seconds), tempo runs (10 miles at 5 minutes, 5 seconds per mile pace), and long runs of sixteen to twenty miles. Plus, he’s in the gym lifting weights and receiving treatment from physical therapists and sports masseuses to stay healthy.
Merber’s training mixes endurance and speed—Bannister’s was mostly what is called speed endurance. In The Four-Minute Mile, which Bannister wrote the year after he achieved the feat, Bannister published some of his training logs. While he did run a staple workout that milers still do today (10 × 440 yards at 59-second pace), Bannister’s training was much different in that it consisted mostly of interval training. The longest distance he ran in the month leading up to his 3 minute, 59 second mile was 9 miles. Plus, two weeks before his May 6 race, he took a weekend off to go rock climbing in Scotland to relax. A coach would lambast an athlete for such an act today.
“To run under four minutes in the way that he did shows that he was clearly a specimen,” Merber says. “With fifty years of elite track athletes experimenting with optimal ways to train, he’d be at the level of top runners today, too.” Merber predicts Bannister would run 3:49, especially when you add in the level of competition he would face.
Bannister had two incredible pacers in Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher to lead him through three-quarters of the race when he broke four, but, depending on the conditions of a modern race, he could have had a warren of rabbits in front of him. In 2015, running on the historically fast track at Monaco, Matthew Centrowitz—who in 2016 became the first American to win Olympic Gold in the 1,500 meters since 1908—ran 3 minutes, 30.40 seconds for 1,500 meters (the equivalent of a 3 minute, 47.17 second mile). Centrowitz placed tenth. If Bannister found himself running on the back of a train of racers, it’s hard to imagine that his competitive nature wouldn’t kick in and he finish at least within the pack.
Or he might have faltered with so many competitors in front of him. Running is more than the spikes and cinders of gear and the ability of the human body. There’s a mental aspect to the sport, too. Mental strength set Bannister apart in the 1950s, but it’s what might have ruined him in the 2010s.
Everything written above has supposed that Bannister would be all-in on training full-time—but what if he wanted to go to medical school? It may sound foolish, but if someone had already broken four, would Bannister be as interested in setting a record at all? Bannister retired shortly after breaking the barrier—he was only 25—and was much more interested in his medical studies than in racing. In fact, he’s Sir Roger Bannister not because of his running, but because of his work as the chairman of the British Sports Council.
David Epstein thinks Bannister would be capable of running sub-3 minutes, 50 seconds, but he also has his doubts that Bannister would want to. “I think the most likely scenario is that he probably would have been a less competitive runner in some ways,” Epstein says. “The fact that he was able to go cold turkey on running at the age of 25 suggests it wasn’t something he had to do.”
According to Epstein, doing something significant was what drove Bannister: “He told me when he got fourth in the 1952 Olympics, if he had gotten the bronze, he would have stopped there. There was something patriotic about it to him. Breaking four was what drove him.”
In January 2009, I ran a mile in 3 minutes, 59.40 seconds to become the 315th American under the mark. (I would eventually run 3 minutes, 57.75 seconds, which, according to Dr. Joyner and his Bannister Three Percent Rule, would be worth a 4:04.88 in 1954. Damn.). For me, four minutes was a milestone, but not an unprecedented one. It’s the difference between circumnavigating the globe in a modern sailboat versus being Magellan—but it was still a life-changing moment. It was a day filled with all those cliché emotions of working your ass off to accomplish something and actually doing it, and it still is something I talk about whenever running comes up. When someone finds out you’re a runner, they first ask if you’ve run a marathon. Then, once you tell them that you ran at the Olympic Trials, they ask you your mile time. Most would be impressed if you told them you had run 4 minutes, 59 seconds—saying 3 minutes, 57 seconds blows their mind. Because of Bannister, the general population knows what four minutes and the mile means. At least six thousand sub-four miles have been run, according to alltime-athletics.com. The large number has rendered the mark less significant, but it’s still a milestone—one that people get behind. My phone exploded with text messages when I did it for the first time in 2009, and that was before I could even post a photo on Instagram celebrating my feat.
It would therefore make sense that as a driven and talented runner, even a med-school-crazy Bannister would want to dip under four just once, establishing himself as a great, if not the greatest, runner. Most of today’s professional runners spend all day as athletes—Bannister would scoff at these runners napping and playing video games in their free time—but others have succeeded while pursuing other careers. Daniel Lincoln set the American record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase while in medical school. Annie Bersagel ran a 2 hour, 28 minute marathon while working as a full-time lawyer. Wesley Korir finished fifth in the Boston Marathon while serving as an elected member of Kenya’s Parliament.
Plus, Bannister might have jumped at the chance to experiment with new technologies and training methods like going to altitude. The question is: How much of his life would Bannister want to put into running? According to the man himself—not that much.
In 2014, Bannister told Sports Illustrated he wouldn’t have been a world beater. “I accept the fact that were I running today, I wouldn’t be breaking world records,” he said. “I just happened to be there at a crucial time.” He admitted he wouldn’t have put off medicine to pursue a professional running career, saying, “It’s not really life as a whole, is it?”
Imagining Bannister had been cryogenically frozen and then thawed in 2017, though, it’s hard to fathom he’d just ignore all the hard work he had already put in and simply walk away from his sport—especially with Landy getting all that credit. Bannister would have to give it at least some semblance of a try.
So, we shall stipulate that a 2017 Bannister was sufficiently motivated, properly equipped, modernly trained, running on faster tracks, and adequately defrosted. He also would be better remunerated, although Bannister was never driven by riches.
The only thing not in Bannister’s favor is that he wouldn’t have been a history maker. Even if he somehow beat Hicham El Guerrouj’s world record, it’s not the same as leading humanity under four (Bannister’s name is much more recognizable to the public than El Guerrouj’s).
Each expert I spoke with said Bannister had the tools to challenge sub-3 minutes, 50 seconds, but Epstein’s warnings about Bannister’s psyche stood out the most to me. Bannister was a special athlete, and he had a special mental skill set. It really does seem that he wouldn’t have been singularly dedicated to becoming the best runner in the world today. He likely would have run 3:53 or 3:54 and been a phenomenal runner—perhaps making the Olympic team for Great Britain—but his pull toward medicine never would have abated.
Bannister would break four at least once. He would make sure to run faster than Landy ever did. Then he would post a photo of himself on Instagram, similar to that image of him on the Iffley Road Track from 1954, his face full of pain and exhaustion, but this time in new spikes and on a synthetic track. His caption would read: “Got you, John.”
Satisfied, he would then retire and head to the office to study.
* * *