Mind vs Matter  //  The Four-minute mile: The value of integration of physiology and mental aspects of performance

14 Jan 2009 Posted by

Yesterday’s discussion on mind vs. matter, and the role of mental aspects to performance, left off with the short recap of a fatigue series that I wrote almost a year ago. It reminded us that the brain is ultimately in control of exercise, and that fatigue, or the decision to slow down during exercise is not taken because the muscles are failing, but rather because the brain is regulating the degree of muscle activation so that we are protected from physiological harm.

This was of course an extension of the somewhat philosophical argument of whether physiology or psychological is the key separator or differentiator between good and great athletes. The question “How important is the mind to elite performance?” forms the basis of this series, and specifically, I’m interested in understanding the integration, and overcoming the rampant over-simplification of this very complex argument that tends to infiltrate it.

The 4-minute mile

Perhaps the best illustration of both the good and bad aspects of this debate comes from the story of the 4-minute mile, which I’m sure is quite well known to many of you. I’m not going to recap the whole story here, there are plenty of good books that will do that for you (so no history lessons – it’s not the point!), but will attempt to summarize the salient points into a relevant story, because it really does highlight both the importance of the mind, and the tendency people have to overstate that importance and hype it up.

Go back to 1945. The world record for the mile stood at 4:01.3, held by one of the great Swedish runners of that generation, Gunder Hagg. His performance was actually the culmination of a golden generation of Swedish runners, and in particular, Arne Andersson and Hagg were a dominant duo between 1942 and 1945. They set FIVE world records between them, taking the record down from 4:06.4 to 4:01.3 in the space of four years.

Inevitably, then, attention turned to the sub-4 minute mile. It was only a matter of time…

Turned out to be a long time. It was not for a lack of trying however, and the race to be the first to crack this magical barrier captured the world’s attention. It co-incided, incidentally, with the race to conquer Mount Everest, which gives a nice illustration of how the achievement was being judged! Which was tougher – Everest or sub-4 minutes for one mile?

And the world waited. And waited. It would take a full 9 years before the record would fall (one year AFTER Everest was conquered, incidentally). This large gap is often cited as proof of the mental barrier, and we’ll see shortly that this is only partly correct. However, it must be remembered that the world had just emerged from a war that claimed the lives of many young men, and also ruined the infrastructure and robbed athletes of training time required to produce decent performances (despite it being amateur back then). It would have taken a very unusual set of circumstances for a record-breaking performance during the aftermath of the war, given that the nations most likely to produce the athletes were also those affected most by it.

However, the action really started in about 1952. That was when John Landy started what would become an agonizing quest to crack the barrier. He would, over the course of a two year period, run the following sequence of times:
4:02.1 – 4:02.6 – 4:02.8 – 4:02.5 – 4:02.7 – 4:02.3

Points for consistency, yes, but not so much for the breakthrough everyone was waiting for.

After the last of those performances, in a race where he was on track to break 4 minutes until the final 100m, he was quoted as saying the following to journalists:

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.

So that was to become Landy’s “legacy” – that quote, and a string of so close, so yet far performances.

Then enter Roger Bannister, on 6 May, 1954, in Oxford, and a performance that stopped the clock at 3:59.4. The four-minute barrier was gone, and Bannister was the man, not Landy.

What happened next is the fuel behind the mind vs. matter debate. 46 days later, John Landy, who had said “I don’t think I can”, went out and ran not sub-4 minutes, not sub-3:59, but 3:57.9! A full 4 seconds faster than he’d ever managed before, his own sub-four minute clocking, and proof that the four minute mile was most definitely NOT beyond his capabilities, as he himself had suggested!

The interpretation – a bit of moderation required

Now, this story has some very obvious interpretations. Physiologically speaking, we have to ask what might have changed in 46 days for John Landy? There’s not likely to be some difference in his training, in his physiological make-up that allowed this huge improvement. The answer most settle on, of course, is that Bannister had broken down Landy’s mental wall. Having removed a mental barrier from Landy’s mind, Landy’s physiology was able to express itself and produce the time his physiology allowed.

I have no argument there. I suspect part of it, a much more mundane explanation, is that Landy may have learned from Bannister how to pace the effort a little better (let’s not forget Landy had blown in the final 100m of his previous attempt while on course). I’d argue, however, that this is still a psychological effect, and Landy’s improvement is down to his improved mental approach to how to structure the race.

The mental barrier removed, and belief drives physiological performance

But I also believe that Landy went into that record race freed of the pressure, the barrier and the expectation and was able to more closely run to his own physiological limit. Quite what it is that allowed this beats me. I’m sure there is a psychological theory for it. But in line with yesterday’s post, I would propose that the ability to maximize this physiological talent is dependent on the right psychological, or mental attitude. Whether that is belief, confidence, anger, composure, fear, doesn’t really matter right now (it’s worth unpacking another time), but I would certainly propose that Landy was a case of a runner who under-achieved under the pressure, and once it was removed, and belief was provided by Bannister’s example, he expressed his physiology far more effectively.

Overstating the presence of the mental barrier

Where I think the role of psychology has been over-hyped is the assertion that was soon made that the four-minute mile is a mental barrier. (Thanks to Simon for pointing this out in his comment to yesterday’s post and for inspiring this story, incidentally.)

People were quick to jump onto the “mental barrier” bandwagon, and argued that the long delay between 1945 and 1954, followed by the Landy performance, was proof that breaking four minutes was mental, and a deluge was predicted. What is interesting is that there was no flood. Simon’s words now:

the number of people subsequently getting through the “psychological” barrier after that were 3 in 1955, 7 in ’57, 4 in ’58, 1 in ’59. 5 in ’60 and zero/no one in 1961, and so on. Certainly no flood. (Figures from “Bannister and Beyond” by Jim Denison).

So the flood never came, but the story has survived nevertheless. It’s still a fascinating story, because I do believe it illustrates the value of belief, confidence and mental preparation (including composure and pacing), while highlighting how detrimental to performance things like self-doubt, anxiety and excess expectation can be. It seems that Landy was at the end of his tether when he spoke to the journalists after that last race – that frustration and self-doubt, once replaced by belief and a removal of the pressure, allowed him to find a performance that he himself thought impossible.

And therein lies what I believe to be the take-home message from this story. Not that the four-minute mile is a mental barrier, because it’s clearly not – more people would have followed Bannister and Landy if it was. Even today, breaking four minutes is not a Jedi mind-trick that any determined athlete can pull off.

Rather, the message is that we can each improve within ourselves by reframing our expectations, by challenging our beliefs, by identifying our own mental barriers and then breaking them down. I really do believe that whether you’re running a 4-hour marathon or a 32-minute 10km off the bike in a triathlon, you will find a benefit in performance if you assess your mental approach to racing and work at believing what is possible for you.

Linking in training – mental and psychological factors are forged in training

And then very importantly, perhaps most crucially of all, is that your mental approach to racing, your confidence, your belief, are not simply mental tricks. This is not about just hypnotizing yourself into running faster, into suffering a little more. It’s an approach to training. Once again, in the words of Jamie from yesterday’s post:

“Training responses are initiated, determined, and dictated by the brain. Without attention to the control of thought processes…or attention to the encoding of exact movement patterns, many athletes will be trained inappropriately.”

So the point is, training is an act of physiology, but it’s also an act of psychology, and it’s in training that the thought patterns, the elusive concept of mental strength, the belief and the ability to regulate pace, are laid down.

So let me end with another bit of information about Bannister and Landy. Roger Bannister would go on to become a decorated neuroscientist – he was studying medicine when he ran his 4-minute mile, and specialised in understanding the very organ that may have provided his edge – the brain. Part of his training included a session of 10 x 400 m repeats, run at race pace (59 seconds), with a 1:30 recovery. He was preparing his brain, and his body, and his mind (for the brain is not simply a mind – it’s an organ of physiology!), for the effort it would take. Of course, I can’t account for Landy’s training, but Bannister’s career focused on understanding the physiology of the brain. I dare say he did the same in his training. The result? 3:59.4, and a place in history

Conclusion from this story: Integrate and understand

The conclusion then, apart from what I wrote above about how everyone one of you must examine your own belief, mental approach and potential “brick walls”, is that if you want to be a better athlete (regardless of your sport), you must challenge yourself, both physiologically and mentally. It’s not good enough to isolate one and train simply for fitness. Training must be thoughtful, it must have a purpose and it must be understood. I really do believe that the simple act of concentrating during your performances will add to your physiological ability. You’ll be benefiting from your own understanding, and approaching your own limit.

Preview of what’s to come – more on this debate, plus our first race of 2009

So that wraps up this little history lesson. It’s something of a departure from what I had planned after last night, but Simon’s comment inspired this “detour”, which really is a great story. I have a bit more to say about this issue of mind over matter, and I’ll do so next week.

However, before then, we have the first big marathon of the year, in Dubai on Saturday. Haile Geb is going for another time-trial, um, world record, on a course where last year, he broke 2:06 after going off ridiculously fast early on.

So we’ll take a break from “philosophy of sport” for a little while, and Jonathan will do a preview of the race tomorrow, and we’ll bring you the splits and reports as they come through this weekend!

Then next week, we’ll resume this debate, and also get into some new territory!

Thanks as always!


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