What We Can Learn from Running Legends Roger Bannister and David Martin

This past week, we lost two giants of running: Roger Bannister and David Martin. Though they led vastly different lives, both left an indelible mark on running.

Who has not heard of Roger Bannister? His place in sports is immortal. Not only was he the first man to break the four-minute mile, but he showed us that any barrier can be broken. He’ll be forever remembered in that famous photo at Iffley Road Athletics Track at Oxford University in 1954, his head tossed back in the perfect image of giving everything he had as he crossed the finish line in 3:59.4. He was 25 at the time, and the record lasted just 45 days. Since Bannister’s famed feat, about 1,400 runners have run sub-4, with 514 of those Americans.

“It became a symbol of attempting a challenge in the physical world of something hitherto thought impossible,” said Bannister, who went on to become a highly regarded neurologist. “I’d like to see it as a metaphor not only for sport, but for life and seeking challenges.”

Roger Bannister showed us that any barrier can be broken.

Hicham El Guerrouj is the current men’s record holder in the mile with his time of 3:43.13 in 1999.

  • Lesson One: Train for your event. Bannister trained exceptionally hard, taking his speed in short bursts, what we call fartlek—which was the forerunner of interval training.
  • Lesson Two: Seize the moment. The scene that day so many years ago was of a misty day with a wind picking up. Bannister was unsure whether it was the right time to make the attempt. As Bannister recalled: “I was watching the church steeple of St George’s and the flag was still sticking out straight. “That meant the wind was very strong–it was like a wind sock at an airport.” Fellow amateurs Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, who were there to race as well, were becoming impatient with Bannister’s indecision. They came into the changing room half an hour before the 6:00 pm start and said, “you’ve got to make up your mind.” At that moment the flag slackened a little and Bannister said: “Let’s do it.”
  • Lesson three: Don’t be afraid to try new things. Bannister took the idea of “speedplay,” and turned it into a science. A pre-med student, he was a true pioneer—one of the first to really perform research on exercise physiology and running, and he used what he learned in hit training

Although David Martin was not a record setter (he was a fine collegiate cross-country runner), he too left a big mark on running. Like Bannister, but in a different era, he was a renowned exercise physiologist. A professor at Georgia State University, he specialized in pulmonary, cardiovascular, and exercise physiology, and he used that expertise to coach elite runners. He is credited with helping both Meb Keflezighi win the silver medal and Deena Kastor the bronze in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. While Martin’s wisdom is far too broad to incapsulate in a few paragraphs (he authored several great running books), here are a few of his tips.

  • Lesson one: It’s not how much training you do, rather, it’s how well you recover from the training you do.
  • Lesson two: More training isn’t necessarily better. Doing the correct training is the answer to improved performance, not just more training.
  • Lesson three: Avoid the rut. Martin observed that the same running routine over and over again led to staleness. Find a pattern that works for you, but always add in some new workouts or training stress every few weeks, making sure to balance that with adequate recovery.

Upcoming races: Saturday, March 17 at 8:00 a.m., the Kyle O’Meter Shamrock Shuffle 5K at Wallace Middle School in Kyle. Saturday, March 24 at 9:30 a.m. Missions 5K at St. James Missionary Baptist Church 3417 E. MLK Jr. Blvd. in Austin.

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