Sonia O’Sullivan: How long before a woman runs a sub-four minute mile?

With so many variables it’s difficult to find that same sub-four moment for women

It's over 30 years now since I ran my first competitive mile race. Back in 1989, to be exact, my second year at Villanova, and during my first indoor season.

All our training back then was measured in miles, the distance and the pace, so I always had a feeling for the times we were running anyway. From my running diary of 1986, most of my training runs were at seven-minute mile pace, and repeat miles were done close to five-minute mile pace.

Only last week on the 66th anniversary of the first ever sub-four minute mile for me did I realise that 23 days after Roger Bannister's widely recognised athletics breakthrough, in May of 1954, British athlete Diane Leather became the first ever women to run under five minutes for the mile.

To me it seems quite far-fetched to think a woman could ever break four minutes for the mile

At the time this was an equally sought after achievement among women’s distance runners, even though world records in the 1950s for women were not recognised beyond 880 yards.


With no competitive running to think about right now, that got me thinking further. It took 13 years, up to 1967, before the fastest women's mile run was ratified as a world record by the IAAF, when British athlete Anne Rosemary Smith ran 4:37.0 in London.

Six years later, Paola Pigni-Cacchi of Italy ran 4:29.5, the first woman under 4:30 for the mile, and possibly a more comparable mark for women to the iconic four-minute mile for men.

Still it doesn’t hold the same allure or acclaim for women, and maybe never will. The closest thing for women is possibly the sub-four for 1,500m, although in the context of things it would appear a lot more difficult for a woman to run sub-four minutes in the 1,500m than a man to run a sub-four minute mile.

There have been plenty of raging debates and analysis among athletes down through the years, but with so many variables it’s difficult to find that same sub-four moment for women.

To me it seems quite far-fetched to think a woman could ever break four minutes for the mile. The current world record of 4:12.22 was set just last year by Sifan Hassan, the Dutch runner born in Ethiopia, which means a sub-four mile would require an improvement of over three seconds per lap. That's not going to happen fast.

If the men's record was to improve at the same rate of progression in line with the women's progression since 1954, then for a woman to break four minutes for the mile, a man would need to be running around 3:36. That's not going to happen fast either – the current men's mile world record of 3:43.13 still holding from 21 years ago, Hicham El Guerrouj from Morocco clocking that in 1999.

I ran my first sub-nine minutes, and two weeks later, two seconds faster, I was the NCAA champion over 3,000m

In a loosely mathematical equation this would lead us to believe that by 2046, it’s possible that a woman could break four minutes for a mile. When I look back and think it is 27 years since I first ran under four minutes for 1,500m, 3:59.60 in 1993, before running 3:58.85 in 1995; in between, in 1994, running my mile record of 4:17.26. I’m not so sure the mathematical progression will continue at the same rate. We are after all humans, not robots.

There are other possibilities to factor in: perfect weather, advanced training and nutrition, but even still it wouldn’t be the same as the original sub-four and what it did for athletics in an entirely different era.

When I look back and think of running a mile race there was never any real connection to the sub-four minute mile. It was a sort of benchmark for male athletes embarking onto the world stage, and in more recent times it could be seen as a limiter for male distance runners.

The bar is so much higher now, and in recent times the actual sub-four minute mile benchmark is closer to running 3:56 to be anywhere near competitive on the world stage.

If we also think of the sub-four moment as a breakthrough moment in an athlete’s life then it can be different for athletes across all events. After all it’s not uncommon now for a teenage male runner to run sub-four, a once monumental achievement now just ticked off as part of the progress to be competitive internationally. If we are not keeping up with this rate of progress then we are clearly falling behind in the progression of junior athletes to senior competition.

As a young athlete embarking onto the world stage back in 1990, the more relevant benchmark for me was probably a sub-nine minute run for 3,000m. It was one of those barriers that I knew if I broke through it would no longer be a barrier; I would have crossed the line where anything was possible.

It was at the 1990 Eastern Conference Championships, at the George Mason University track in Virginia, running for Villanova: the win would be enough to qualify for the NCAA Championships, only I was at the stage where I didn't just want to qualify, but to be competitive at the national level. I ran my first sub-nine minutes, and two weeks later, two seconds faster, I was the NCAA champion over 3,000m.

It’s a watershed moment in any athlete’s career when you cross a barrier and step up to the next level and never look back. Just like when Bannister made his breakthrough in 1954, all of a sudden it became realistic and achievable for others to follow in his footsteps. The first person just opens the door for everyone else to follow through.

In 66 years since that door was opened, over 1,500 male athletes have run a mile in less than four minutes; just 109 women have run 1,500m in less than four minutes. In terms of pure numbers a more realistic comparison would be a sub-4:34 mile for women, equating to a sub-4:14 for 1,500m.

History also weighs heavy on the credibility of a four-minute mile, and I don’t think a woman running sub 4:14 would get the same kudos or status. So maybe the bar is much higher for women to get the same credit for their achievement, simply because there is no iconic number that hasn’t moved with the time.

We can all set the bar for our personal sub-four moment, what we believe will open the door up onto the bigger stage, whatever that may be. Once there you also need to be able to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, to push the boundaries even further, not just simply settle for what was once considered good.

If I was starting out now I think my 3,000m benchmark would be moved on closer to 8:45: time stands still for no man or woman, and we must always prepare to push beyond our own limits and not settle for what was once considered near impossible.