The Genius of Frank Horwill

Posted by Scott Christensen

Frank Horwill was a middle-distance coach in Great Britain during the heyday of the British Milers Club, a training group that he founded.  Before there was David Rudisha and Asbel Kiprop of Kenya, there was Steve Cram, Steve Crabb, Sebastian Coe, and Steve Ovett of the British Milers Club in the 1980’s and early 1990’s setting world records and winning Olympic medals.  Mr. Horwill was respected worldwide because of his famous “Five Pace Training Theory” which was used in whole or in part to develop all of the great middle-distance runners in the United Kingdom.  Later, the great Moroccan Said Ouita used the Five Paced Training Theory as his workload platform.   Five of the milers Mr. Horwill directly coached broke 4 minutes in the mile during their career.

track picThe Five Pace Training Theory lives on in much of the training application that is used by top-flight middle-distance coaches in the United States today, including many high school coaches.  The theory is principally based on the variety of intense pace work that is needed on a regular routine to fully develop the anaerobic and aerobic power components of the runner.

Winston Churchill once stated: “Without history we have nothing”.  With that in mind, let’s take an introspective look at Frank Horwill’s most famous treatise on what it really takes to break 4 minutes in the mile.  The writing comes courtesy of the Serpentine Running Club of the United Kingdom.  Frank Horwill died in January of 2012.


The Sub 4 Minute Mile

by Frank Horwill

Although a man of 40 years of age, Eamonn Coghlan has run a mile in under four minutes, and achieving this feat is still a major accomplishment denied to tens of thousands of other athletes.

First breaks into this domain have been unexpectedly spectacular. Some runners crash through the barrier, while others creep across it. For example, John Buckner (GB) went from 4mins.02secs for the distance to 3mins.53secs in one quantum leap. However, the first sub-four-minute man, Roger Bannister, made it by only six-tenths of a second. The late Gordon Pirie, a former 3K world record holder, cut it finer – he made it by a tenth of a second in a race against Herb Elliott (Australia) in Ireland. On hearing the result, Pirie screamed out ‘I’ve done, I’ve done it!’ and ran to each competitor in the race with the same message. It has to be admitted that he was always close to it with a previous best of 4mins.00.9. It was his one and only sub-four run, whereas Steve Scott (USA) has chalked up 100 runs inside the time.

Some milers have attained their goal by unusual means. Terry Sullivan (Southern Rhodesia), bought a book written by Bannister’s coach. He started at page 1 and did precisely what was written, becoming the only man on the African continent to duck under the barrier.

What are the indications that one is ready to join the select few to achieve this magical state? Years ago, when 880yds was raced, it was accepted that a time of 1min.52secs was the minimum speed necessity. Today, for the 800m, it would be half-a-second faster. But former mile record holder John Landy (Australia) cut it fine; his best 800m was only 1:51.3, yet he ran a 3:58 mile.

The 800m time appears to have a direct effect on miling aspirations. Noureddine Morceli, with a mile time of 3:44.39, has an 800m time of 1:43.99, which if multiplied by two is 3mins.27.98, 16.41secs short of his mile time. Seb Coe’s best mile is 3:47.33; his 800m time, 1:41.73, when doubled, is 23.87secs short of his mile figure. Said Aouita’s best mile is 3:46.76, his 800m time is 1:43.86 – 19.04secs short.

If we take an average of these deficits it is 19.6secs, and if we apply that as a measure to one’s 800m time, we get an estimate of our miling potential, eg, 1:52/800m X 2 = 3:44 + 19 = 4:03. It is clear that an athlete with an 800m time of 1:50 and less has a better chance of running a sub-four mile.

All is not lost for the non-speedy athlete. One of my runners in 1970 had a reading of only 1:51 for 800m but he ran a 3:56 mile. Using the previous calculations, his combined 800m time was only 14secs short of his mile time. Thus we have a range of 14-19secs deficit to measure miling potential. The important omitted factor in this case was his 3K time, 7mins.49secs. If we halve this we get 3mins.54.5secs, and the customary deduction to ascertain the 1500m time is less 15secs. In this case it comes to 3mins.39.5secs, the equivalent of a 3mins.56.5secs/mile (adding 17secs to the 1500m time).

The age when an athlete is most likely to break four minutes for the first time is now 22. Two decades ago it was 24. The youngest-ever sub-four man was 17-year-old Jim Ryun, who went on to break world records at the mile, 1500m, half-mile and 800m. The 1500m gold medal escaped him in two Olympics. He suffered all his athletic life from asthma.

crossing the line - oldOpinions differ as to the preparatory work required leading up to the track season. Arthur Lydiard (NZ) advocated building up to 100 miles a week of steady running for 10 weeks, followed by six weeks of extensive, fartlek-type hill running. In stark contrast, Bannister did only 28 miles a week in the winter, most of it on an ash track, five laps to the mile, consisting mainly of 10 X 440yds in 66secs, with 440yds jog recovery in a fast two minutes. Each month the time for the repetitions was reduced by a second. He also did 3 X 11/2 miles on the track at 14mins.30secs pace for 5K. He reached the stage when the 440yd reps were being done in 56secs. Lydiard’s protege, Peter Snell, 16 years after Bannister’s best time of 3mins.58.8secs was to run 4.5secs faster on three-and-a-half times the quantity of training.

Sebastian Coe devoted his winter to weight-training three times a week, hill running and a session at his estimated 5K pace (13mins.20secs). He was able to run 7 X 800 well under 2mins.08secs with 45secs rest. His longest run was 10 miles at sub-6mins/mile and shorter runs at 51/2 mins/mile. He started each track season with an indoor race at 3K in under eight minutes.

Opinions have differed as to what winter work produced the best results; there was some unanimity about the necessity of frequent weekly track sessions during the summer. A sub-four-minute aspirant can do no better than look at the physiological make-up of the mile race. The total oxygen requirement is nearly 40 liters, of which only half can be breathed in – thus it is half-aerobic and half-anaerobic.

Aerobic running comes in many guises. There is pure aerobic running: jogging – 100%, marathon speed – 90%. But there is also predominantly aerobic running: 10K speed – 90%, 5K speed – 80% and 3K speed – 60%. The difference in actual execution is 4secs per 400m, or 16secs per mile. For example, if the marathon pace is 6mins/mile (90secs/400m), half-marathon pace would be 5mins.44secs/mile, 10K pace would be 5mins.28secs/ mile, 5K pace 5mins.12secs/mile and 3K pace 4mins.56secs/mile. This, of course, works in reverse. Given a 1500m time of 4mins (64secs/400), the 3K pace would be 68secs/400 and the 5K pace 72secs/400.

Physiologists are agreed that the oxygen uptake (VO2max) is best improved by work in the range of 80-100% VO2max. Sub-four milers must acquire a VO2max in excess of 75mls/kg/min. The maximum for runners is around 82mls/kg/min. This 80 – 100% zone will rule out jogging and marathon pace running. Half-marathon pace work just gets into the pathway at the slower end, while the athlete’s 3K speed occupies the other faster, predominantly aerobic pathway.

Related article: The Balke VO2 Max Test

We are now in a position to compile a program based on physiological data to break the four-minute barrier for the mile:

Day 1, (Aerobic, 80% VO2max). Run half-marathon distance 64secs per mile slower than for one’s best mile time. Example: best mile time 4:10, run 5mins.14secs/mile or as near as possible to this.

Day 2, (Anaerobic, 110% VO2max). 2 X 1 X 400 + 1 X 800 + 1 X 300, at 15secs per 100m throughout. Take 30secs rest after 400m, 60secs rest after 800m and a lap walk after 300m before repeating.

Day 3, (Aerobic, 90% VO2max). Run 10K 48secs/mile slower than for one’s best mile time. Example: best mile 4:10, run 4:58/mile..

Day 4, (Anaerobic, 130% VO2max). 4 X 400, 4secs per 400m faster than per 400m for best mile time. Example: best mile 4:08 (62/400), run 400s in 58secs, 3mins rest..

Day 5, (Aerobic, 95% VO2max). Run 5 X 1K 8secs per 400m slower than for best mile time. Example: Best mile 4:04 (61/400), run at 69/400 = 2mins.52secs, with 60secs rest.

Day 6, alternate this session each week with an aerobic 100% VO2max session of 4 1500m, 4secs per 400m slower than for one’s best mile time. Example: best mile time 4:02 (60.5/400), run 64.5/400, with 3mins rest after each.

Day 7, (Anaerobic). 1 X 350, 1 X 300, 1 X 250, 1 X 200, 1 X 150. All full out, with 400m walk after each. N.B. Race every other seventh day instead of this session.

stopwatchThere is a competitive pattern called ‘psycho-logical race preparation’. This is where each month starts with an over-distance race, either 5K or 3K, then an under-distance race, either 400m or 800m, then the specialist distance, in this case 1500m/mile. The first confirms endurance, the second speed and the last brings both together.

The great destroyer of sub-four ambitions is the third lap. Partly to blame for this is the conversion of 440yd tracks to 400m. Many athletes believe that the ability to run three minutes or just under for three circuits of a metric track puts them in line for a sub-four mile. However, 1200m in three minutes is 3mins.45secs pace for 1500m, which converts to a 4mins.03secs mile. A more meaningful time for three laps of a metric track is 2mins.55secs, which is 3mins.39secs speed for 1500m, or around 3mins.57secs for the mile.

While the old-time milers made a point of running a three-quarters of a mile time trial each week (Jack Lovelock, 1936 Olympic 1500m gold medallist and world-record holder, wrote in his diary: ‘Running three minutes for three laps is becoming too easy), I have noticed a reluctance to do this even among good-class club athletes.

One method of overcoming this reluctance is to ask the runner to cover 800m at level pace for his best 1,500m time, and then to sprint the next 100m full out (900m total), repeated three times. Gradually the sprint zone is extended by 100m a time until the entire third lap is sprinted. By this means, a runner may cover the first 800m in 2:08 (64 / 400), and then run the third lap in 60 secs. I have seen the 800m covered in two minutes and the third lap in 54 seconds using this method. This, of course, is good tactical training; it helps in creating a ‘break’ and covering one.

Coaching Resource: The Training Model for HS Middle Distance (800-1600) with Scott Christensen

I have been fortunate in my 35 years of coaching to have assisted five athletes in breaking the four-minute barrier. Three of them had left previous coaches because they were not happy with their progress. They all had talent, but they all had idiosyncrasies which had prevented them from achieving their goal. One athlete developed sores at the corner of his mouth as he got fitter. He had a vitamin B complex deficiency, and when it was corrected he had no difficulty in running several sub-four miles. Sometimes it is things like this that make the difference between success and failure.


Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

Related Posts

A Workout Ingredient List for the Cross Country Coach

Quantifying Training Effort of Middle Distance Runners

Training Aerobic Capacity and Middle Distance Athletes

Middle School Training for Cross Country Runners

General Adaptation Syndrome and Cross Country Training