There was a time when running a sub four-minute mile was considered one of the great athletic feats in the world, but not anymore. It might not even be a legitimate benchmark in today’s world (and it’s all because of shoes).

Eight athletes broke four minutes in the mile earlier this year.

In the same race.

From the same school.

Indoors (where tracks are smaller and slower than outdoor tracks).

That single race included the third-, fifth- and seventh-fastest times in collegiate history.

Since 1957, Track & Field News — the “Bible of the Sport” — has updated a list each year of runners who crack the four-minute mile for the first time. The numbers each year were in the single digits until 2006 and then they began to increase, but there were never more than 29 in a single year. From 2009 to 2018 there was an average of 16.7 new sub-four milers each year. 

Then everything changed. Ignoring the COVID-19 year of 2020, a record 36 runners broke four minutes for the first time in 2021. That number rose to 64 in 2022. Already, 51 athletes have joined the sub-four club this year and it’s only mid-February, 18 of them on a single day on the same track in Boston.

The arms race of the feet

The aficionados of the sport say this sub-four surge is not due to training improvements or the evolving abilities of human beings. It’s the shoes. In 2019, high-tech shoes arrived on the track scene (they had been introduced to the road racing world in 2016). COVID-19 kept the performances in check for a year, but since then, the number of runners breaking four minutes has become almost routine.

It has become so routine that Track & Field News announced it would no longer update the sub-four list it has produced for nearly 70 years.  “… We don’t anticipate adding any post-2022 marks,” the magazine stated. “The advent of super-shoes has bombarded the 4:00 barrier into something no longer relevant for tracking, although many new members would have made it even without high-tech footwear.”

A backlash by readers convinced the magazine to relent. “THE READERS HAVE SPOKEN!” the magazine announced. “After a brief period where we had announced we were terminating updating of this feature we soon realized we had misread the audience. You didn’t agree with our take that ‘the advent of super-shoes has bombarded the 4:00 barrier into something no longer relevant for tracking …’”

The magazine’s original contention, though, is relevant — that the sub-four mile has been rendered almost meaningless as a standard in running by the advancing technology of shoes. 

Instead of counting only those runners who broke four minutes for the first time each year, let’s compare the total number of sub-four milers annually. Last year, a total of 90 Division I collegians broke four minutes indoors (the mile is not contested outdoors, having been replaced by 1,500 meters). An astounding 115 runners have already done so this year, and the season isn’t over yet. See the accompanying chart to fully appreciate what has happened and what a big leap forward this is.

Number of sub four-minute milers in collegiate Division I competition

2023*  — 115
2022  — 90
2021  — 38
2020  — 35
2019  — 35
2018  — 33
2017  — 30
2016  — 35
2015  — 32
2014  — 26
*Season still in progress

This trend can be seen on the Utah collegiate scene. BYU has produced four sub-four milers since 2020 — Lucas Bons, Casey Clinger, Kenneth Rooks and Talem Franco — giving the school a total of 10. Southern Utah (Nate Osterstock), Utah State (Devin Pancake) and Weber State (Trace Warnick) have also claimed four-minute milers last year.

The number of sub-four milers in U.S. high schools has more than doubled since 2020, from 8 to 17.

In 2018, 93 men worldwide ran sub-four miles; in 2022 that number is 144.

As noted here in March 2022, Bryce Dyer, who is considered an expert in sports technology, told NPR that today’s shoes are made of rubber polymers combined with carbon fiber plates that “work together to absorb and then return a percentage of the energy that the runner puts into them.” To put it simply, they provide added spring to each footstrike while also absorbing the fatigue-inducing pounding that runners normally experience.

The mile is not the only running event that is seeing a jump in performances. The shoe boosts performance in every race from 800 meters to the marathon. Business Insider reported that athletes wearing Nike shoes claimed 21 of 33 podium spots — about 64% — in the individual events of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Nine of history’s top 10 marathon times (and 16 of the top 18) have been established from 2019 on, as well as 34 of the top women’s marathon times in history.

“It’s the shoes,” BYU women’s coach Diljeet Taylor told the Deseret News last year.

“It’s like aluminum bats in baseball,” said BYU men’s coach Ed Eyestone. “I’m old enough to remember when tennis players switched from wooden rackets. It’s the same thing. New shoes have destroyed what used to be fast times.”