Why Are We Seeing Sub-4 More Often? These Coaches Explain.

* Rheinhardt Harrison is one of four boys to run under 4:00 for the mile this outdoor season.

Photo Credit: Cyrus Hannah/MileSplit Florida

"Breaking four in high school is still a big deal. I think eventually it will be more common."

By Ashley Tysiac - MileSplit

Alan Webb vividly remembers the frenzy that came when he made his first piece of track and field history.

"It was like a whirlwind of attention for myself, and I just felt like a nerdy distance runner that was now the cool guy," Webb said. "It was special."

When Webb clocked 3:59.86 at the New Balance Track and Field Games at the famed Armory in January 2001, he became the first high school boy to go under 4:00 since Marty Liquori achieved the feat in 1967 -- and just the fourth high schooler to ever do it.

The New York Times reported on the moment and ran it in print. Webb still has a collection of memorabilia to mark the special moment.

Three decades separated Liquori's first sub-four mark and Webb's race at the Armory, and the national media had a field day as the sport made its way into the spotlight. 

It's still a moment Webb looks back on with great pride.

Twenty-one years after Webb's historic race, going under four minutes for the mile is certainly not quite as unseen as it once was.

The 2022 outdoor season alone has seen four boys -- Colin Sahlman (Newbury Park), Gary Martin (Archbishop Wood), Connor Burns (Southern Boone County) and Rheinhardt Harrison (Nease) -- break the elusive barrier. Many others sit just on the cusp of dipping under 4:00.

Since Webb broke the barrier, a total of 12 others have joined the sub-four club, all of whom did so between 2011 and 2022. Interestingly enough, though, a total of 11 boys have achieved that feat since 2015, including six since 2020. 

There are currently 16 boys all-time who have crossed that threshold. 

How did breaking 4:00 become less unheard of now than it used to be over two decades ago?

Webb and others involved in the sport point to a myriad of factors, from advancements in athlete development to the creation of the indoor track and field season.

"Breaking four in high school is still a big deal," said Paul Carrozza, head coach of the middle distance-focused Born to Run Track Club in Austin, Texas. "I think eventually it will be more common. 

The running world has progressed greatly since a young Webb crossed the finish line at the New Balance Track and Field Games in 2001.

Technological advancements have afforded athletes some key training allies, starting with specialized training and access to elite coaches anytime and anywhere.

Athletes can not only get more specialized coaching, but they put that coaching to the test in races almost all year long.

Carrozza says he has found the advent of the indoor track and field season has boosted distance training, as it has acted as a nice bridge between the cross country and outdoor season, which allows kids opportunities to train and race year round.

"Indoor used to be something that was kind of remote in the North, Northeast, Northwest," he said. "Indoor has become almost better for getting a time, setting up your capabilities in the winter."

Other changes to the function of the sport came about rather unexpectedly. COVID-19 brought competition to a screeching halt in 2020 and into 2021 and forced athletes into longer base-building periods than ever seen before. 

But with the disappointment that first came with the COVID-19 cancellations came unexpected performance benefits, according to Carrozza. Instead of racing weekend after weekend, athletes had the opportunity to take a step back and build a solid training base.

"Sometimes kids get racing too early and then they never get a break and they burn out," says Carrozza, whose son Crayton ran a sub-4 minute mile indoors for the University of Texas and was a member of the program's NCAA champion DMR squad. "COVID created that break."

"I think you'll see it become more common. You'll see more kids doing it. Then the question is do they start doing it more often, or is it something that if it becomes the new normal of what it takes to win championships, do kids train harder in the offseason that perpetuates itself until it hits a breakpoint?"

But the key factor, according to Webb and Carrozza, doesn't lie in the changes in training, coaching, or athlete development. In fact, it all has to do with what's sustaining the training and fitness progressions -- shoes.

"The kicker now is clearly the shoes," Webb said. "The technology of the shoe is a massive part of it. It's undeniable that the shoe technology is affecting the performances."

Both Webb and Carrozza pointed to more quality, running-specific shoes as the reason why athletes can manage to train at the level needed to produce faster race times -- and sustain that fitness progress, too.

"There's less stress on the body," Carrozza said. "First of all, you're not getting beaten down as much. Second, because you're not getting beaten down as much, you feel like running faster more often."

The days when running shoes lacked much sophistication are long behind us. Now, athletes can shop around for shoes with a variety of specs tailored to their specific wants and needs in  running shoes. 

And then the shoes become the workhorses.

It's what Webb termed the training effect of using newer running shoes. Athletes can withstand difficult training with quality shoes on their feet, not to mention run faster paces on those runs during those training cycles. Logging mile after mile takes less of a toll on the body.

Better shoes, better training, better performance.

That's at least how Webb and Carrozza see how the chips have been falling -- among many other things. 

Sure, there's the psychological factors that come with chasing elite times like a sub-4 mile. But Webb said those largely started coming down thanks to racers finding the confidence to chase those elite times. 

As the sport has grown, so has the training, the goals and the impressive results out on the track. Now with four sub-four minute milers in a single season, Webb thinks an influx of such elite performances makes for even more advancement in distance running.

"It's super crazy, but I think crazy in a good way," he said.

Whether or not the number of high school male milers that dip under four minutes continues increasing or slows to a halt remains up in the air.

Will the sub-4 trend continue upward like we've seen over the last two decades?

Webb said he can't say for certain. 

Carrozza predicts that we could see the number of boys breaking four minutes per season fluctuating by cycles. Perhaps, he said, we could see sub-four times become the standard for elite high school racing before eventually stagnating for a time.

"I think you'll see it become more common," Carrozza said. "You'll see more kids doing it. Then the question is do they start doing it more often, or is it something that if it becomes the new normal of what it takes to win championships, do kids train harder in the offseason that perpetuates itself until it hits a breakpoint?"

While the sub-4 mile may continue to become more common, breaking the national record may be a different story.

As for the state of his high school record of 3:53.43, Webb thinks someone can eventually break it -- but they'll have to be pretty darn fast, even in the modern running age.

Newbury Park's Colin Sahlman came the closest in 2022, hitting 3:56.24 on the clock in the Bowerman Mile at the Prefontaine Classic -- third all-time. 

"I think it's possible, for sure," Webb said. "That being said, you could have rocket boosters on your feet, I was still pretty fast. I don't know how I did, to be honest."

Though unsure which way the tables will turn in the sub-4 chase, Webb certainly hopes the joy that comes with breaking the barrier stays alive.

To him, the sense of pride he felt as a young kid at that history-breaking meet in January 2001 compares to nothing else. 

He hopes more distance runners can experience that same electrifying moment.

"I still think that every male distance miler that does it, you always remember that first one," Webb said.

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