In 1954, the world was stuck at a 4:01.4 minute mile. It seemed improbable anyone could or ever would break the 4-minute mile. John Landy tried 6 times in an 18-month period and came within 3 seconds of doing so before he proclaimed, “The four-minute mile is a brick wall, and I shan’t attempt it again.”

A medical student, Roger Bannister, takes to the track in Oxford, on May 6, 1954, and runs 3:59.4. Six weeks later, John Landy runs the mile in 3:58.0.

Mark McClusky wrote the book “Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from Them” where he concludes that the high-performance sports world approaches problems in a way that goes beyond winning games and can provide everyone ways to optimize other parts of our lives.

These things that we can learn from athletes are quite simple actually – the way most important lessons tend to be.

Lots of little things become big changes is the cornerstone of Dave Brailsford’s career. No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France, and Brailsford was asked to change that.

His approach was simple…. a concept he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains” whereby he implemented “a 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement. They optimized everything from the nutrition of the riders and the ergonomics of the bike seat to testing for the most effective massage gel and the best pillow to sleep on. Nothing was excluded from his scrutiny and the 1% improvement. The goal was to win the Tour de France in five years. They won it in three.

Almost every habit we have – good or bad – is the result of many small decisions over time that can be corrected as a result of many small decisions over time.

Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.” Athletes are some of the best at measuring and tracking everything under the sun: pace, distance, VO2 Max, watts per hour, and on and on. The theory being that people change their behavior – often for the better – when they are being observed or measured, which is why it’s sometimes called the observer effect. The makers of our techno-gadgets understand this, as do organizations such as Weight Watchers. One of the first things you’ll be advised to do in a weight-loss program is to write down everything you eat during the day.

One could correlate breaking the 4-minute mile barrier to this same phenomenon.

Landy had done all his 4:01s in what were effectively time-trials. He was isolated and alone, and working harder than he might have with the support of pace-setters or the spur of rivals. Bannister, on the other hand, used pacers to set the race up for his final lap, and they pulled him through three laps in just outside 3:00.

Ironically, when Landy eventually broke the 4-minute mile at 3.58, he not only had a pace-setter, but he had one of Bannister’s pacers for company – not as a pace-setter, but as competitor who pushed him all the way through the bell.


In a scientific paper, N stands for the number of participants, or the sample size. Generally speaking, the more subjects – the bigger the N – the better.

Doctors, coaches and professionals use these scientific studies to develop programs that will apply to a broad spectrum of the population. Doctors develop treatment or rehabilitation programs, coaches create training plans. I have used what I call “off-the-shelf” training programs for years quite successfully. Once in awhile, however, they don’t fit.

Even when I find exactly what works for me, chances are it will be all wrong for you. The one consistency I have found in sports is that we are all very individual – in every way. The coaches, the books, the training plans work very well as a guide to get us started. Eventually the time will come that we must learn what works for us, what makes us tick.

That’s what athletes do quite well; they learn what does and does not work for them. We make mistakes, and we learn from these mistakes. We keep a log of our training and watch hours of game film to isolate exactly what got us into trouble. Slowly but surely we figure out what we’re good at, what we need to improve on, and the methods that culminate in success.


Most have said Sir Roger’s success came because he, better than anyone, perceived the battle for the 4-minute mile was fought in the mind, not in the body.

Bannister reduced the race to its simplest common denominator – 400m in 1:00 or multiples thereof. He trained until running 400m in 1:00, 24 km per hour, became automatic.

Exacting change in our life and pushing ourselves to new places is scary, overwhelming until we break it down to the most common denominator. Then we realize it’s the simple things that create success: making small changes that can be maintained every day, measuring our progress and telling someone our goal – allowing them to push us, encourage us. Perhaps most important is that we remember that we are the individual test subject in our own study of life. N=1.

3 thoughts on “N=1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s