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Accurate times for the mile run (1.609344 km) were not recorded until after 1850, when the first precisely measured running tracks were built. Foot racing had become popular in England by the 17th century, when footmen would race and their masters would wager on the result. By the 19th century "pedestrianism", as it was called, had become very popular.

The best times recorded in the 19th century were by professionals. Even after professional foot racing died out, it was not until 1915 that the professional record of 4:12.75 set by Walter George in 1886 was beaten by an amateur.

Progression of the mile record accelerated in the 1930s, as newsreel coverage greatly popularized the sport, making stars out of milers such as Jules Ladoumegue, Jack Lovelock, and Glenn Cunningham. In the 1940s Swedes Arne Andersson and Gunder Hagg lowered the record to just over four minutes (4:01.4) while racing was curtailed in the combatant countries due to World War II. After the war, it was John Landy of Australia and Britain's Roger Bannister who took up the challenge of being the first to break the fabled four minute mile barrier. Roger Bannister did it first, and John Landy did it 46 days later. By the end of the 20th century, the record had been lowered to 3:43.13, by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco in 1999.

On the women's side, the first sub-5:00 mile was achieved by Britain's Diane Leather 23 days after Bannister's first sub-4:00 mile. But the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) did not recognize women's records for the distance until 1967, when Anne Rosemary Smith of Britain ran 4:37.0. The current women's world record is 4:12.56 by Svetlana Masterkova of Russia, set on August 14, 1996.

Since 1976, the mile is the only non-metric distance recognized by the IAAF for record purposes.

The number of high-quality races over the distance is few in recent years as most major international meets concentrate on the "metric mile" distance of 1,500 m (0.932 miles).