Clarifying Track Times & Distances

It’s track season (somewhere)! I’m going to share some things I’m sure you’ve all wondered about regarding running on tracks and timing track distances.

Myth: All tracks are the same.
Fact: Though nowadays any track built from the late 70s on are 400 meter tracks, anything built before then may still be a 440 yard track (a “true” quarter mile). We should all know by now that accepted rules of the track include allowing the fastest runners to run on the inside; slower runners move outside to allow the faster runners to pass by. If you run in an outside lane the whole lap you do run further. However, since track lanes vary from 36-42 inches in width, it is not possible to make a single statement of how far you have run in “lane 2” or “lane 3”. It is approximately 10-13 meters longer per lap in each subsequent lane outwards. So, running entirely in lane 8 is up to 70-91 meters longer than lane one. It just depends on the track. If you will do many laps on various lanes, use your GPS. That will solve your math problem for the day.

Myth: All tracks are equally fast.
Fact: Most middle school tracks are dirt. There are some old cinder surfaces out there too. These are dramatically slower than those of all-weather composition. Even amongst all-weather tracks there is a wide variation in there make up. Indoor tracks vary wildly with banking, surface bounce and degree of curves (see Shapes in next paragraph). At elite level competitions they talk about “fast” tracks. These are tracks that all elements optimize performance and effort. Those are where numerous records are set.

Myth: All tracks are shaped the same.
It seems reasonable to assume that an outdoor track has 100 meters on the straight-aways and 100 meters for each curve. This is not true. Some tracks have sharper shorter curves and others have longer gradual curves. Indoor tracks vary widely. Some are 300 meters (“oversized”) and others at various workout venues might be 10 laps to the mile! Some are banked to assist in maintaining speed and some are not banked at all. That geometry of a track also effects speed of a track.

As some evidence on the effects of geometry: in the 200 and 400 meter races, sprinters like the middle lanes the most because of a gentler curve (than the inside lanes) and they can still keep an eye on the competition on the outside lanes. Of the 15 fastest times ever run in the 200; only one has been run in lane 3, one in lane 8, and one in lane 4; the rest have been run from lanes 5 & 6.

And as a practical issue, doing very hard sprints and repeats on the inside lane (1) causes a lot of stress on your body and may increase the incidence of injuries. If you do a lot of track work then a good habit is to do warm-ups and cool-downs in the opposite direction to help balance muscle stress. But, please, do these on the outside lanes and don’t do it if the track is exceptionally busy. You’ll be asking for an accident or the wrath of someone!

Myth: A little breeze won’t effect my times.
Fact: In the 100, 200, 100 hurdles, 110 hurdles and long & triple jumps, athletes can be significantly aided by a strong wind at their backs. In the 1930s, the sport worldwide adopted a standard of 2.0 meters per second (4.473 miles per hour) as the maximum legal wind limit for record purposes. This is only a light breeze. By the way, you will always loose more time running into the wind than you will gain running with the wind. Therefore, there is no such thing as wind aided times in any event longer than the 200 (half a lap).

Myth: All the markings on a track are standard, correct and accurate.
Fact: The variation on tracks is remarkable. There are standards set by the national governing organizations (NFHS & USATF). That doesn’t mean they are followed. Every mark, line and triangle on a track has recommended color coding and required locations.

Myth: Since my wrist chronograph records in 100ths of seconds it is more accurate than old-time stop watches.
Fact: The issue isn’t the time piece accuracy, it is the operator. USATF Rule 165 requires that all hand timing is done in 10ths. Any 100th is rounded up to the slower 10th. Fully Automatic Timing (FAT) times to the 1000ths rounded to slower 100th. In any non-stadium event (road races) times are rounded to the next slowest full second. The bottom line is that when Athlete A has run 10.0 (hand) and Athlete B has run 10.00 (FAT), we can say with complete confidence that Athlete B ran faster. Athlete A’s actual time was probably anywhere from 10.10 to 10.40, but we’ll never know for sure. For the 100, 200, 400, 100 hurdles, 110 hurdles, 300 hurdles and 4 x 100 Relay, the accepted conversion is to add 0.24 seconds to the hand time. That is, you cannot assume that the hand time was faster unless it was a least 0.24 seconds faster than the best FAT recorded.

English versus Metric
Myth: Four laps of the track is a mile. And this is a standard race distance.
Fact: Four laps of most tracks (depending on construction date – see above) is 1600 meters. A mile is 1609.34 meters. So, four laps are really 1749.78 ft. or .99419 miles. You need to start your “real” mile 9.34 meters before the start line to be a mile. 400 meters is also 437.445 yards. The accepted conversion is to add 3/10th of a second (0.3 second) to your 400 meter time to find your “true” quarter mile time.

Standard race distances worldwide are 1500 meters and the mile. In US high schools (yes, only the US as far as I can determine) they use 1600 meters as a standard race. It is a vestige of the “4-lapper” mile. It’s easy to conduct. So, they run it. A 1500 is three and three quarter laps (roughly – see above caveats). It is 1.5 kilometers which is .93205 of a mile. This is commonly called the “metric mile”. This is a worldwide standard track race.

So, the key points are these:
• In non-FAT timed running we do not calculate times to what is possible through instruments but must use the human element as the limiting factor.
• Your times on any given track may not equate to any other track. But, any track is better than no track if you want consistency in your quality workouts (repeats).
• You run farther on the outside lanes – add approximately 10 meters to your running distance per lane you move outside (and remain in that lane). 
• For practical purposes, if you are running your laps in lane one within a second or so of your goal paces – despite all the variations discussed on a “standard track” – is reasonable almost anywhere anytime. Only at the elite levels, where they can run 400s within 10ths of seconds of each repeat does it become more critical to know what you are running on. (And yes, they in fact track their times to the 10ths and can regulate their effort that precisely!)


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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