Know Your Oval: Fun Facts About Tracks


For various reasons, I’ve been running on tracks a lot lately — not running track workouts, just running. On tracks.

Run on tracks enough and you start to think about them and notice things. Or perhaps not. Maybe you’re someone who likes to zone out with your iPod and the track could be a treadmill for all you care. Or maybe you relate to the track on a higher plane, regarding it as a pure space, infinite in dimension and arbitrary in geometry. Well, fine, but I believe that — to paraphrase Socrates — the unexamined track is not worth running. So without further introduction, here are some interesting things to know about tracks.

400m tracks are not 400m long

If the track has a curb, the inside lane, i.e., Lane 1, is measured 30 cm (~11.8 inches) from the curb. A legal 400m track is constructed so that one circuit in Lane 1 along the measure line covers 400m (actually it can be slightly long and be considered legal, but it cannot ever be short). Measured along the inside curb, a legal track is only ~398.115 meters.

Unlike Lane 1, which is measured 30 cm from the curb, the other lanes are measured only 20 cm from the lane line. For a legal track, Lane 2 will be 407.037m, Lane 3 will be 414.702m, and so on. Note: In spite of what you’ve always thought, the amount of disadvantage from one lane to the next is not the same, but actually increases as you move towards the outside lanes.

Tracks are not the same shape

Everyone knows that some tracks are “narrow” with long straights and shorter, tighter turns, while other tracks are “fat” with shorter straights and long, sweeping turns.

There is an IAAF standard for the dimensions of a track that specifies straights of 84.39m, and curves with a radius of 36.80 meters to the measure line of Lane 1. (A quick calculation confirms that this radius yields a measurement of ~115.61m along the measure line of Lane 1 for each curve, and a total distance of 400m.)

So on an IAAF standard track, an athlete running in Lane 1 will be on a curve almost 60% of the time. Other standards for track dimensions exist, including the “equal quadrant” standard that specifies that straights and curves all measure 100m along the measure line of Lane 1. It’s a little counter-intuitive, but most runners will find the straights of an equal quadrant to be excessively long.

Tracks have not always been 400m

When I was growing up, most high school tracks were 440 yards, not 400 meters. We competed at “imperial,” rather than “metric,” distances: the “four-forty,” the “eight-eighty,” and so on. On an imperial track, one mile was precisely four laps. A 400m track is only 437.445 yards, so on such a track a mile is four laps plus another 9.34 meters.

Although it’s increasingly rare to find 440 yard tracks, they do exist. Until they demolished the school, the old Newton North had a 440 yard track. A similar situation exists indoors. Standard indoor tracks are 200m, but the Harvard indoor track stands out as one of the few 220-yard tracks in existence.

In the early 20th century it was quite common to have 500m tracks, and the Olympic 1500m was originally a three-lap race, the 5000m a ten lap race, and so on. I recall reading in Peter Snell’s autobiography his description of an 800m run on a 500m track, so they must have been around until the late fifties, at least.

Final thoughts:

1. Respect and appreciate the geometrical perfection of your local track.
2. If you, like me, find yourself forced to do your daily runs on tracks instead of on trails, notice all the lines and markings and wonder about them. There are further mysteries to be explored, like the curvature of the break line — how do they measure that?

You might also like my follow-up discussion of the unfairness of the 200m.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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