Posted by: Joe English | August 19, 2008

Track and Field: What makes a track fast or slow?

A reader named Brian writes in a question that might be on many people’s minds right now as the Olympic Games unfold:

While watching coverage of the Olympic Track and Field events I keep on hearing that the Bird’s Nest is a very fast track. What exactly does that mean and what factors contribute to making a fast track?

Designing a modern running track has become a fairly complicated process. The design needs to take into account the type of runners that will use the track and make some careful trade-offs.

The first thing to understand is that as a running surface, the track has to provide both a surface that is good for running and a surface that provides impact protection to the body. So a track needs to have enough cushion to take up the shock of running, but it needs to be hard enough to give a solid platform for the runner to push off against.

You might think that the more cushion the better, but actually think about running on sand. Sand is very soft, but it is very hard to run in. There is too much cushion that it makes it very hard to push off. A running track has to provide some level of cushion — much more so than a concrete road for instance — but it has to be hard enough to allow for a good take-off.

The trade-off comes when you consider how hard you want the track to be and how much impact protection to provide the runners.

So the first thing that a designer would consider is the type of runner and the type of running that they’ll be doing on it. If you think about the running surface at your local high-school, for instance, the designers have most likely considered the fact that joggers, walkers, children and recreational users will be on the track. These types of runners need more cushion to protect them for injuries.

Someone designing a track for an NCAA university’s track and field program might consider that the runners are much more experienced, perhaps stronger and with better biomechanics, so these runners would need less protection from impact and are willing to make the trade-off of protection for increases in speed.

When a track is designed for Olympic competition, the designers are going to make the track as “fast” as possible — which usually means that the track will provide a great deal of grip, but will be as hard as possible to allow the runners, especially sprinters, get the best push-off from the track.

Now there’s one other trade-off that needs to be made. Sprinters typically want the track as hard as possible, while distance runners would like to see a bit softer surface. Sprinters are only on the track for a matter of seconds in their races, so they would prefer a very hard surface to get the most speed out of the track. Distance runners are racing on the track longer and would prefer more cushion. When the designers sit down to create the running surface, they need to decide if they’re going to make a preference toward sprinters or distance runners.

Anecdotally speaking, I’ve heard that some Olympic tracks — like Atlanta’s– were designed more with sprinters in mind so while many sprint records were set there, distance runners felt a little beat-up after racing on it. In Barcelona, I heard the opposite, that the distance runners really liked the track, but the sprinters didn’t feel it was fast enough.

So the Bird’s Next in Beijing? If you’re hearding that the track is “very fast”, you can probably read that to mean “very hard” — and very favorable to sprinters. As we see lots of world records fall, like Usain Bolt’s world record in the 100M, it is probably an indication of a great surface for sprinters.

Do you have a question? Post it on our “questions” page.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Managing Editor, Running Advice and News


  1. Joe –
    You hit it on the head! This is something taken for granted by runners. Indeed there are “fast” tracks and slower ones. Along the same lines, one of the great debates is how past race times compare to current times. Before the 1960s tracks were predominantly dirt or cinder. Jim Ryun set world records in the mile – 3:51.1 his fastest – on tracks that were beyond description “slow” by current standards. Even today, over 40 years later, his times have been beaten only by a few individuals.
    We’ll never know exactly how much faster those times would be with current surfacing technology.
    Coach Dean

  2. […] Posted by Hot Shyt and also, what makes the track faster? CLICK HERE -> Track and Field: What makes a track fast or slow? Running Advice and News __________________ ESPN Boxeo Clsico – Los 15 Mejores Rounds despus de ESPN Sportscenter @ […]

  3. […] impregnable armour. The times in Lausanne, into a headwind of 1.1m/s, meant Atlanta with its fast track would be a mouth-watering prospect. Could the world record be eclipsed again? More pertinently, […]

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