Lines on a Track – What those lines mean—so you don’t have to ask

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Not every running track is created equal; here in Austin, they vary a great deal from the short track at O’Henry Middle School to state of the art Mike A. Myers Stadium at UT. However, the standard regulation track is 400 meters, which is run around the inside lane (lane 1, closest to the middle, or infield). At its official size, a 400-meter track runs four laps to the mile (races are run counter clockwise) and a regulation 100-yard football field can almost fit in the infield. At the very least, one line will be laid marking both the start and finish. Beyond this, tracks can vary. Here are the most common and identifiable markings used to complete various races and workouts.

The start/finish line is the most significant marking on the track, indicating the beginning and end of the 1,600 meter (four laps) with a full metric mile actually starting nine yards back. Here also marks the start and finish of the 400 (one lap), 800 (two laps), 2 mile, and 10,000 meters (1K=25 laps).

Due to the fact that a 400-meter track is symmetrical, starting and stopping at the same point on a track completes a full 400 meters. Consequently, a 400-meter track can often have two start/finish lines designated on opposite sides and at opposite ends.

Since only the inside lane equals 400 meters, every lane radiating outwards adds some distance. For events such as the 200, 400, and sometimes 800 meters, the runner is required to stay in his or her own lane for all or part of the race; it then becomes necessary to add a stagger start, which places each runner farther out from the runner in lane 1. The lead-out advantage is then neutralized by the greater distance those athletes must run.

The home straight is the length of track extending to the finish line.

The back straight is the length of track across the field from the home straight.

Relay Exchange Zones are marked by a set of triangles. This area inside the set of triangles delineates where teammates can exchange a baton during relays, such as 4×100, 4×200, 4×400, 4xmile, and Distance Medley Relay.

The break line shows where staggered runners in specific events are allowed to cut in (or move into one lane).

Lines also show a variety of race starts, such as the 200/1K/3K/5K starts. The 1,500-meter start marks the beginning of the official distance run at the Olympics, 109 meters shy of a 1,609-meter regulation mile. Hurdle starts for women are the same as the 100-meter run, while men use higher hurdles and run 110 meters.

A waterfall start is the extended start line used when there is an overflow of runners in a distance event. Overflow runners are put further up on the outside and allowed to cut in to lane 1 at the break line.

One significant yet subtle difference in a 400-meter track is in the length of the oval. 400 meters always remains 400 meters. However, the length of the straightaway will change in relation to the turn of the curve. Some tracks use a tight curve, narrowing the size of the infield but extending the length of the straightaways. Other tracks use a wider curve, which results in shorter straightaways. As a result of the shorter straightaways, the track will extend beyond the curve to accommodate a 100-meter dash and 110-meter hurdle start.

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