If you think track running is just for student athletes or professional runners, or at least only for the fastest runners who take the sport very seriously, you would be overlooking a great option to add to your running routine.
Regardless of your ability or experience, in fact, running on a track can be enjoyable and beneficial.
In this article, we will talk about:
- Track Running Basics
- The Benefits of Running On a Track
- Finding A Track
- Track Running and Etiquette
- The Common – and Best – Track Workouts
- Some Fun Track Workouts
If you’re thinking track workouts sound interesting,
The 3 Benefits of Running On A Track
Unlike running on the streets or sidewalks, where constant vigilance is required in order to avoid collisions with other people, dogs, bicycles, or cars, a track offers a safe, traffic-free, running oasis.
And unlike trail running, there are no tree roots, rocks, holes, drop-offs, wild animals, or unexpected mountain bikers to cause problems.
Of course, running on the roads is often the easiest option, and running on trails can be amazing for many reasons, but if you’re in the mood to just run and not think about cars or tripping hazards, a track may be ideal.
2. Flat and Springy
A track, of course, is perfectly flat, so if your regular running routes are hilly, you may enjoy a change of pace with a more level surface.
What is not as obvious is that most tracks are also a bit springy, which may help you run faster and feel better while doing so, with less likelihood of causing or aggravating an injury.
Most newer, or redone, tracks, are made with synthetic rubber which provides good traction and response as well as cushioning, and is therefore conducive to faster running and more forgiving on the joints than harder surfaces.
Even older asphalt tracks are more resilient than a typical concrete sidewalk, and while clay or cinder tracks may seem outmoded, they are actually quite soft and provide excellent cushioning.
As tracks are precisely measured, they provide a good opportunity to test your abilities and to complete distance-specific workouts.
While it is possible to do speed workouts on the roads using a GPS watch or pre-measured routes, it can be challenging to figure out exact distances and, moreover, variables such as traffic can make it difficult to reach accurate conclusions about your pace and progress when comparing one run to another.
With a track, however, your first lap is the same distance as your last lap and the laps you ran last week are the same distance as the ones you’re running this week, which makes it easier to manage and gauge your pace while running and reliably assess your improvement.
Tracks are divided into lanes, with the inside lane designated as Lane 1.
Most collegiate or professional tracks have eight or nine lanes, but it is not uncommon to find high school tracks with only five or six lanes.
Most outdoor tracks are 400 meters around from the inside lane and running one time around the track is called a lap.
Most tracks have straight sections (called straightaways) and curved sections (called curves or turns), each of which is 100 meters.
As a mile is approximately 1609 meters, four laps around a track equates to roughly one mile and one lap can be considered a quarter-mile.
Knowing these basic measurements makes it fairly easy to calculate distances and plan and run a workout.
Lanes outside of Lane 1 are progressively longer, which is why races stagger the runners to ensure everyone is racing the same distance.
You may notice lots of lines, arrows, curves, and numbers painted on the track. These markings are used during track meets and designate where runners should start and finish races of various distances to be sure the correct distance is covered or they may indicate where relay runners can exchange a baton or where hurdles should be placed.
You will not need to know what all of these markings mean to run on a track, but trying to figure them out can be fun if you need a diversion while trying to get through a hard workout.
Finding A Track
You may be curious about trying out some track running but are not sure how to find a track.
Here are a few places to start:
High Schools and Colleges
Most high schools and colleges have tracks (often around a football or soccer field) and many are open to the general public when not being used by their students.
If you’re not sure, call the school to ask about their track policy or, if you’re at the track, look for posted rules or ask someone who looks like they may know, such as a coach or security personnel.
Some larger parks have a running track. Check with your local Parks & Recreation Department to see if there may be one near you.
Some gyms have tracks. They are often indoors, smaller than a typical outdoor track, and will likely require a fee, but are an option to consider if you’re having difficulty locating a public outdoor track.
Search for “running tracks near me” and you may find you’ve been driving past a public track for years and never knew it was there behind all those trees! Google Earth might just reveal some hidden tracks too!
Contact a Running Club
Running clubs are very likely to know the locations of tracks in your area that are open to the public and will be happy to point you in the right direction.
Ask your friends, even if they’re not runners, and you’re bound to find someone who knows about a track you could use.
Basic Track Rules
Now that you’ve found a track, it’s important to know a few (generally unwritten) rules about track running etiquette before you begin:
If you’ve ever seen a track meet, you likely noticed that runners run counterclockwise around the oval, and this directional rule remains true for most tracks, regardless of whether or not a meet is going on.
Therefore, unless there is a sign advising runners to run clockwise, everyone there is running clockwise, or you are the only one on the track, it is best to go counterclockwise to avoid causing problems or uncertainty for anyone else.
Inner Lanes Faster/Outer Lanes Slower
In general, faster runners use the inside lanes and slower runners or walkers use the outside lanes.
It is, of course, always a good idea to assess who is on the track and see what they’re doing before deciding on a lane that seems likely to give you the best chance of not winding up in someone else’s path.
Also, if the track is busy, try to stick to the lane you have chosen as a courtesy to the other runners, who will pick their lane based on an assumption you will stay in your lane.
Pay Attention/Use Common Sense
Be aware and considerate of others using the track. If you use headphones, be sure you can still hear what’s going on around you and would notice if someone coming up behind you said: “track” or “on your left” (in which case you should expect to be passed on your left and may want to move slightly to your right).
If the track is being used for a meet or official practice, be flexible enough to come back at another time or another day.
The Best Track Workouts
So you’ve found a track and know the rules. Now what?
If you talk to a running coach, do an online search, or pick up a book about running, you will quickly discover there are many ways to do a track workout.
For serious runners, or those with a specific race or pace goals, these workouts often involve repeats of a certain distance which are run at specific paces and with specific rest periods, but there are many options for the more casual runner as well.
We will help you get going with some ideas for typical track workouts as well as some more fun options, but before diving in, it is important to emphasize the importance of a proper warm-up.
Although it is always wise to do some kind of warm-up before any kind of run, it is particularly important before a track workout, as you need to prepare your body for the faster running involved with these workouts.
Begin with an easy jog around the track for at least one mile (two is better) and then find a free section of the track (about 50 meters) for some dynamic drills.
Try doing the following, each for about 50 meters or so:
- High Knees
Use a short, bouncy stride and raise your knees as high as possible with each stride, moving your arms in a running motion and keeping your head straight. This drill improves flexibility and leg turnover speed.
- Butt Kicks
This drill also involves a short, bouncy, stride, but instead of lifting your knees up, you raise your heels behind you toward your butt (hence the name). This drill helps improve your form for speed work.
This drill is essentially just an exaggerated version of regular skipping, with the knees coming up high and the opposite arm swinging up to help propel you upward. Aim for height rather than distance with this drill, which improves your overall power and ability to accelerate.
Also called carioca, this drill involves running sideways, alternating one leg over the other. This drill works the stabilizing muscles, which improves your agility and helps you maintain proper running form.
- Leg Swings
Using a wall or fence for balance, turn sideways (using just one hand for support), and swing your inside leg forward and backward, gradually increasing your range of motion with each swing. Complete at least ten repetitions before switching to the other side.
When you’re done, face the wall or fence, and while using your arms for balance, swing one leg to the side and then across your body to the other side, gradually increasing your range of motion for at least ten religions. Switch to the other side.
These movements improve your range of motion and increase flexibility in the hips, gluteus, and hamstrings.
Finally, run for about 50 to 75 meters at a gradually increasing pace, building to near full-speed by the end. Try doing three or four of these before beginning your actual workout, as it will prepare your body to run at a quicker pace.
4 Of The Most Popular Track Workouts
#1: 400 Meter Repeats
400 meter repeats (also referred to as “quarters”) is a standard track workout.
Run hard for one lap and then recover by either jogging or walking 200 meters (half a lap) or resting for two or three minutes (but keep moving and don’t sit down).
Your running effort should not be “full out” but should be significantly faster than your usual running pace (somewhere between mile pace and 5K pace) and hard enough that you feel winded by the end of each repeat.
If you’re new to track workouts, start with four repeats (4 x 400m). You can add an additional speed interval every week or two as you increase your endurance.
If you find yourself unable to maintain the same pace for each interval, consider slowing your pace, reducing the number of repeats, or lengthening the recovery period.
Alternatively, if the repeats feel fairly easy and you’re not breathing hard at the end of each one, consider increasing your pace, adding more repeats, or shortening the recovery period.
#2: 800 Meter Repeats
800 meter repeats are similar to 400 meter repeats, except each interval will involve running two laps rather than one.
Additionally, your pace will necessarily be somewhat slower (between 5K and 10K pace) and the recovery a bit longer (three or four minutes).
Start with only two or three of these repeats, but add additional intervals as you get more comfortable with the workout.
You may initially find it difficult to hit a pace that is challenging, yet allows you to finish each repeat at the same pace, but 800s are worth trying as they edge into aerobic range and can help you develop the speed, endurance, and mental toughness needed in a distance event.
#3: Yasso 800s
If you’re training for a marathon and curious about your potential finishing time, consider trying the Yasso 800s. This classic speed workout was created by running legend Bart Yasso, and is thought to be a good predictor of how fast you can run a marathon.
To run the Yasso 800s, build up to running ten 800 meter repeats (10 x 800) with four minutes of recovery after each running segment.
In theory, the pace you can sustain for all ten repeats (in minutes and seconds) will correlate to your likely marathon finishing time (in hours and minutes).
So, for example, if you can run all ten 800 meter repeats in three minutes and 45 seconds, you can reasonably expect to run a marathon in three hours and 45 minutes.
There is some disagreement about whether this workout is an accurate predictor of marathon finishing times, or if it is even a good workout when training for a marathon, but if you have found running 800 meter repeats beneficial and are curious to know if you’re in shape to hit a specific goal, consider trying this workout a week or two before your race.
Instead of repeating the same distance, ladders involve running at increasing distances (going up the ladder), decreasing distances (going down the ladder), or increasing and decreasing distances (going up and down the ladder).
There are nearly endless variations of ladder workouts, but here are some examples:
- Run 4 x 100 meters (with 100 meter walking recovery), 3 x 200 meters (with 100 meter walking recovery), 2 x 400 (with 200 meter walking recovery), and 1 x 800 (with 400 meter walking recovery).
Each running segment should be run at a hard effort, with the shorter first segments run at a faster pace than the last 800 meters, but with all segments run at a hard pace for the distance. After the shorter, faster running, the 800 meter segment will likely be challenging, but will help you develop the capacity to maintain pace on tired legs.
- Run 1 x 1600 meters (with 400 meter walking recovery), 1 x 1200 meters (with 400 meter walking recovery), 1 x 800 meters (with 200 meter walking recovery), 1 x 400 meters (with 200 meter walking recovery) and 1 x 200 meters (with 200 meters walking recovery).
In this workout, your pace will increase as the distances shorten and will improve your confidence in being able to inject short bursts of speed towards the end of races.
- Run 2 x 200 meters (with 100 meter walking recovery), 1 x 400 meters (with 200 meter walking recovery), 1 x 600 meters (with 200 meter walking recovery), 1 x 800 meters (with 400 meter walking recovery), 1 x 600 meters (with 200 meter walking recovery), 1 x 400 (with 200 meter walking recovery), and 2 x 200 meters (with 100 meter walking recovery).
These types of workouts can be difficult, but help you learn to shift gears and manage your pace and energy.
For all track workouts, make sure the combined distance of your running segments are consistent with your fitness level and weekly mileage, with the total percentage of all speed work, including track workouts, constituting no more than 15 to 20 percent of your total mileage.
When creating your workouts, you may want to lean toward shorter, faster repeats with longer recovery periods if you are training for shorter distances (mile, 5K) and trying to develop your speed, and aim for longer repeats with shorter recovery periods if you are training for longer distances (half marathon, marathon) and looking to build your endurance.
8 Fun Track Workouts
If you’re never been on a track before (or at least not since you had to run the mile in gym class), don’t have a particular goal in mind, and just want to give track running a try, there are plenty of fun workouts to try.
#1 Straights & Curves
This workout is an oldie but a goodie, and simply involves running the straightaways and walking the curves.
You can repeat this for as many laps as you like, but may want to shoot for four laps (which equates to approximately one mile) or eight laps (for two miles).
This workout doesn’t require too much thinking or planning and is a good way to get a feel for running on a track.
This is also a fairly straight-forward workout, involving running 300 meters (three-fourths of a 400-meter track), walking 100 meters to get you back where you started, and then repeating the process.
If 300 meters seems longer when you’re running it than when you see other people doing it, you may want to play around with your pace to be sure you can run the entire 300 meters.
You can also repeat this pattern for as many laps as you would like, but consider your fitness level and typical weekly mileage as you plan so you don’t do too much on the track and wind up unable to manage your next scheduled run.
#3 Four-Minute Mile
Who hasn’t dreamed of running a four-minute mile? With this workout, it may be within your reach!
Try running the following distances on the track:
400 meters, 300 meters, 300 meters, 200 meters, 200 meters, 100 meters, and 100 meters
Take a minute or two rest after each running segment.
Use a watch to time the running portions of these intervals and do not reset it after each one. Rather, just keep timing and adding each additional run, and when you are done with the entire workout, you will have run 1600 meters, which is approximately one mile.
Your goal will be to run these seven segments in a total four minutes or less. If four minutes seems a bit unrealistic, of course, feel free to adjust this goal, but pick a time that will require you to push yourself.
#4 Roll The Dice
Roll a die. The number it shows will be the number of intervals you do. Roll it again. That number will be the distance of your runs.
So, for example, if you roll a 4 and a 2, you should run four 200-meter repeats (with a brief rest period after each one).
You can roll the die again and repeat this process a few times so you run a total amount that fits with your running plan.
#5 Fitness Combo
If you find yourself getting bored running in circles, try stopping after every lap, moving to the inside of the field, and doing a strength move, such as a plank, push ups, or crunches.
#6 Time Challenge
After a proper warm-up, run one lap and make a note of your time. Then, after a brief rest, and without looking at your watch while you’re running (wait to check it at the end), try to run another lap (or several more laps) at the exact same pace.
While this workout will obviously be challenging if you run your first lap at a fast pace, it will be challenging even if you go a little slower, as maintaining any specific pace can be difficult. And no matter how fast you run, this workout will keep you engaged and help you dial in your pacing.
This workout can really only be done if the track is empty, or almost empty, but is a fun way to push yourself and improve your speed.
Start in lane one, which is the inside lane by the field. Run once around the track and make a note of your time.
Then move to the next lane (lane two) and run a lap staying in that lane the entire time. Try to run that lap in the same time it took you to run the first lap.
Keep moving out, lane by lane, running one lap in each lane and trying to keep your same time.
In most 400 meter tracks with eight or nine lanes, the outside lane is 40 to 50 meters longer than the inside lane, so by the time you get to the outside lane, you’ll be running 440 or 450 meters.
Given this extra distance, as well as the fact you will be tired from running several laps already, you may find it quite difficult to maintain the same time. This is a great workout, though, and essentially tricks you into pushing yourself and running faster.
#8 With Friends
If you have a friend or two who would like to join you at the track, you can work together to create a workout.
If you have one friend, try a 400-meter “relay” where you run one lap and when you return to the start/finish point, your friend takes off and runs one lap. When your friend gets back, you head off for another lap, and repeat for as many laps as you want.
If two friends join you, try a 200-meter relay. Two runners will be at the starting point, and one runner will go half-way around the track (200 meters away) and wait there. The first runner starts and runs to the runner half-way around the track, who then runs to the starting point, where the third runner takes off. This can also be repeated for as many laps as desired.
It’s not necessary, but having an actual baton, or at least something to pass along to each other, such as a water bottle or stick, makes this workout a little more fun and like an actual relay.
Don’t Forget To Cool Down
As with any run, but especially with a speed workout, a cool down is as important as the warm-up.
A cool down should include some easy jogging or walking to lower your heart rate, promote recovery, and avoid muscle soreness.
You may also want to include some gentle stretching as part of your cool down as doing so can help you maintain flexibility and avoid stiffness and injury.
Now that you know what to do, go find a track and start running!