The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Using Your Local Track (2023)

If the last time you used a track was in high school gym class, you’re not alone—but you’re missing out. Savvy runners head to the track for speedwork, thanks to the flat surface and lack of obstacles. And these workouts can help you build strength and efficiency so you’ll be a more powerful runner on and off the oval.

“The rubber track surface makes the ground feel like a springboard, ultimately giving energy back to runners to use towards increasing their speed,” says Mechelle Lewis Freeman, a track and field Olympian and founder and director of TrackGirlz. “It’s also significantly more forgiving on your muscles and joints than running on hard surfaces” like the pavement or even a treadmill’s belt.

The 400-meter distance around the oval also makes it easy to set up speed workouts, which allows you to dial into the moment. “Instead of focusing on where you’re going, you can think about your stride, your efficiency, and your overall speed,” says Jasmine Nesi, a USATF-certified coach, coach at Mile High Run Club, and co-founder at RUNGRL. Track running can also help you become more naturally accustomed to pacing without the aid of a treadmill belt under your feet.

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The benefits of the track extend far beyond your own personal performance, too. At most track workouts organized by running clubs, the vibe stays social and supportive. The track is a great place to meet new running buddies—the kind who help you get out the door in epic conditions, or tough out a long run. Plus, at a group workout, you’re likely to push harder than you might on your own, and you’re less likely to give up when the going gets tough. Other runners at the workout can spot sloppy form that might be slowing you down.

But if you’re used to running in place, out and back, or from point A to point B, running in circles can be tough to wrap your head around without a coach to guide you. Here’s what you need to know before you go to get an effective track workout on your own.

Track Math

Most track ovals are 400 meters around, as measured in Lane 1; that’s just a bit less than one-quarter of a mile. The straight sections are called straightaways, and where the straightaway begins to turn is called the curve or turn. One complete rotation around the track is one lap. With that in mind, here are some other basic measurements that are helpful to know:

  • 100 meters: the length of one straightaway
  • 800 meters: roughly 1/2 mile or 2 laps around the track
  • 1600 meters: roughly 1 mile or 4 laps around the track

Using that math, you can calculate further distances: If four laps around the track equals one mile, eight laps is two miles, 10 laps is two and a half miles, and so on.

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If you have all lanes available to you, you should know the outside lane is 40 to 50 meters longer than the inside lane. That’s why some race starts are staggered.

In the racing world, “the sprint races include the 100 meters, which is performed on the straightaway; the 200 meters, which begins on the curve and finishes at the end of the straightaway; and the single-lap 400 meters, one of the most difficult sprint races due to the speed and endurance it requires,” says Freeman.

Track Lingo

If you’re a regular runner, most of these terms are probably familiar to you. But they’re especially important when it comes to track workouts, which are generally more structured than longer, steady state runs.

Intervals: “An interval is a period of increased effort,” says Nesi. They go hand in hand with recovery efforts. “The goal is to maintain a consistent level of performance in each interval,” adds Jennifer Forrester, a former DI sprinter and the co-director of TrackGirlz.

Recovery: A recovery period allows you to catch your breath, reset, and refocus so you can give a consistent effort in your interval efforts. “Your rate of perceived exertion during a recovery period should come down to a 5 out of 10, or 50 percent of your interval effort,” says Nesi. “If you don’t recover long enough, you’ll be resisting fatigue the entire workout instead of building speed and power,” adds Freeman. “Keep recovery between two to three minutes for the 100- and 200-meter runs, and between four and five minutes for 400-meter efforts.”

Repeats: These are segments of the same distance done a set number of times with recovery periods in between, says Forrester. If you want to build your endurance, you can shorten the amount of recovery time you take between each repeat.

Sprints: A sprint is an all-out, full-speed effort over a short distance, says Nesi. Most sprint workouts are no more than 20 to 60 seconds long or 50 to 200 meters; or 400 meters if you manage that in under a minute.

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Strides: Strides are super short sprints—maybe 50 meters or half the straightaway, says Nesi—at nearly max effort. “I like them in warmups to build momentum,” she explains. “But you can also do them as finishers to a workout.”

Build-ups: “Build-ups increase heart rate and leg turnover as you increase your effort over distance,” explains Forrester. “They get your legs ready to run hard.” After your warm-up, run 30 meters at half of your top speed, 30 meters at 75 percent, and the final 30 meters at 90 percent of full speed, then gradually slow down with walking or jogging in between.

Split: You know what a mile split is during a long run, right? It’s the same thing on the track, the distance just changes. If you’re running 400s, or one lap, you would check your watch after your first lap, then aim to match or improve that split time on the next laps, says Nesi.

Track Rules

In some ways, track workouts are just like any other workouts: You want to plan ahead so you can mentally prepare for an effective workout and know exactly what workout you plan to do (you can get ideas here).

You should also always bookend your workouts with a proper warmup and cooldown. Jog at an easy pace for 10 to 15 minutes before the track workout. At the end of the warmup, add some strides to help boost your heart rate and prepare your muscles for speedwork. Cool down by jogging easy or walking to lower your heart rate.

In other ways, the track is a totally different experience than running on the road. Make sure you understand the “unwritten” rules other runners are adhering to so you don’t cause any accidents (or look like a total newb).

Run counterclockwise: On a track, runners run counterclockwise, says Forrester. (Left turns only!) This is not the time to go against the grain. And when you’re getting on or off the track, “be sure to look both ways for any runners” to avoid collisions, she adds.

Clear lane one. “This lane is typically reserved for the fastest runners,” says Forrester. Otherwise, faster runners stay to the left while slower ones keep to the right. “The inside lanes are typically reserved for those working on speedwork, while tempo runs, warm-ups, and cooldowns should be done in the outer lanes,” she adds. (BTW: If someone yells “TRACK!”, it means to clear the way—so if you’re the one being passed, you should move immediately out of the way, warns Forrester.)

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    Leave the headphones at home. When you’re close to runners giving 100 percent in a confined space, it’s good to be aware of what’s going on around you. If you can’t handle running sans music, “it’s helpful to leave one ear bud out,” says Nesi.

    Sample Track Workouts

    If you’re new to the track, 100-, 200-, or 400-meter repeats can help develop a good speed and endurance base, says Freeman. The ratio for interval to recovery should be 1:1, Freeman says—i.e. you should walk the same distance you ran and then repeat the sprint interval (so if you run one lap, walk a full lap in the outer lanes for a full recovery).

    “Remember, your pace depends on your fitness level,” she adds, “so instead of focusing on time, focus on the amount of intensity: your effort should be about a 6 or 7 out of 10.” The more comfortable you get, the more you can increase your intensity or reduce your recovery. Try any of these beginner interval workouts:

    100 Meter Repeats

    • Warm up
    • Run hard for 100 meters (1 straightaway)
    • Recover by jogging or walking 100 meters
    • Repeat 6 to 8 times
    • Cool down

    200 Meter Repeats

    • Warm up
    • Run hard for 200 meters (½ the track or 1 curve + 1 straightaway)
    • Recover by jogging or walking 200 meters, the rest of the lap
    • Repeat 6 to 8 times
    • Cool down

    400 Meter Repeats

    • Warm up
    • Run hard for 400 meters (1 lap around the track)
    • Recover by jogging or walking 400 meters, 1 lap
    • Repeat 6 times
    • Cool down

    The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Using Your Local Track (2)

    Ashley Mateo

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    Ashley Mateo is a writer, editor, and UESCA- and RRCA-certified running coach who has contributed to Runner’s World, Bicycling, Women's Health, Health, Shape, Self, and more. She’ll go anywhere in the world once—even if it’s just for a good story. Also into: good pizza, good beer, and good photos.

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    “If you're keeping in shape and staying injury-free, you're not slowing down at all before you're 35,” said Fair. “You don't see any real fitness declines until age 40.” So basically, before runners turn 40, the race is up for grabs.

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    Does running get harder as you get older? ›

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    Average time and pace

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    During high-intensity runs or sprints, it's recommended that you breathe through your mouth since it's more efficient. Inhaling and exhaling through your mouth allows more oxygen to enter your body and fuel your muscles.

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    Focus on your pace of breathing and get comfortable with jogging, taking breaks as needed, before you increase the intensity. By using belly and rhythmic breathing, your breathing can become more efficient during your run.

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    Many experts will say that to oxygenate the muscles and clear the body of carbon dioxide fully, you should breathe a 3:2 inhale-to-exhale ratio; full inhales and full exhales. This means you inhale on the left, right, left foot strikes and exhale fully on the right, left foot strikes.

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    Results: There was a general decline in sprint performances with age, the decrease becoming more evident around 65-70 yr of age. The velocity during the different phases of the run declined on average from 5 to 6% per decade in males and from 5 to 7% per decade in females.

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    What age are runners fastest? ›

    Abstract. Marathon running performance among men and women is generally fastest, as indicated by world record performances, when individuals are 25-35 years old. The time to complete a marathon gradually increases with age, with substantial losses in performance after the age of 70 years.

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    Doing too much increases our levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which leads to tummy fat. "When you're purely running, you're not creating lovely lean muscle fat, so people end up having that 'skinny fat' look, where there is no real muscle tone because they haven't done any resistance work.

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    Running targets mainly your legs and butt. The muscles which are used to power you through your run are quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and glutes. Regular running will definitely get you a toned, fit body including a firm butt.

    How do runners get flat stomach? ›

    "Aerobic exercise such as running, swimming or rowing raises metabolism during and after the activity, making it less likely that calories will be stored around the abdominal area, or anywhere else, as fat," Sutton says.

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    “What we call 'runner's face' does indeed often correlate with a runner's body type and lifestyle, but running does not specifically cause one to have a gaunt face.” The urban legend that's coined this look is actually caused by loss of volume and skin elasticity.

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    Your marathon running training should build up your weekly mileage to around 50 miles total per week with about three to five runs each week. Along with easy training runs, you should incorporate one or two workouts with speed intervals, and one long run every week.

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    Start with one minute of running alternating with two minutes of walking for a total of 20 to 30 minutes. Then increase running by 30 seconds each week until you reach 10 minutes of running. This concept can be adjusted, depending on one's overall health and fitness level.

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    Interval training
    1. Warm up.
    2. Run 10 minutes at a comfortable pace.
    3. Run 6 x 2 minutes at a very challenging pace.
    4. Follow every interval with one minute of walking and one minute of jogging to catch your breath and recover.
    5. Cool down.
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    How do I train for a marathon with no experience? ›

    Training plan
    1. Three runs per week.
    2. Two cross-training days (biking, swimming, hiking)
    3. Two rest days.
    4. The running should be a combination of a short/fast run, a medium run, and a long run.
    5. Choose your days as you prefer, but make sure you have a day of rest on either side of the long run.
    Jun 17, 2019

    What is the best age to run a marathon? ›

    Marathon running performance among men and women is generally fastest, as indicated by world record performances, when individuals are 25-35 years old. The time to complete a marathon gradually increases with age, with substantial losses in performance after the age of 70 years.

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    Base Mileage

    Beginning marathoners should aim to build their weekly mileage up to 50 miles over the four months leading up to race day. Three-to-five runs per week is sufficient. The vast majority of these runs should be done at a relaxed pace.

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    The skill of running includes jogging, sprinting, chasing, dodging and evading. All of these are important to many games (e.g. tag), sports (e.g. athletics) and everyday activities (e.g. running to get to school on time).

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    Generally speaking, people who weigh less than 200 lbs can run safely as they have low chances of being at risk of injury. Furthermore, it is important to note that some people who weigh more than 200 lbs can safely run if their muscles are strong enough and can withstand the forces produced during running.

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    Proper Running Technique: Top Six Tips
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