Track: a five-letter word that strikes fear into the heart of almost every runner. You cast your eye across the oval and everyone out there looks like they know exactly what they’re doing, flexing svelte muscles and then proceeding to run at speeds so fast you get whiplash just watching. Then you look at yourself: an awkward track virgin, stumbling out onto that giant round stage for all to see.
I, too, was once that awkward track virgin. All I could think was, Everyone will be watching me. Running. The whole time. I was certain it would be one of the most humiliating experiences of my life.
But…it wasn’t. Honestly. I swear. In fact—stay with me here—it actually turned out to be fun, and I eventually came to enjoy the rubberized revolutions. Where else can you run with multiple friends, regardless of pace, without losing someone? There are no traffic lights slowing you down, no potholes to watch out for, and best of all, no wrong turns. (It’s a 400m circle. If you manage to get lost, you’ve got other problems.)
The truth is, what deterred me most at the start of my track-running days were the “unspoken rules.” Therefore, after many, many visits, I’ve put together this simple list. They’re easy to follow and—I hope—will ease your fears and get you out there sooner rather than later. Because the track will make you faster, I promise!
1. Thou shalt warm up before starting a workout (and cool down after!).
You know those “goofy” people skipping in slow motion and kicking themselves in the butt? Doing stuff you tell yourself you’d never do? Well, those “goofy” individuals are getting ready to run—and you should, too. It’s important to warm up before any run, but it’s especially important before a track workout, when you’ll push your muscles to their limit. Then, afterward, it’s a good idea to cool down, to keep your muscles from scrunching up into tight, sore little pretzels. Be good to your body and it will be good to you!
2. Thou shalt always run counter-clockwise.
It’s the most basic of directions to follow: unless you see a sign that says otherwise—and some tracks do have this—make sure you’re running counter-clockwise. Said another way: when you face the track from the “outside,” run to your right. And when in doubt, go with the flow.
3. Thou shalt only use the inside lane when running speed workouts.
If you’re at the track to get in easy miles or are recovery-jogging during a workout, please be mindful, because people running workouts will pass you, and they may not be the nicest about it. When you’re laying off the speed, the correct track etiquette is to stay to the outer lanes or the infield. (I learned this the hard way, by getting hollered at and nearly stepped on more than once.) The innermost lane, Lane 1, is the closest to being an “exact” distance—400m on most outdoor tracks, 200m on regulation indoor tracks—and when you’re running a speed workout, those inches and seconds matter!
4. Thou shalt not measure thy workout using GPS.
We all know that GPS can get confused sometimes and when you’re running in lots of tiny identically-shaped circles, it can get really confused. Do yourself a favor and turn off your GPS. Then, just count the laps: 400 meters, 800 meters, 1200 meters, 1600 meters (1 mile). Also, remember that when you race, you will not run a perfect distance, and the track is no different; however, the marked distances on the track are so close, you simply don’t need GPS. Run free, my friend!
5. Thou shalt adhere to one’s workout and prescribed paces.
When you’re running in countless circles under the scrutiny of fellow athletes, it can be tempting to change things up; not to mention give in to that little bit of friendly competition. After all, you want to look like the fleet-footed runner you are! However, try to remember: You’re not at the track to show how fast you already are, you’re at the track to get faster. That means practicing distances and paces that might make you look “slow” or turn you into a heaving sweaty mess of speed demon. But when you finally step up to the starting line of your race—that’s when you’ll be ready to run like a rock star.
(Plus, there’s a bonus! You’ll often feel a bit better and run a touch faster when you run on the track, as opposed to the road. This is because the surface is made for your shoes to grip better, and the softer landing is easier on your joints. Faster running that feels easier? Yes please!)
6. Thou shalt always finish thy interval on a straightaway.
It’s physics: When you run around a bend, you twist your body, lean into the curve, and wind up off-balance. At the end of an interval, however, you want to be pushing your hardest to run your fastest, and to do that, you need your best running form—which has to be totally balanced. Therefore, always finish on a straightaway. Every. Single. Repetition.
7. Thou shalt give verbal warning to those blocking thy path.
If you are running in Lane 1 and find yourself approaching a slower runner from behind, give that person ample notice to move out of your way. Please, however, avoid the reflex phrases that we all have: “MOVE!” “Out of the way!” “Watch out!” The best phrases to call out are “track,” “on your left,” or “on the inside.” And if you hear any of these phrases shouted at you, don’t list lazily to the right; move right immediately, because they are coming in hot! (I once moved left instead and, well, it wasn’t pretty.)
8. Thou shalt never stand motionless on the track.
If you must stop moving, step off the track. It’s common courtesy, and also practical: you don’t want to cause a collision. Imagine if cars just stopped motionless in the middle of the freeway! Also, even if you manage to avoid a collision, if you stand in the middle of the track and force runners to go around you, you will get a dirty look. Probably more than one. So do what you will, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!
9. Thou shalt leave thy earphones at home.
To go back to the cars metaphor, it’s the same reason you don’t wear earphones while driving: When a bunch of cars are maneuvering around each other at high speeds, every driver needs to be fully aware of what’s going on. The same applies to runners on a track. Don’t be the cause of a pileup.
10. Thou shalt encourage thy fellow runners.
Even if every runner on the track is doing a different workout, we’re all enjoying this sufferfest together—so let’s help each other out. A simple high five or “looking strong” can make all the difference—especially when you need it the most.