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Comparing Running Track Surfaces

You may think one running track is just about the same as another running track. But if you run on the track often in a variety of places, you’ll most likely have noticed that there are subtle differences.

Not all of the differences will be apparent, but they can make an impact on your performance and your body.

Comparing running track surfaces can help you understand the advantages and disadvantages of each, as well as how to prepare for running on each one.

The Anatomy of a 400m Standard Track

Tracks are a standard size of 400 meters (437.4 yards) around. The two semi-circles on each end have a radius of 36.5 meters (40 yards), and the straights joining the two ends are 84.4 meters (92.3 yards).

Most tracks have either 6 or 8 lanes. On occasion, you’ll find those with just 4 lanes, but they’re not up to competition standard so they’re mostly just used for training. Each lane is 1.22 meters wide (1.33 yards).

Interestingly, the type of surface placed on the track is the biggest determining factor in how much a running track costs. Some surfaces cost around $50,000 to install, while others can stretch to $1 million.

The Different Surfaces

1. Synthetic Track (Tartan Track)

Synthetic tracks are technically made of rubber, which is bonded together with either latex or polyurethane. Typically, it has a concrete or asphalt base underneath about ½-inch of the rubber mix.

They’re a common choice, and usually provide good performances thanks to their measured and slightly bouncy surface.

Some synthetic tracks are IAAF-certified, and they’re often used in international competitions of varying distances.

Latex-Bonded

Latex-bonded, or latex-bound running tracks are popular as they’re soft, forgiving, and easy on the body.

Their springiness makes them excellent for speedy push-offs and makes you feel like you’re moving smoothly.

Another bonus of these kinds of tracks is that they’re permeable, so if it rains, water drains easily off the track. Suitable for running in all weather!

They come in three different color selections, so they’re often used for competitive use as well as recreational.

Pros

  • All-weather functionality and safety
  • Slight bounce is safe on the joints
  • Soft and comfortable to run on
  • Three color selections (for installers – not so important for runners!)

Cons

  • Can wear down with use, exposing asphalt beneath
  • May develop surface cracks with use
  • May be more expensive than others (might be less common to find)

Polyurethane-Bonded

Polyurethane-bonded tracks are more durable than latex-bonded. It’s not permeable, so water won’t cause damage.

This elastic material is also extremely resistant to heat damage and cold-weather damage. It also doesn’t develop cracks like latex-based surfaces do.

In terms of hardness, polyurethane is slightly harder than latex but still fairly soft. It’s a good, safe option for running and adds a tiny bit of bounce, which reduces the amount of vibration on the feet. It’s still firm enough to get great speed.

Pros

  • Highly durable in cold, heat, and rain
  • Safe on the feet and joints
  • Good for speed work

Cons

  • Expensive to install

2. Clay and Cinder Track

These kinds of tracks are old-school. You may not even find one near you! You can spot one immediately, as it’s natural-looking and most definitely not synthetic.

Clay and cinder tracks are made from a combination of ash (cinders), carbon, and rock or clay. Their natural state makes them an ideal choice for track and field-type stadiums.

They’re nicely cushioned and won’t jar your joints and feet any more than modern synthetic tracks do. There’s also a bit more resistance on them, which can help you build more muscle if you’re running hard and often.

On the downside, any kind of bad weather makes these tracks unusable. They become soggy and sludgy in wet weather, and heavy wind can actually end up blowing part of the surface away.

Modern clay and cinder tracks can be installed with water drainage technology, but it significantly increases the costs. It’s safest to assume that the clay and cinder track near you will be unavailable in the rainy season!

Pros

  • Easy on the feet
  • Natural
  • Offers some resistance

Cons

  • Useless in bad weather
  • Can be slippery in summer
  • Harder to find these days

3. Turf

Just like cinder and clay tracks, turf tracks are natural and a joy to run on. They’re soft, feel natural and comfortable underfoot, and are joint-friendly.

The softer surface can give you an excellent leg muscle workout. Because the surface is uneven, it also works a bunch of smaller “balancing” muscles, in the hips, legs, and ankles.

But it does make it a little harder to do effective speedwork training on. It may be a better choice for endurance runners.

Also, the surface is a fair bit more unstable than others. Being raised in the way it is, it can contribute to ankle rolling much more easily than other surfaces.

These kinds of tracks also don’t necessarily deal well with wet weather, though. They’re all good in the cold, as long as they don’t get damp. They can become quite slippery and waterlogged, making it a dangerous surface to run on.

Pros

  • Natural and nice-looking
  • Soft and springy
  • Joint-friendly
  • Works many muscles

Cons

  • Not suitable for wet weather
  • Uneven surface can cause ankle to roll

4. Asphalt

Asphalt surfaces are excellent all-weather options. They were the first modern track surfaces to be laid, and you can still find them around in many places today.

Usually, they consist of asphalt mixed with sand and rubber. This combo makes the track hard-wearing and great for use in all weather.

The running surface may change slightly in different types of weather, though. In the hot summer months, the surface is soft and low-impact. But when the cold hits, it stiffens up noticeably and may be less forgiving on the joints.

They’re fast and excellent for serious training sessions. You can do speedwork drills with ease on an asphalt track.

The downside is that they tend to lose their toughness as they age, becoming more susceptible to wear and tear and roughening the surface. This means an older asphalt track can have some inconsistencies that could increase the chance of injuries.

Pros

  • Hard-wearing and good for all weather conditions
  • Very fast and ideal for speedwork
  • Relatively easy to find

Cons

  • Not suitable for wet weather
  • Uneven surface can cause ankle to roll
  • Degrade as they age

Why is Running Track Surface Important?

Each different type of track has its own pros and cons. While you can’t always choose the type of surface you want to run on if you’re taking part in competitive track racing, understanding different types of tracks can help you know what to expect and how best to train for races on those tracks.

If you know the type of track your next race is going to be held on can give you a slight advantage. If you can train on the type of track you’re going to be running on, you’ll get a very good feel for what to expect underfoot.

Most tracks these days consist of synthetic material, which is fairly safe and easy to handle. But you never know when you might come across a track made of something different.

Also, if you know that you’re going to be running on a certain type of track that’s less forgiving, you can take measures to protect your joints in advance.

Lastly, splitting your training time between different types of tracks can actually help to improve your strength and resilience. Your muscle, balance, and endurance will all get a boost when you train regularly on different surfaces.

The Wired Runner