What Distance Should I Run In Track?


If you are a new track and field athlete in high school, you have some decisions to make.

Different distances require different types of running ability. And depending on your fitness and personal preference, you might find yourself better at some distances than others.

Sprinting requires fast-twitch muscles to propel you down the track. It’s almost purely anaerobic, and largely based on explosive strength.

As you move up in distances, you must have the discipline to run at a steady pace, and the aerobic capacity to maintain that pace for up to 20 minutes.

And the mid-distance events – the 400 and 800 – you need both pure speed and enough fitness to maintain a fast pace for a fairly long distance. These two distances are well-regarded as two of the hardest events on track.

But before we go deeper into track distances, let’s cover some basics first…

What Should I Know Before Hitting The Track?

The first thing you should know is that indoor and outdoor tracks are different in size. Outdoor tracks are 400 meters in length, while indoor tracks tend to be 200 meters.

This means that if you’re running on an indoor track, you’ll have to run twice as many laps to cover the same distance as on an outdoor track.

Both tracks have standardized distances. This means that if you run on an outdoor track down the road from your house, but this weekend you’re going to visit your grandma on the other side of the country, the two outdoor tracks will be the same distance. Carry on with your workouts as you would on your home track.

If you’re running in the first lane—the inner lane—the distance is exactly 400 meters. As you move into the outer lanes, the distance increases by 7 ½ meters per lane!

Tracks feature a number of markings that can just look like a jumble of lines when you first see a track. Start lines for various events, markings for hurdles, and more are all there as standard ways to measure track events. With a little knowledge, you can use these markings to help measure your workouts.

To track your distance on the go, keep the following in mind (if you’re running in the first lane):

  • 100 meters is the length of one straightaway or one turn
  • 200 meters is ½ lap around the track
  • 400 meters is one lap around the track (about a quarter mile)
  • 600 meters is 1 ½ laps around the track
  • 800 meters is two laps around the track (half mile)
  • 1200 meters is three laps around the track
  • 1600 meters is four laps around the track (about a mile)

Track Events

A track meet is truly a team affair. Each athlete runs a small number of events to earn points for the team. A well-built team will be made of sprinters, mid-distance runners, and distance runners, as well as jumpers and field athletes. There are a number of official track events, ranging from 100 meters to 5,000 meters. And don’t forget about hurdles, the distance version of hurdles – the steeplechase – and relays.

What Distances Can I Run?

The distance you choose ultimately depends on your choice. That choice should be based on what you are good at, because not all runners are good at the same kind of running. Joining a track team is a great way to find out what you’re good at. If you don’t know – or if there is a need on your particular team – your coaches will help you choose.

In the casual distance running world – the local 5k of recreational runners, the mid-pack marathoners, etc. – there is an unspoken belief that the better the runner you are, the longer the distance you race. Needless to say, this is not actually true. Sprinting is a specialty with its own unique demands, and a good sprinter is just as fit as a good 5,000 runner. Embrace the distance the suits you, and put in the work to be the best at it.

Here’s a quick rundown of the various distances so you can pick what feels right to you.

100 meters

Aside from the indoor 60 meter dash, the 100 in the shortest, fastest event on the track. It is the marquee event at the any high profile meet (Olympics or Diamond League, for example), and the winner of the Olympics 100 is known as the “Fastest Person on Earth.” A sprinter will cover the distance in as few as 40 steps, and if you want to make the Olympics, you’ll have to do it in under 10.05 seconds. That’s blazing fast. Anything under 11 seconds will make you a very successful high school athlete most places. 12-13 seconds is middle-of-the-pack.

Does the idea of pouring out every ounce of your strength in 11 seconds, before you even have a chance to get out of breath, appeal to you? Here’s what you need for success in the 100: you need to be strong, fast, and focused. While the 100 meters is one of the shortest sprint distances, it’s also one of the more popular events that athletes try out for.

To be successful in the 100 meters is going to require more than just raw talent. You have to be dedicated, work extremely hard, and learn the best running technique that works for you, in order to achieve your maximum velocity. Rather than waking up early to get in miles, you’ll spend your time in weight room doing squats, and practicing getting out of the starting blocks. In fact, world record holder Usain Bolt once realized that he has never run a full mile without stopping in his life. And yet…he’s a world record holder.

Work on accelerating out of the starting blocks, being in the right position for your body to pick up speed, staying up on your toes, and driving your knees to maintain speed over 100 meters.

200 meters

When you run 100 meters, about half the time is spent getting up to speed. It’s over practically before its begun, and this favors athletes who start quickly. If you are a sprinter who thrives once you are up to speed, the 200 mght be your event. If you want to run the 200 meters, it will require you to have both power and acceleration. Training for the 200 meters will be different than for the 100-meter dash. The 200 meters is long enough that you will get deep into anaerobic territory quickly.

Strategy plays a larger part in the 200 meters. Sticking to your race plan can mean the difference between having more energy before the finish line or running on an empty tank.

Part of success in the 200 meters is maximizing the turn that makes up the first half of the race. Because the first 100 meters is on a turn, there is a staggered start. If you’re assigned an inner lane, you’ll be able to see runners as if they are ahead of you, and you can work to chase them down. If you are in an outside lane, you just have to know you’re being chased. Once you get to the straight second half, it is clear to see who ran the turn best. Now, the challenge is maintaining your top speed as the lungs and legs start to burn. The race will certainly last under 30 seconds, but keeping your knees driving and arms pumping for that long is surprisingly challenging.

At this point, it’s essential that you focus your efforts on a good sprinting form. Keep a tight core and maintain a powerful stride.

400 meters

The 400 meters straddles the border between sprinting and middle distance. Runners have to pace themselves well for the first 200-300 meters before unleashing a kick on the last straightaway. While we all secretly wish that we could sprint the entire 400 meters, it’s just not going to happen!

Your training regime should include your race day strategy. This will help you to push for the first 50 meters off the starting block, run at a decent pace, and then maintain your speed until the last curve, where you’ll have to accelerate.

That last 100 meters kick to the finish, can seem endless, and will challenge your ability to push yourself deep.

800 meters

It’s only half a mile, right? Sure. Tell yourself that. The 800 meters is well known as the most painful race on the track, making the demands of distance running while also requiring the strength and speed of sprinting. While sprinters will often run both the 100 and 200, or 200 and 400, and distance runners will run both the mile and the 5,000, it just as common for an 800 runner to run that and nothing else. It’s its own little world of hurt.

If you’re thinking of specializing in the 800-meter race, then understand that there’s more to this race than just raw talent!

Running the 800 meters requires strategy, speed, endurance, good running techniques, and impressive mental focus. You’ll need a plan for your run. Know what you need to do and when to do it.

Make a move too early, and you may not have enough energy to finish strong. Waiting to make a move may leave you boxed in, without room to pass other runners.

Knowing your running strengths will help. Just don’t forget to play with them!

1 mile (or 1500 or 1600 meters)

Running a successful 1600 meters requires stamina and a good lactate threshold, in addition to a strong finishing kick, savvy tactics, and a tough mindset. Runners need to work on their fitness and endurance levels, which will help maintain their pace until the last 200 meters.

It’s in the last 200 meters, when your legs and lungs are on fire, that your stamina and tough mindset will come into play.

Coming into the last 200 meters after running more than three laps already, you’ll need to have the energy to make the final sprint. Stamina and the right attitude is what’s needed to help you finish strong.

As a note, professional-level events usually have a 1,500 meter race, rather than 1,600.

2 miles (or 3000 or 3200 meters, plus steeplechase)

As the distances increase, reliance on threshold pace increases. Ramping yourself up to just below your redline, and then holding yourself there, is the key skill. There’s no easy way to run the 2-mile race. It takes strategy, endurance, racing awareness, and patience.

Runners need a strong mental focus for this race. It can be easy to lose your pace if you’re following the lead and struggle to get back to something that feels natural and comfortable to you. And the race is long enough that there is no faking it – you can’t simply hold on for dear life.

One of the best ways to do the 2-mile is to run the first 6 laps in a relaxed way, conserving that much-needed energy for the last 2 laps. Remember, you’ll need a little extra for the final kick to the finish line. Running at an even pace will help to carry you through the comfort zone.

The last 800 meters of the race is where the tempo picks up and the hard questions get asked. This is where strategy and mental focus comes in.

You can try to push the pace in the last 600 meters, but in the final 200 meters, you’ll need enough energy for an all-out sprint to the line.

“Sounds good,” some distance runners say, “but I like jumping in puddles and over fences.” Good news! You’re a steeplechaser! It’s not a common event at the high school level, but the steeplechase is a distance event that involves a few sturdy hurdles each lap, as well as a water feature, just in case running laps doesn’t hold your interest.

International meets often use the 3,000m distance, rather than 3,200.

5000 meters

5,000 meters is an interesting distance. Recreational runners know it as the entry-level distance of local running events. Track athletes respect it as the most daunting challenge in the meet, the one where the truly elite distance runners earn their bona fides. At the professional level, success in the 5,000m is often a stepping stone to the riztier world of high-profile road marathon racing.

The secret to strong 5,000 is pace, pace, pace. At 12.5 laps, the race takes some time, and executing a plan based on lap times is paramount to success. Having the discipline to settle in and cruise for a bit, and then elevate the pace and kick to the finish, is crucial.

While the 5,000 lacks the electric energy and showmanship of the 100m, it is, nonetheless, one of the centerpieces of a track meet. Whereas the winner of the 100 is considered the best sprinter, the winner of the 5,000 is considered the best distance runner.

Jumping and Field Events

Don’t forget that there is also a Field component to Track & Field. Not everything is running. Long jump, triple jump, high jump, and pole vault are also great events to try, especially for sprinters. Those who focus on upper body strength and don’t run at all still have a place on a track team with events like javelin, discus, shot put, and in some cases the hammer throw.

How To Find Your Best Distance

There’s no one distance that’s better than the rest. There’s a reason all these different distances exist, and it’s because some people have the power for quick sprints, and others have the aerobic ability and lactate threshold for distance!

And that’s exactly how to find what’s best for you. While we do recommend trying them all out, if you’re interested in track, you’ll most likely gravitate towards one or two distances naturally.

What Do You Personally Enjoy?

There’s no point in running if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing! We suggest reading over these brief summaries and decide which one sounds most appealing, and try that one first.

100m or 200m

These are for the sprinters. Ask yourself these questions to find out if it’s a good fit for you.

  • Can you sprint all-out for a short distance?
  • Do you enjoy other fast-paced sports, like soccer or hockey?
  • Have you got the muscle power necessary for a powerful push-off?
  • Do you have the stamina to maintain a pace for 100/200 meters?
  • Is time in the weight room more appealing to you than logging miles on the road?

400m or 800m

Middle-distance could be the best way to start. From there, you can figure out if you want more of a speed challenge or more of an endurance challenge, and go up or down from there.

  • Are you athletic, a mix between strong and enduring?
  • Have you previously enjoyed sports that mix sprints and endurance?
  • Are you unsure of both the 100/200 meter or the 1600/3200?
  • Do you excel at pushing through pain?

1 or 2 miles

Some runners are born for longer distances. If you pride yourself on your stamina, long-distance may be for you!

  • Do you like the hypnotic motion and rhythm of settling into a long distance?
  • Do long runs give you time to think?
  • Have you taken part in endurance sports before?
  • Are you lean and light?
  • Do you have the ability to focus for long periods of time?

If you start off on one distance and find that it’s not quite working for you, there’s nothing stopping you from changing to another!

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Shanna is a writer who runs... And cycles, jumps rope, and lifts weights. She lives in beautiful South Africa and enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience with other avid athletes.