Rules for Running on a Track

Follow Rules for Safety and Good Etiquette

Etiquette for Running on a Track - Illustration by Zoe Hansen

Verywell / Zoe Hansen

Whether you're a beginner or experienced runner, a track is a convenient option for outdoor running. A track is usually a safer option for many reasons, as long as you understand the rules for safety and follow good track etiquette.

That said, track workouts can seem intimidating. Each has its own code of conduct, which can leave even runners with years of experience feeling like outsiders. Plus, you can't ignore the lingering impact of negative experiences in high school gym classes (all those boring laps).

However, running track can be a great way to boost your fitness, improve your speed and endurance, and even gain greater confidence in your running ability. Whether you are training for a race or just want to beat your own personal record, putting in some track time can be both a convenient and highly effective way to achieve your goals.

Among the top reasons to run on a track:

  1. It's motivating. Tracks are typically public places and if you come at the right time of day, you may find the sense of camaraderie and competition motivate you to push yourself harder.
  2. It's challenging. Sticking to treadmill workouts can grow tedious, and hitting the track gives you the chance to set your own pace. Even if you aren’t a speed demon, the track can help you learn how to better pace yourself.
  3. It's convenient. Rather than finding a good road course, a track can be a quick way to get in a good run.
  4. It helps your focus. It’s easy to just “zone out” when you are running on the road or treadmill. Making laps around the track can force you to focus your mental energy on keeping your time and making it through those next 400 meters.
  5. It can be fun! The challenges of a track run can be an engaging way to improve your speed. It’s also a chance to meet new running buddies.

Start by learning the rules, the lingo, and etiquette guidelines that will help you feel at ease when you visit your local running track.

Know Your Distances

The distance you choose to run should be something you are comfortable with based upon your current ability level. Most running tracks are 400 meters around in lane 1 (the inside lane). The distance around the track increases in each lane; the distance you would run once around in lane 8 is 453 meters.

Knowing common distances on a track can help you ensure that you are getting what you expect from your track run.

Common Distances on a Track
Meters Track Equivalent
100 The length of each straightaway, if you are running sprints; the shortest distance for an outdoor sprint race
200 A half lap around a standard distance track
400 Approximately a quarter-mile, or one lap around a standard track
600 A half lap followed by one full lap around the track
800 Approximately a half-mile, is equal to 2 laps around the track
1200 Approximately three-quarters of a mile, or 3 laps around the track
1600 Approximately 1 mile, or four laps around the track

Regular training can help you improve your speed and endurance and can help you tackle faster sprints and longer runs as you grow more confident in your abilities.

Run in the Correct Lane

There is a pecking order for lanes. The inner lanes are usually reserved for fast runners or those doing speed workouts. The inner track allows them to pass slower runners more easily. Never walk or stop in lanes 1 or 2, or you might end up becoming a speed bump. Some tracks may even reserve the three inside lanes for their fastest runners.

The slower you are relative to others using the track, the higher number lane you should use. Walkers and those who are doing their cooldown should move to the outermost lanes (lanes 7 and 8).

Run in the Right Direction

The typical direction for most tracks is counterclockwise, but it can vary. Look for posted signs indicating which direction to run. This rule helps prevent collisions between runners.

Some tracks alternate directions daily or weekly so runners who use the track frequently don't get a lopsided workout.

When in doubt, follow the lead of others on the track. After all, if everyone is going the 'wrong' way, it becomes the right way. Going with the flow reduces the chances of a collision.

Don't Stop on the Track

Never stand on the track. Get your gear all set before you step onto the track so you aren't standing there adjusting your earbuds or running watch, for example, as others are trying to pass. If you feel a cramp coming on, need to tie your shoelace, or get a phone call, move off the track. If you recognize another runner you haven't seen in years, move off the track to have your reunion.

Pass Correctly

Track etiquette generally calls for runners to pass others on the right if running in a counterclockwise direction, or on left if you're running clockwise. Note that this is not a universal rule, so you might have to adjust to what other track users tell you is appropriate for their track.

Following the rules is critical on the track. Not only does it prevent unpleasant confrontations with other runners, but it minimizes the risk of injury to you and others.

Respect the Hours of Use

Most tracks have times when the track is off-limits to recreational runners, and you should check to see what is allowed for each track you use. Some restrict use during school hours unless you are associated with the school, for the safety of the students. Other schools allow recreational runners to run in the outer lanes while teams are doing their workouts. Many restrict use after dark.

Reconsider Guests

It's great to get the kids into running by having them run on the track, but it's important that they follow the rules as well. If they can't (as is often the case with younger children), it may be best to wait until they can.

If you do bring your child, don't allow him or her to stop or stand on the track. Check to see if you can use a jogging stroller on the track if you have little ones.

While you might park your child in a stroller while you circle the track, be courteous if your child begins to cry. Especially, be alert so your child doesn't wander onto the track.

Running with your dog can be fun, but the close quarters of a track is not a good place to bring your dog for a run or walk. Even if your dog is on a leash, he or she could easily run into another lane where someone else is running. Plus, the other runners should not have to deal with your dog's barking or "potty breaks."

Listen to Music With Caution

While you're in a safer environment on the track, it is wise not to cut off your sense of hearing completely with headphones or earbuds. Use them, but play music at a very low volume or with one earbud out so you're aware of your surroundings and can hear other runners behind you.

When in doubt, just leave the headphones at home, particularly if the track is very busy. And be sure not to broadcast your music to others with a stereo or speaker.

Dress Appropriately

Aside from dressing appropriately for your workout and the weather, you should also take care to choose the right footwear. Regular road running shoes are good choices, but some runners may also opt to wear running flats or spikes.

Spikes contain small metal pins, and your track may specify what size spikes are allowed. Wearing large spikes may actually cause damage to the track, so check the rules posted or with the field's athletic director if you want to wear spikes during your run.

The important thing to remember is that you don’t need to wear spikes or other special “track” running shoes. All you need is a comfortable, lightweight, and supportive pair of running shoes that allow you to perform your best while minimizing the chance of injury.

Tips for Your First Track Visit

Now that you know a bit more about the benefits of track running and some of the basic rules, you might feel a bit less fearful of the track. Before you head out for a run, here are some tips that might help:

  • Plan your run beforehand. It can be helpful to know how far you plan to run, how fast you want to run, and how long you plan to run. Start with a pace and distance that you are comfortable with to get a feel for what a track run can offer. Build on your pacing, speed, and endurance as you become more comfortable in this setting.
  • Don’t skip the warm-up. Spend 15 to 20 minutes at an easy jog to get your muscles ready for some faster work in order to avoid strains and exhaustion.
  • Watch your pace. It can be easy to overdo it your first few times out on the track, particularly where you can easily gauge how far you’ve gone and how far you still have to go. Stick to an easy, steady pace (a measurement of running speed, such as how long it takes you to run a mile or kilometer), so that you have enough left to finish strong. Be aware of how fast other runners around you are traveling and respect other people's personal space.

Track Lingo

The more you hit a track, the more likely you may be to hear some common running jargon. It's helpful to know some common terminology:

  • Splits are how long it takes to complete a defined distance. Checking your time at certain split points can help ensure that you are pacing yourself. For example, if you are running 1600 meters, you might check your time at 400-meter splits.
  • Intervals are workouts that involve periods of speed followed by periods of recovery with a goal of increasing aerobic capacity and improving time.
  • Recovery refers to periods of jogging or walking that allow your body and heart rate to slow so that you are again prepared for a burst of faster running.
  • Strides are very short bursts of intense running, often used at the end of a run. In most cases, you will run at about 90 percent of your top speed for around 20 or 30 seconds, followed by a recovery interval of slower jogging. It is common to do strides before your track workout or after doing drills.
  • Drills are warmups you do before your run, such as high knees, butt kicks, toy soldiers, walking lunges, and fancy footwork like grapevines.
  • Speedwork involves upping the speed and intensity of your runs based on a predetermined training schedule. This allows you to improve your strength, speed, endurance, and confidence.
  • Repeats are faster running intervals that take place over the course of your run, usually repeated several times. Each repeat is followed by a recovery period.

A Word From Verywell

Running track can be a useful addition to your training, particularly if you are training for a race or marathon. While the treadmill and the road are always great options, the track can present unique challenges and advantages such as improving your discipline and allowing you to gauge your progress. Far from just plodding through boring laps, the track gives you the chance to learn more about your running abilities, find kinship with other runners, and push yourself to beat your personal best.

By Christine Luff, ACE-CPT
Christine Many Luff is a personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and Road Runners Club of America Certified Coach.