Running Track Measurements: A Brief Rabbit Hole

Last week I posted about the update to Garmin’s wearables that now includes a database of running tracks for their running track mode, in addition to the pre-existing ‘learned’ track mode where it learns the running track you have without an entry into the database.

When I did so, someone who runs in the greater Amsterdam area commented on the YouTube video saying that one running track wasn’t actually 400m on the inside lane (Lane #1). A brief exchange with the person via YouTube confirmed it was this specific track, which is the Sports park De Schinkel Athletic Track (officially listed as “Amsterdam Schinkeleiland”).

I found that claim a bit odd for a number of reasons, notably:

  • A) I’ve used this track for half a decade, for countless videos/posts viewed by millions of peoples (many in Amsterdam), and nobody has ever said anything
  • B) There’s tons of markings on this track, as well signs around the track for all assortment of things, none of which indicate it’s “short”, and the Dutch are very much into being official on stuff
  • C) It’s used for some school competitions and club training
  • D) It’s also the warm-up track for Olympic Stadium, directly next door
  • E) Garmin and COROS track measurement for years has put it at 400m
  • F) When Wahoo created their track running mode, knowing I’d likely be testing it on this track (as it’s just 300m from the DCR Cave), they even came up and measured and validated the track
  • G) Apple’s own database has it as a 400m track on Lane 1
  • H) The old man at the track said, incredulously, that “of course” it’s 400m on lane 1.

Now, with all that said, I was still intrigued – because you know what they say: Never listen to people on the internet.

Obviously, I listened. Welcome to the Rabbit Hole.

But I had good reason. Certainly, I use this track constantly as a reference for testing devices, and thus, if somehow I was running in the wrong lane, or the track length was ‘special’, or whatever, I’d definitely want to know.

Thus, this morning, following a hail storm, I went out with my handy-dandy measuring wheel:

I bought this and another version 15 years ago, when in Washington DC, and doing various accuracy testing then. It’s in feet/inches, cause, America (side note: How crazy is it that I can link rabbit-hole posts from 15 years ago?!?). But that’s fine, I’ve got Google to translate Americana to Everyone Else.

Now, the implication this person was making, was that Lane 1 is somehow short. As most readers of this site know, running track lanes vary by distance, getting longer and longer as you go towards the outside. For an internationally compliant track, the distances as as follows:

Lane 1: 400.0m
Lane 2: 407.7m
Lane 3: 415.3m
Lane 4: 423.0m
Lane 5: 430.7m
Lane 6: 438.3m
Lane 7: 446.0m
Lane 8: 453.7m

Now comes the question of *where* exactly do you measure the inside lane from? The left edge, the middle, the right edge? Somewhere else entirely? Well, turns out there are three answers to this:

Answer #1: I initially Googled lightly from my phone, and a few sites/peoples/forums said “the inner most edge of the track”. These sites/people are wrong, ignore them.

Answer #2: Then, I got more serious in my Googling. The next site said “20-30cm”, which, seemed imprecise – but also something oddly specific to note.

Answer #3: More Googling, and I found my answer: It’s either 20cm or 30cm, depending on exactly where you’re measuring it.

Here, let me explain, from the IAAF (World Athletics now) technical information website, the exact specifications are according to the Track and Field facilities manual, as follows:

If the inner track border of lane 1 is raised on curves (e.g. a curb): 30cm
Each subsequent lane (e.g. Lanes 2-8): 20cm

Here’s the applicable section on Page 29 of the most recent manual (2019, Chapters 1-3):

Note there does seem to be references that if the curves lack a ‘curb’, they should also be measured at 20cm instead of 30cm.

In fact, that entire document is absolutely fascinating. It covers more math and measurement craziness than you’d ever imagine. Such as this image:

Ok, armed with this information, I headed out to the track. First, for fun (and totally useless data), I decided to measure as close to the inside curve as possible, right against it. This is obviously *FAR* less than 20cm, but I was curious how much less (and the document said this should be 398.116m). Also, did I mention it was hailing out?

In this configuration, accounting for my imprecision as well as a tiny bit of slippage on the hail (which did *not* stick to the wheel, as snow might have, as you can see below), it measured 397.764m – thus, I was within half a meter. Pretty damn solid!

Next, I gave it another whirl, this time trying to stay about 30cm off the centerline (the official measuring line), or roughly 11.8”. I would occasionally double-check my distance to the curb using a measuring tape, but as you can see below, I’d slowly drift inwards a tiny bit on the curves.

On the first 30cm go-around, I measured 398.983m, and then I came back an hour later and measured 398.861m.

Overall, pretty damn close. Of course, even with my apparent accuracy of 99.75%, there are a few likely logical reasons why it’s still about 1-meter short):

1) My inability to stay exactly 30cm off the edge, notably on the curves where I tended to gravitate inwards
2) Probably a little bit of wheel slippage with the snow/ice/hail (which would under measure)
3) My 15-year old measuring wheel has been boxed up and moved across the ocean once, then again within Europe once, and also just bumbles around the cave/storage room.

But, I was still not satisfied. I need, somehow, more proof than just math and measurement magic. I needed official confirmation.

So, I started poking around those signs. They were useless in terms of measurements, but they did provide contact information to book the track and ask questions.

At that point, I realized that perhaps the city has a website about the track (since this is a totally open community track without any gates/fences around it, nor restricted times), with more details. It didn’t have much in the way of details, but, armed with the exact official name of the track, I went back to Google.

And, more googling later, I found the Dutch authority on inspection and certification of tracks, which does so in compliance with IAAF/World Athletics certification standards. They handily listed the track there, along with the recurring inspection expiration date, showing it as a 400m track:

Even more useful, each track on that listing also has a nifty two-page document indicating exactly what was certified, and which components meet certification standards. For example, this track has four valid lanes for races (it’s a bit smaller lane-count-wise), but some of the secondary faux lanes on the straightaway (used for funnies) aren’t valid. Again, it’s designed as a warm-up track for Olympic Stadium next door, thus, it does not meet the 8-lane requirement for a normal track meet (hence why it shows ‘Nee’ there, because if someone planned a track meet there, they’d be rather disappointed to find it missing half the lanes):

But of course, it shows the 400m type rating earlier on.

Still, I was not satisfied. Nearby, there were some workers with super fancy laser measurement equipment, so I asked if they could come settle this internet dispute:

Just kidding, I didn’t ask them. But was tempted.

Finally, just because…overkill, my wife texted someone we know that: Leads a running club that uses the track weekly, has access to Olympic Stadium to do running events, and works at the local running store. They too, confirmed that it’s 400m, but noted that “some people incorrectly assume it’s shorter” because it has fewer lanes than an 8-lane track, and thus “feels smaller”. But that Lane 1 is most definitely 400m.

Thus, in the words of the Moana song my daughters can’t stop singing, and is permanently stuck in my head: You’re Welcome.

Or: Never doubt the old man at the track.

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71 Comments

  1. Oskars

    That 1m could easily be measurement wheel error. Those things also need to be calibrated on regular basis.

  2. andre

    You could have attached a 30 cm ruler to your measuring wheel, to make it more easy to keep the right distance. I mean if you want to get geeky you may as well go all the way.

    • Yeah, I actually thought about that.

      The main reason I didn’t was that I didn’t want it to keep catching/bouncing on the ‘curb’ on the inside, and then cause my wheel to bounce off at a weird angle. That said, I probably could have mounted it up higher and been clear.

    • Thomas

      You need to find and buy supporting wheels that offset exactly 300mm 😉
      And then mount them, obviously…

  3. Dan

    This is the type of nerdy content I come to this site for. Tough I agree with andre that you could have taken it a step further and attached a 30cm rod at a 90-degree angle to maintain distance :)

  4. There is a reason, sir, that we trust you.

  5. fiatlux

    I am looking forward to the update after the Amazon guy delivered your brand new theodolite ;-)

  6. inSyt

    How would you use the laser measurement to measure the curved portions of a track …

    • This is actually covered in the IIAF manual, for validation of points along each curve. :)

    • Thomas

      Go check with the civil engineering folks at the nearest university… Those always need fun stuff to measure for practical lessons. I guess they would be happy to measure the track for you. Or even make it into an exam. Maybe students would not like you afterwards though…

  7. taniwha

    By any chance, do you know if any company will add the track mode for running tracks outside the 400m-size?
    I train on a 250m-track :)

  8. fitz

    I just realized, that even though the 400m track is metric (doh!), lane width seems to be exactly 4 feet.

  9. MattH

    Brilliant work, Ray.

    Man in 6th photo; is he fishing or having a comfort break? link to media.dcrainmaker.com

  10. Fred2

    Decades ago, when we (a team of distance runners) hosted the track meet for the Portland Rose Festival, we panicked when we discovered that the track didn’t have lane marks for the 400 meter hurdles. Somehow we knew the position of the hurdles on the inside lane and of course we had the 7.7 meter stagger of the 400 m start lines. Some quick calculations allowed us to determine how the stagger between the hurdles would decrease as we progressed around the corners. (Note that the stagger only changes on the corners, not on the back straightaway.) Using a measuring tape we rushed to set up the hurdles. Miraculously, everything lined up as we made it around to the final straight. The 400 m hurdles started a few minutes late, but none of the competitors complained about the spacing.

    • Nice!

      The field marking document is amazing, btw: link to worldathletics.org

      When we were first looking for space for the DCR Cave here in Amsterdam, we tried to get one of the various field-level business spots at Olympic Stadium, but they were all taken at the time (there about 40 of these, that extend basically from the ‘outside’ of the field to the ‘inside’. Super cool, and companies like Brooks and just lots of Physio-type practices/etc have offices there. Brooks would be the most ‘known’ brand, most are just random small companies. Later one came available, but we invested too much into the current DCR Cave build-out to want to move.

      In any case, if I had a track-side office, I’d definitely get this diagram blown-up big and put on a poster, super cool. Heck, might still do it.

    • Matthew

      In 2018 I did that exact thing, having a 98cm x 149cm poster printed, mounted on foam board, for about $100US. The next year the diagram was updated to reflect the new rules regarding sprint relay exchange zones. So, while it is out-of-date, it certain covers a lot of wall area!

  11. Pena

    Looks like you typoed IAAF to IIAF (Iran air force?), but actually IAAF is WA (world athletics) since 2019

  12. István

    Measurements are fun:) I remember how I spent half a day measuring a “track”, were nor the straight lines were equal. On standard tracks I used to do validation runs on the inside line of line 2. It eliminates keeping the 20 or 30cm offset, very easy to follow. 405.78cm; See: link to help.stryd.com

    • David

      I was reading the doc and thinking the measurement of the line between lane 1 and 2 should be exactly consistent (assuming standard lane width) and measuring on that line would make life so much easier. Thanks.

      And on that note, Report back soon Ray!

    • Yeah, I don’t entirely understand Stryd document on the whole lane 1 thing, because 30cm is actually quite easy to run, and pretty much exactly where you’ll run if you simply ran around the track (especially if Stryd is on the left foot, then it’s closer to the 20cm marker).

      Anyway….

    • Rui Pereira

      Yes, this is the “easiest” way to do it, use the line between lane 1 and lane 2, and measure there. It should be exactly 406 meters. Of course there’s still margin for variation, since the line itself is relatively large, but still much easier to run or measure while following the line. But then I guess one would also have to make sure the lane width is right. :D

    • Zoltán

      @ István

      not a half day at one time, but if I add the time spans I was spending with measuring the length of the non-standard tracks and street loops I use for running I am over 24 hours definitely.

      I made the calibration of my Stryd on the running track of Budapesti Honvéd in late 2022 just after it had been validated for international athletics events.

      So by now I know the lengths of 3 non standard tracks in neighboring cities, and although I am highly critical with everything, but Stryd as a distance measurement tool is really gorgeous.
      Precise, I mean.

  13. SLoochiani

    You just need to add another wheel to the end of the ruler, so you can just roll along the curb. :-)

  14. Mark Mellang

    Why wouldn’t you wait a day until there wasn’t ice/hail? You admit there was slippage (Wasn’t this a Seinfeld plot point?), which would have invalidated any measurements.

  15. Justin

    15 years of rubber shrinkage on that tyre could also knock your measurement off.

  16. Velibor

    Heh, mount some rod to the upper part of the wheel and attach the laser pointer on it, with red dot beaming on the ground exactly 30 cm from the edge of the wheel. :)

  17. chuckbike

    This is the first article I’m reading as an official supporter and I could not be more happy for my decision!

  18. Andi

    man, you are the greatest!

  19. Sarah

    So who else felt compelled to fire up their satellite maps of choice to see exactly what was meant by “some of the secondary faux lanes on the straightaway (used for funnies)”? But now I know!

  20. Eric Yabu

    I enjoyed your entire article, but this part is absolute gold:
    Lane 1: 400.0m
    Lane 2: 407.7m
    Lane 3: 415.3m
    Lane 4: 423.0m
    Lane 5: 430.7m
    Lane 6: 438.3m
    Lane 7: 446.0m
    Lane 8: 453.7m

    • martin

      I’m afraid this is wrong. As the first line is measured 30 cm from the inner edge (curb is actually mandatory in bends) and other lines are measured 20cm from inner edge, the difference in length between line 1 and line 2 is 7.04m, while all other differences are 7.66m. (10cm x 2 x pi = 63cm).

      Also check 2nd line (marked 400) in Table 2.2.1.6a – Staggered start data for the 400m Standard Track
      on page 38 in Track and Field Facilities Manual 2019 Edition – C.pdf

      Correct numbers are here (add 400)
      07.037
      14.703
      22.368
      30.034
      37.699
      45.365
      53.030

  21. Nathan B

    Can’t believe you weren’t using a measuring stick in each hand whilst riding a road bike with a speed/distance sensor on both the front and back wheel (PowerTap G3).

    This is the DCR we’ve come to expect.

    Have you also considered using your rolling pin and counting the number of full rotations?

  22. meow

    Your measurement could be less because of the outside temperature. Before starting lap measurement, you should do a calibration for your measuring wheel with a metal tape where you measure 100m (or better 200m) in a straight line and then measure it 3x times with your wheel and find out precisely how much is 200m for your wheel. But better do it in more ‘neutral’ conditions to avoid need to adjust your measurements for the weather conditions.

  23. tex murphy

    I like how the name of your wheel is ICESON and you used it on ice.
    Well “IC” looks like a K in the photo.

  24. Stuart

    I now feel obliged to post a link to this little gem from 1998.

    link to youtube.com

    You’re welcome! (Sadly, they cut off the best bits at the tail end of the skit, but you get the general idea.)

  25. Marek

    And .. you could also measure some other track that is not disputed and use that to “calibrate” your wheel… That would be my approach to know how well the wheel measures. But .. I don’t think I would be brave enough to measure this seeing the hail coverage :-)

    • Nico

      That would exactly be my thought, since the Olympic stadium is next door and I believe you had access to it. I’m really curious now what the measurement of that track would be under the same circumstances

  26. Heinrich Hurtz

    Measure right up against the line. The length any distance out from that will be that plus 2Pi the added distance out. e.g. At 20cm out the length will be an additional 1.257m. At 30 cm out, the length will be an additional 1.884m. etc. Thank Archimedes.

    • Mike

      Kind of misses the point. If the track is really ‘out of spec’ then the radius for the curved sections will likely be off. In fact, even tracks with an accurate length do not necessarily have correct or consistent radia – hence, the requirement in the WA manual for multiple measurement points for the curved sections.

  27. Stephen Jackson

    … and for when you decide to get accurate out in the real world,
    link to aims-worldrunning.org
    When measuring Olympic and World Champs Marathons we add 1m per km to allow for the inevitable corner cutting. Funniest thing was a whole TV show done around our measure of the Sydney Olympic Marathon where we measured and told the Olympic Games Organising Committee that the marathon was spot on, but the track was 399.6m long… as it was a road race we left the 1m fudge factor in… it gave the organisers a heart attack!

    PS – those wheels are close, but rarely, if ever, accurate.We use a gadget called a Jones Counter. Accurate to millimetres, but it takes a bit of work to calibrate. Details in the link above. :-)

    • Yeah, the Jones Counter is good for going long distances. Most tracks, however, don’t take kindly to people riding bicycles on them (despite the fact that it won’t hurt it…).

      That said, one of the catches with the Jones Counter is ensuring accounting for both the exact pressure in the tire (with a roll-out), but also tire deflation over a time period (depending on how long the course is). It’s one of those things that fluctuates (downwards usually) during a ride far far more than most people realize, till you have a tire pressure sensor and see it in real-time. Again, per proper procedure, you should be doing both a before/after check (and as you noted, that site explains how to do it properly/etc). But…I suspect a lot of smaller/medium size races never bother, to do either, and have it written down on a sticky note instead. ;)

      (Also, FYI, the Jonescounter link on that site has an error in it, set for HTTPS, when the actual Jonescounter site doesn’t support HTTPS, just HTTP, so it fails.)

    • Paul S.

      Wow, that Jones counter looks very similar to the Huret odometer I used to use about 40 years ago. You had to take the front axle out to mount it, and then a little pin mounted to a spoke hit a gear and turned it. Was pretty accurate as I recall, although I’d guess not as accurate as the Jones counter.

  28. Steve

    I enjoy that the certification has an expiry date. “Due continental drift we can only certify this track at 400m for the next two years!” ;)

  29. Thanks Ray. Stuff like this is the reason I love this site!

  30. Micks Purnell

    It’s in the rule books how far from the rail (if there is a rail/curb) or inside line of lane 1 (if there is no rail/curb) needs to be exactly 400m. And any organization responsible for having an accurate track is going to include that in the specifications for contractors who build and mark the track. Expectation is that the contractor will get it right to get paid and get a reference so they can do other tracks.
    It’s unknown what percentage of people who use tracks read those rulebooks.
    1.0%, 0.5%? 0.25%?

  31. Nick

    Really interesting the methodology measuring the field, many details that can easily burn you. Though we must not forget to enjoy the running wherever we are.

  32. Luke

    Love this! I also use that track once week so was riveted! Glad my workouts for the last 5 year’s haven’t been coming up short! 😜

  33. GPSIG

    The testing and consumer stuff is invaluable, but it is the content like this that keeps the love alive! It’s going to take a lot of control not to do this to my local track…

  34. Rob B

    Cause America, Ray don’t forget we use imperial too, at least for distance. My wheel is imperial, but both types are in stock at the local shops, as an aside my rabbit hole is Coros’s inability to measure my runs in imperial and show temperature in a language I understand, every other “proper” watch does do it.

    • Paul S.

      No, no. We use statute, units chosen by our democratically elected legislatures. They use French Imperial, units imposed largely by conquest.

      These days your local track is probably 400m, though.

  35. Greg Miller

    This looks like a cool, rabbit-hole, type of newsletter.

    Several years ago I discovered the problem with measuring wheels – they can slip and if they bounc (even a little), the measured distance will be inaccurate. Also, when seeking the precision you sought for the Amsterdam track, the measures should have been completed on a dry track AND the wheel’s accuracy should have been pre-confirmed.

    Thanks for what appear to be really cool topics.

  36. Iñaki

    Ray knows how to have fun!

  37. John

    Man. Love it. This is the most epic response to a YouTube comment troll (to be fair, maybe not a mean troll, but . . . still, you know, that guy) ever. (And I say that as someone who has inadvertently been that guy; no shade thrown to the trolls.)

    Love the article! I’ve definitely been down this rabbit hole, albeit for different reasons, learning how courses are USATF and World Athletics certified both for tracks and road courses (and learned how to look them up on the USATF site!).

    Fun times, and I hope your new year is going great!

  38. John Porter

    Awesome work Ray !

    I was by turns intrigued, entertained and amused by this article – love your attention to detail and determined empirical approach ! Laser level gag was the cherry on top

    best regards

    John Porter
    Blue Mountains
    Australia

  39. Tim Newman

    Just measure on the line and do some math for 20cm and 30,cm on the curves.
    No need to take the wheel out multiple times.

    • Mike Newman

      Does not if the track is not exactly in consistent and correct shape (eg the corners are not consistent semi-circle but slightly oval/have changing radius/etc) – which is pretty much the point of the post.

  40. Tim Newman

    It seems absolutely nuts that the distance is 20-30cm from the actual line given that an athlete often runs within mm of the line meaning they don’t run 400m. Is that correct?

  41. Peso

    The youtube song at the end is really cherry on the top of this post! Thank you DC!

  42. dremels

    ” Nearby, there were some workers with super fancy laser measurement equipment”

    It looks very much like a Leica DNA 03 – a digital level instrument with no lasers involved.

  43. 😃 so crazy, but I totally understand your reasons. And to be honest, now I’m thinking about measuring the track I’m running most oft the time. 😅

  44. John Lang

    An exam with “must show your workings”. Not much credit for getting to 400m as the answer on this one.

  45. Mike

    But did you ask the original YouTube guy why he thought the lane wasn’t 400m? What’s his evidence?

  46. Felipe

    This is also my weekly track \o/ As a different kind of person, I did not care about the exact length. But indeed learned something from your content and commitment to be right/sure.