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What are track events in athletics?

athletics track
File photo credit: Andrew Tan/SportSG

By Joey Tan

Track and field events are among the oldest of all sporting competitions, transcending cultures and civilisations. Historical evidence on the origins of athletics competitions are still sketchy, but it is generally agreed that these events have been present since the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece, which date back to 776 BC. 

The first Games featured a limited number of events, such as a 180m sprint across the length of the stadium, but have since expanded to encompass at least 12 track events, 8 field events and three events combining track and field components. Most athletes tend to specialise in just one event, aiming to achieve perfection.

Types of track events

Track events can be divided into three main categories: events that require running on a track over a defined distance, running events with obstacles placed on the track, and relay events. While track events generally refer to events held within the stadium, other distance events that require running on roads have been included in the roster. 

Track events are generally not complicated - you run from point A to point B in the quickest time possible. However those not familiar with athletics may wonder what the difference is between the events, other than the distance involved. 

Here’s a general lowdown of the basic things you should know about track events.

Athletics relay
File photo credit: Siong San/SportSG

Sprints: Sprints refer to explosive bursts of speed over short distances. As such, sprinters generally require more muscle mass than their long distance counterparts due to the anaerobic nature of the event.

Middle distance: Middle distance events are frequently referred to as the hardest of the running events as it requires both endurance and strength. Middle distance runners look leaner than the sprinters, and slightly more muscular than the long distance runners.

Long distance: These races are generally of an aerobic nature. That is to say, it requires the runner to process oxygen in low-intensity activity over a long period of time. Long distance runners have strong cardiovascular systems, enabling them to last through races ranging from 15min to 2 hours. 

Hurdles and steeplechase: The steeplechase is an obstacle race, which was derived from horse racing. Both men and women race over the most common distance - 3000m - though the steeplechase for women has lower barriers. Likewise, hurdles events consist of obstacles placed in regular intervals over the distance of the race. Failure to pass over or intentionally knocking over the hurdles will result in disqualification.

Relays: Four runners make up a relay team. Each runner must hand off the baton to the next runner within a certain zone, usually marked visibly on the track. Failure to pass the baton properly, or dropping the baton may result in disqualification. 

Indoors vs Outdoors: Indoor track competitions are generally more limited compared to outdoor track competitions due to space limitations; indoor tracks are 200m long, with four to eight lanes. 


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