Your Guide to the Olympic Running Distances

In this podcast episode you will hear explanations of the various Olympic track events, a preview of the men’s and women’s marathon, and tips from Coach Angie on some effective speed workouts to do on your local track.


Maybe you didn’t run track in high school or college and might not be familiar with the distances or terminology.

What to know about an outdoor track:

  • The outdoor track is 400 meters around. Indoor tracks are 200 meters.
  • The length of 1 straightaway is 100 meters
  • The track has two 100 meter straightaways and two 100 meter curves
  • 4 laps or 1600 meters is almost 1 mile. Technically a mile is 1609.34 (so 30.65 feet longer than 1600 meters)

We might be biased but we think the track and field events in the Olympics are some of the most entertaining events to watch. And they have the longest history going all the way back to the ancient games.

Sprints or dashes were a feature of the Ancient Olympic Games which took place between 776 B.C. to A.D. 393, and for many decades were the only event. Thousands of citizens would turn out to watch men (only men back then) run around a stadium naked.

From the book The Road to Sparta by Dean Karnazas,

The original Olympic footrace distances were not ultramarathons or even marathons for that matter, but relatively short sprints. The first of these running races was called a stade, and it consisted of a roughly 200 meter dash around the perimeter of the arena. Spectators who came to watch these athletic competitions sat in stadiums (from which the modern word is derived).

There are 3 sprint distances held at the modern Olympics (and outdoor World Championships): the 100 metres, 200 metres, and 400 metres.

100 Meters

This is run on the straightaway of the track. You will see runners use starting blocks and the classic “ready, set, go” start. Usain Bolt has clocked the fastest 100 meter time at 9.58 seconds and is called “the fastest man in the world”. The fastest woman of all time in the 100 meters is Elaine Thompson-Herah also of Jamaica with a time of 10.70.

200 Meters

This race begins on the curve of the track where runners are staggered to ensure they all run the same distance and ends on the straightaway. The record holder here again is Usain Bolt with a time of 19.19 seconds.

  • If you Google “how many miles an hour does Usain Bolt run it says 27.3 miles an hour. If you Google “Usain Bolt compared to animals” you will find that Bolt can outrun a wild turkey, squirrel, domestic pig, chicken and a rat but he would lose to a domestic cat, a giraffe, a wildebeest, a kangaroo, and warthog.

400 Meters

This is 1 time around the track. The current men’s world record is held by Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa, with a time of 43.03 seconds. The current women’s world record is held by Marita Koch of East Germany set in 1985, with a time of 47.60 seconds

  • To appreciate how fast this is I encourage you to test yourself on your local track and see how fast you can complete 1 lap. To blow your mind even more . .. not many people can run 1 lap in 68 seconds. This was Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon pace when he broke 2 hours in the marathon. That’s 68 seconds per lap 105 times. 17 seconds per 100 meters.

Relay Events

There are two baton-passing relay events for men and women in the Olympics:

  1. 4X100 meter relay: 4 runners run 100 meters each
  2. 4X400 meter relay: 4 runners run 400 meters (1 time around the track) each.

Is it hard to pass the baton? Yes. That’s why you sometimes see athletes fumble it. The baton must be passed to the next runner within a 20-meter changeover box. Where the incoming runner is at full speed and the change over runner builds up to full speed before the exchange. What makes it hard is the leading runner reaches backwards with her/his left hand and grabs it blindly.

This is all done while they are running 20 mph. If you drop it or hand it off outside of the changeover box or veer out of your lane or collide with another runner you can be disqualified.

The Hurdles

Hurdle distances include:

  • 110 meter hurdles (men): 10 high hurdles (1.067 metres or 3.5 feet high) spaced evenly along the straightaway.
  • 100 meter hurdles (women): 10 hurdles (83.8 cm or 2.74 feet high)
  • 400 meter hurdles (both): 10 intermediate hurdles (36 inches for men and 30 inches for women).

There is no penalty for hitting a hurdle as long as it is not deliberate. You can’t bust through them intentionally like this guy:

The standard middle distances are the 800 meters, 1500 meters and 3000 meters.

800 Meters

This is 2 times around the track. Runners start in individual lanes (no starting blocks) but converge into 1 lane after 100m and fight for the front position. Middle distances are fun to watch because the runners draft off each other, weave in and out and jockey for position. The last 100 meters is especially exciting to watch. 800 metes might not seem far but try running all out around the track twice and see how you feel.

1500 Meters

This is 3 and 3/4 laps around the track. There is no 1600 meter event or mile event in the Olympics. Why is that? Because most of the world doesn’t use the mile system so who cares about a 1 mile race?

3000 Meter Steeplechase

Sometimes classified as a long distance event, this is where 7.5 laps are completed around an outdoor track and runners have to deal with obstacles -a hurdle (that you can easily rack your shins on) and a pit of water! Runners of the standard course face a total of 7 water jumps and 28 hurdling jumps.

The obstacles are 36 inches high for the men and 30 inches for the women. The water jump is a barrier followed by a pit of water 12 feet long. At its deepest point, the slope goes down to a depth of 700mm (28 inches).

The race originated in Ireland where horses and riders raced from one town’s steeple to the next hence the name steeplechase. The modern obstacles originated as open ditches and fences at a cross-country race.

5,000 Meters

This is 12.5 laps around the track, equivalent to 3 miles 188 yards. In road running events where the distance is measured in kilometers it is called a 5k. Interestingly there was an event at the ancient Olympic Games of this distance. If you are a marathoner you might not consider a 5k to be a “long distance” but try racing it hard and you will see how long it feels!

Current record holders are Joshua Cheptegei (UGA) 12:35.36 (2020) and Letesenbet Gidey (ETH) 14:06.62 (2020)

10,000 Meters

This is 25 laps around the track (6.2 miles) (10k). World records also held by Joshua Cheptegei (UGA) 26:11.00 (2020) and Letesenbet Gidey (ETH) 29:01.03 (2020). A lot of marathon greats, like Frank Shorter, started out at the 10,000 meters.

The Marathon

The ancient games didn’t include a marathon, it was added when the Olympic were revived in 1896 to give the games prestige. The original marathon distance was 24.85 miles (40 kilometers) the distance from Marathon to Athens, Greece.

Traditionally the final event in the Olympics, the first organized marathon on April 10, 1896 took place in Athens and won by a Greek named Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker, who crossed the finish line a full seven minutes ahead of the pack. His time was 2 hours, 58 minutes, 50 seconds for the 40 kilometer distance, beating the other 16 participants.

The Change to 26.2

For the next few Olympics, the length of the marathon remained close to 25 miles, but at the 1908 Games in London the course was extended, allegedly to accommodate the British royal family. As the story goes, Queen Alexandra requested that the race start on the lawn of Windsor Castle (so the littlest royals could watch from the window of their nursery, according to some accounts) and finish in front of the royal box at the Olympic stadium—a distance that happened to be 26.2 miles (26 miles and 385 yards). The random boost in mileage ending up sticking, and in 1921 the length for a marathon was formally standardized at 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers). From a history.com article

The Women’s Marathon
Although the marathon became an official Olympic event for the men in 1896 it would be almost 90 more years before women were allowed to compete in the event. Prior to the 1970’s women were considered too fragile to compete in long distance running. The popular notion was that their uteruses would fall out.

  • In 1928, women were allowed to run 100 and 800-meter races but that didn’t last long. A few women collapsed after running the 800 (which is common for men as well) and the 800 meters was taken away.
  • Women started running prominent marathons in the 1970’s and as a result the IOC finally added the women’s marathon to the Los Angeles summer games in 1984. Joan Benoit Samuelson won that first marathon (and she’s still competing in races in her 60’s).

The 2020 Olympic Marathon Preview

The marathon is scheduled for Aug.7th (Aug 6th at 6pmEST) for women and Aug 8 (8/7 at 6pm EST) for men. It will be held in Sapporo Japan (500 miles north of Tokyo) in an effort to allay some of the heat and humidity.

It will be a multi-lap pinwheel course held on empty streets. The first loop is roughly half marathon length and then there’s a 10k loop that will be repeated twice. This is a far cry from previous years where courses were designed to highlight host cities and where the finish would be in an Olympic stadium full of spectators.

Here is what we know . . .

  • Galen Rupp (USA) is appearing in his 4th Olympic Games, the second time he’s competed in the marathon (he took bronze in 2016). The US team is rounded out by Jacob Riley and Abdi Abdirhaman who at age 44 is participating in his 5th Games and is the oldest US competitor ever in the Olympic marathon.
  • Eliud Kipchoge, the world’s greatest marathon runner, is the favorite. He won in Rio in 2016 and you may remember, participated in the Nike Breaking 2 project. He lost at the 2020 London Marathon (ending a 10-race streak). He will be running against some very accomplished Ethiopian runners -Lelisa Desisa (who has won the Boston Marathon twice and the NYC Marathon once, and Shura Kitata who won the 2020 London Marathon. Stephen Kiprotich of Kenya will also be there who won the Olympic Marathon in 2012.
  • On the women’s side Brigid Kosgei and Ruth Chepngetich (both of Kenya) are favored. Kosgei won the London Marathon in 2019 and 2020, and is the world record holder having run 2:14:04 in Chicago in 2019. Another interesting runner to watch for is Israeli record-holder Lonah Salpeter. She’s 32 and earned a spot in the all-time top-10 after running 2:17:45 run to win the 2020 Tokyo Marathon.
  • There are also some Japanese runners who will perhaps have the home turf advantage. Japanese marathoners have been on the ascent and some say that Japan is “the most running-obsessed culture” in the world right now.

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