Track and Field


The term “track and field” applies to a group of running, jumping, and throwing events, such as various types of sprints, middle- and long-distance runs, hurdles, relays, hammer and discus throw, and long and triple jump. Along with cross-country, racewalking, and road running, track and field constitutes the umbrella sport known as “athletics.”


The purpose of all track and field events is for a competitor to perform better than any of his or her fellow athletes. Runners attempt to cover some given distance in the shortest time of all competitors; jumpers jump higher or farther than other competitors; and throwers propel an object at a greater distance than any one else in the competition.


The demographic structure of various track and field events varies with the type of activity. Some sports, such as pole vault, tend to be limited to males in their late adolescence or early adulthood. Other sports, such as discus and shotput, have seen successful competitors in their fourth decade. A triple jump competition, for example, could at least in theory include men ranging in age from 18 to 40. Because of the popularity of track and field in junior high and high school, USA Track and Field (USATF) has established two junior divisions for boys and girls under the age of 11 and 11–18. These age groups are further divided into two-year divisions known as subbantam, bantam, midget, youth, intermediate, and young. The USATF also sponsors an annual Junior Olympic program in which 70,000 young athletes participated in 2011.


Khaddi Sagnia of Sweden competes in the women's long jump in the International Association of Athletics Federations' Diamond League in Stockholm, Sweden, June 2016.

Khaddi Sagnia of Sweden competes in the women's long jump in the International Association of Athletics Federations' Diamond League in Stockholm, Sweden, June 2016. Track and field events cover a wide range of running, jumping, and throwing sports, such as hurdles, relays, discus throw, and long jump.

The history of track and field is closely associated with the history of the Olympic Games, of which they have been a part since the first modern Olympic Games of 1896. Those games were the first instance at which athletes from around the world came together to compete against each other. They included contests in 100-, 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter running races; 110-meter hurdles; long-, high-, and triple-jump; pole vault; discus; and shotput.

Prior to the first Olympiad, sporting events in track and field were organized primarily by sporting clubs, military organizations, or educational institutions. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, groups of interested athletes were beginning to establish national organizations for the creation of rules, regulations, and standards for track and field events; for sponsoring competitions and national championships; and for promoting the sport within their home country. The first of these organizations was the Amateur Athletic Association, established in England in 1880. Comparable associations were created in the United States in 1888, the Amateur Athletic Union, and in France in 1889, Union des sociétés françaises de sports athlétiques. In 1912, representatives of 17 national track and field associations met in Stockholm, Sweden, to found the first international governing organization for the sport, the International Amateur Athletics Federation, later to become the International Association of Athletics Federation, still the international governing body for the sport.

The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) remained the governing body for track and field in the United States until 1979, when the AAU was restricted from presiding over more than one sport in the United States. In that year, a new organization, The Athletics Congress/USA (TAC/USA), was created to replace the AAU's governance role for track and field. In 1992, TAC/USA changed its name to USA Track and Field (USATF), by which it is still known. USATF currently claims to have almost 100,000 individual members, as well as organizational members that include the U.S. Olympic Committee, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), Road Runners Club of America, Running USA, and the National Federation of State High School Associations. The federation sanctions more than 4,000 events nationwide each year and supervises the activities of more than 2,500 local clubs through 57 state chapters. It also sponsors a large number of national championships in events such as the 100 Mile Trail Championship, the Masters Throws Championship, the PanAmerican Race Walk Cup, the 100 km Trail Championship, and the Indoor Heptathalon Championship.


Track and field events are typically held in outdoor stadiums that feature an oval track 400 m in circumference on which running events are held. Other events, such as jumping and throwing events, are generally held in the grassy area within the oval. Indoor track and field events are also popular, with a setting similar to that for outdoor track and field, except that the oval track is usually 200 m in length. The number of lanes within the oval track varies from venue to venue, ranging from four to six on indoor tracks to six to eight on outdoor tracks.

The events included in track and field can be classified into a number of distinct categories, the first of which is sprint. Sprint races are short races that emphasize a quick start and rapid acceleration by participants. The most widely run sprints are 100-, 200-, and 400-m sprints, which equates to 110-, 220-, and 440-yd. sprints. Races are sometimes run at other distances also, including 60 m, run most often on indoor tracks, as well as 50-, 300-, and 500-m sprints. Middle-distance events include the 800- and 1500-m and one mile runs. The 3,000-m run is included less commonly. Runners in the 800-m race start from a staggered position, in order to equalize the distance run by competitors. The most common long-distance races are the 5,000- and 10,000-m races, although the 3,000-m race may also be included in this category.

The only team events included in track and field are the relays, which are run by four-person teams against each other. Each member of the team runs a predetermined distance, such as 100 m, before handing off a baton to the next member of the team. The two most common relay events are the 4x100- and 4x400-m relays, meaning that each runner in the first instance runs 100 m, while each member of a team runs 400 m in the second instance.

The only other events held on the track oval are the hurdles, races in which participants are required to leap over bars during a race of 110 m and 400 m (for men) and 100 m and 400 m for women. The hurdles are 3 ft. (1 m) in height for men and 2.5 ft. (0.8 m) high for women. A variation of the hurdles race is steeplechase, in which runners must jump over a variety of hurdlelike barriers as well as one or more water barriers. Although different distances are possible, the most common length of the steeplechase is now 3,000 m.

The four jumping events in track and field are the long jump, high jump, triple jump, and pole vault. In the long jump, an athlete runs down a runway at least 131 ft. (40 m) in length and kicks off a rectangular launch pad before landing in a sandy pit. The jumper who covers the greatest distance without fouling (e.g., by stepping beyond the launch point) is the winner. In the high jump, a competitor runs down a short approach lane, launches upward off the ground, and falls over a horizontal bar. The competitor who jumps over the bar at its highest setting without fouling (such as knocking the bar off its supports) is the winner. The triple jump was formerly called the hop, skip, and jump, which describes the three activities required to complete the activity. A competitor runs down the runway, hops once on the same foot, then performs a skip before launching off a marked area, as in the long jump. In the pole vault, the athlete gains speed and momentum by running down a track carrying a long pole. As she or he approaches the bar, the pole is thrust into the ground and the athlete is projected into the air over the bar. The athlete who “clears” the bar at its highest point without fouling (such as knocking off the bar) is the winner of the event.

Throwing events differ from each other primarily in the object that is thrown, a 16-lb. (7.25-kg) metallic sphere for men (8.8-lb. [4-kg] sphere for women) in the shotput; a 4.4-lb. (2-kg) metallic disc (for both men and women) in the discus; a metal-tipped wooden spear 8.5–8.9 ft. (2.6–2.7 m) in length for men (7.2–7.5 ft. (2.2–2.3 m) for women) in the javelin; and a 16-lb. (7.25-kg) metal ball attached to a wire between 3.85 and 3.98 ft. (1.175 and 1.215 m) in length for the hammer throw.

A term that includes traditional track and field events, as well as a few other sports, such as road running and race walking.
Combined events—
Track and field events in which a competitor takes part in a number (usually five, seven, or ten) of events, with the winner being the person with the highest total score for those events.
A type of exercise designed to produce fast, powerful movements by strengthening the ability of muscles to expand and contract more quickly and efficiently.
A track and field event in which two or more teams consisting of four members each race against each other.

The final set of events found in track and field are combined events, in which a man or women participates in some set of events, with the winner being the person who has the highest total score for all events added together. The most common combination events are the pentathalon (five events), the heptathalon (seven events), and the decathalon (ten events). As an example, the women's heptathalon includes the 200- and 800-m run, the 100-m hurdles, the long and high jump, the shotput, and the javelin. The men's heptathalon substitutes the 110-m hurdles for the 100-m hurdles, the 60-m sprint for the 100-m sprint, the 1,000-m run for the 800-m run, and the pole vault for the javelin throw.


Preparation for track and field events is dictated to a large extent by the specific event itself, with some events, such as the 100-m sprint, emphasizing speed; while others, such as the mile run, endurance; and yet others, such as the shotput, strength.


Some track and field events, such as races and hurdling, require no equipment beyond a shirt, shorts, and suitable shoes. Other events require the use of specialized equipment whose characteristic features are described in detail by the governing body for the sport. For example, USA Track and Field provides a handbook describing in detail the precise weight and length measurements permitted for each type of equipment, such as the javelin or discuss. Each item listed in the handbook has separate legal measurements depending on the type of competition involved and age and gender of participant.

Training and conditioning

Each event in track and field has its own regimen in developing the specific skills needed for that sport. For runners, a training program for the 100-m dash emphasizes topics such as proper positioning for the beginning of the race, proper methods for rising and accelerating as the race begins, achieving maximum acceleration and speed as the race develops, and maintaining maximum speed through the final stages of the race. But, as with most sports, a variety of other training and conditioning exercises not directly involved in the sport can be used to help a person prepare for an activity. As an example, the following training tips have been offered by one authority in the field in helping to prepare for the pole vault:

Experts in each separate track and field event have developed training and conditioning programs such as this one to improve an athlete's overall strength, endurance, agility, coordination, and balance, as well as the specific skills required in that event.


The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) conducts an annual survey on injuries associate with various types of activities and equipment used by people in the United States. Available data show that track and field is one of the safest sporting activities in which Americans participate, with an average of 6.6 injuries per 100,000 participants. Comparable rates for some other sports are 92.1 for baseball and softball, 150.9 for football; 26.0 for horseback riding; and 18.9 for volleyball. The highest injury rate for track and field events were for those in the 5–14 age group (21.5/100,000) and the 15–24 age group (22.8/100,000). Women were slightly more likely to be injured in track and field than were men (7.0 versus 6.2 per 100,000). The vast majority of injuries that were reported resulted in immediate treatment and release (6.4 per 100,000) compared to those who needed hospital care (0.2 per 100,000).


Relatively little research has been done on the nature of injuries experienced in track and field. A 2005 survey of such research found nine studies on track and field injuries in boys and girls under the age of 18. It found that the vast majority of injuries involved the lower extremities, ranging from 64% to 87% in the five most relevant studies. Of these, the most common locations for injuries were the lower leg (in three studies), the knee (one study), and the upper leg (one study). The most common type of injury was inflammation of tissue (in three or four studies) and strains (in one study). Overall, strains, sprains, and inflammation were the most common types of injuries found in all track and field participants for which available data were available.


All commentators on track and field injuries emphasize the importance of proper preparation in avoiding injuries associated with the sport. A program of warm-up and stretching loosens muscles and prepares them for the stress placed on them by an activity. A good general program in strength training is also recommended as a way of avoiding injuries resulting from repetitive and overuse of body parts involved in a sport. Pylometric exercises help develop power and bursts of strength. Proper shoes for a particular track and field event are also important. A wide variety of athletic shoes are available, and participants should find exactly the right type of shoe for the event in which they are involved. Finally, trainers and conditioners emphasize the importance of good nutrition and, in particular, of hydration before participation in a track and field event.

See also Olympics ; Running ; Walking .



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Henderson, Jason. Field Events. London: Carlton, 2011.

Matthews, Peter. Athletics 2011: The International Track and Field Annual. Cheltenham, UK: SportsBooks, 2011.

Morgan, Kevin. Athletics Challenges: A Resource Pack for Teaching Athletics. New York: Routledge, 2011.

USA Track & Field 2011 Competition Rules. Indianapolis, IN: USA Track and Field, 2011.


“Track and Field.” About Sports. (accessed January 22, 2017).

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International Association of Athletics Federation, 17 rue Princesse Florestine BP 359, Monaco, MC98007, Monaco, 377 93 10 8888, Fax: 377 93 15 9515, .

USA Track and Field, 132 E Washington St., Ste. 800, Indianapolis, IN, 46204, (317) 261-0500, Fax: (317) 261-0481, .

David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.