What Every Runner Should Know Before Their First Track Workout

Photo: Getty Images/Cliquephoto
For those of us who came to running later in life (as in, we didn’t run track or cross country growing up, and may even faked injuries to avoid running the mile in gym class—just me?), it can feel like there’s lots to learn about running, and lots to be intimidated by.

Like, what on earth is a fartlek? And how do you stop chafing so much? And is running actually bad for your knees? And how long should you run each day?

Since starting on my running journey almost a decade ago, I can now proudly say that I know the answer—or at least, an answer—to these questions. I’ve also ran a marathon, conquered the trails, and written dozens of stories about running. But one thing I still haven’t worked up the nerve to do? Hit the track for a workout.

Experts In This Article

It’s about time for that to change—so I asked coach and professional runner Kaitlin Gregg Goodman, MPH to fill me in on everything I need to know before my first track workout.

The track basics

Whether you’re going for a solo track workout as part of your race training, or going to your run club’s weekly track session, odds are, the track you’ll be on will be either a community track or one affiliated with a school. First things first: Respect the rules of the track. Most will have some hours where they are closed during the day, so don’t hop the fence, which could result in the whole community losing track privileges, says Goodman.

It’ll either be an all-weather track made of rubber or a dirt track, with somewhere between four and eight lanes. More often than not, the innermost lane, known as lane one, will measure exactly 400 meters, so four laps will just about equal a mile (technically 1609.34 meters). That predictability is part of why Goodman says the track is her happy place.

“I can do a track workout in Seattle, I can do a track workout in Boston, and I can compare those apples-to-apples,” she says. “Obviously there’s going to be some differences in weather, but for the most part, it’s controlling a lot of the controllables and 400 is 400 is 400.”

Track etiquette 101

If you’re like me, one of the scariest parts about running on a track is the idea of being in someone’s way, or getting bulldozed by a pack of faster runners. But there are multiple lanes on the track for a reason, and if you know where you’re supposed to be, lots of runners can enjoy the track at once, sans collisions.

The most basic rule to follow is that faster runners get the right of way in lane one. “If you’re out there by yourself at 6 am, run in whatever lane you want,” says Goodman. But if there are others on the track, be conscious of your pace relative to theirs, and make way out of lane one if need be. (And don’t be surprised if someone coming up behind you yells “lane one” or “track”—that means they want you to move over so they can pass you.)

If you’re jogging, or running in the wrong direction for whatever reason (so turning right instead of left, which some people do if they’re spending lots of time on the track and want to even out their bodies), stay in the outside lanes. When you’ve finished a rep, don’t just stop—move to the right or into the infield so that no one barrels into you as they finish. And just like when driving, look before you change lanes.

If you’re doing a workout as part of a pace group, keep in mind that “folks are trying to dial into a particular pace, and pacing is really important when you’re on the track,” says Goodman. “So it can be perceived as rude to be one-stepping, or unnecessarily pushing the pace.” It’s okay to move into a faster or slower group if you find the one you’re in isn’t quite the right fit, but try to seed yourself in the group where you think you can hold the pace for the whole workout, she says. If you still need to pass someone, do it on their right side.

What a track workout looks like

If you’re on the track, you’re probably there to work on your speed. This will likely look like intervals with some rests built in, whether that’s an active recovery (so, jogging) or standing rest (in the infield or on the outside of the track—not in the way of other runners!). Here are some of Goodman’s favorite beginner-friendly workouts:

In-and-out 200s: One mile (or four laps) of 200 meters uptempo (it could be 10K pace, half marathon pace, etc) followed by 200 meters jogging. If you’re a beginner, stop there—otherwise you can do this a few times, with rest in between each mile.

Ladder workout: Work your way up the ladder with a 400, an 800, then a 1200, then come back down the ladder with another 800 and 400. Aim for 5K pace in the 400s and 800s and 10K pace in the 1200. “I like to be controlled as I go up the ladder,” says Goodman. “And on the back half of the workout, that’s when you can push the pace more, and try to beat your splits from the first time.” More advanced? Extend the ladder all the way up to 1600.

Fast 200s: Goodman recommends ending your workout with a few fast 200s (with a minute of rest in between) to work on your finishing speed on tired legs. “The track is a really good reminder to work on your form,” says Goodman. “You don’t have drivers and hills and potholes or any of those distractions.”

The perks of running on the track


“I’ve almost been hit by a car running, as I’m sure many other runners have,” says Goodman. “The track is a safer environment where you can just focus on the workout and executing what you’re setting out to do from a training perspective.”

Accurate splits

If you’re tried to do a workout on the roads, you know that programming it into your watch can be a pain. Plus, relying on GPS to tell you your splits can be a gamble if you’re near lots of trees or tall buildings. At the track, you can ditch GPS and log your splits manually (with the “lap” or “split” functionality on your watch), so that you know they are exact. Just tweak the display on your watch to show actual time rather than pace (which will be inaccurate since it’ll be using GPS), and acquaint yourself with how your typical minutes per mile road paces translate into seconds per 400. Just don’t fall into the trap of constantly looking at your watch, says Goodman, especially if you’re running with a group. “Take advantage of the pacing around you and turn your brain off,” she says.

Easy logistics

Need to bring your kid to your workout? Want to try out a few pairs of shoes? Doing a practice run of your fueling plan? The logistics of the track make it easy, whether you need to keep an eye on your child playing in the infield, or access a pile of shoes, extra layers, or gels.

Built-in community

“The roads can be lonely,” says Goodman. “It’s just you and your headphones out there. At the track, often there’s gonna be a lot of other people around you.” She points out that you could be surrounded by everyone from professional runners blazing around the track to older adults doing walking laps.

“Know that if people are at the track, they’re all going after goals, just like you,” she says. “They may also be a little nervous or intimidated like you. So give somebody a ‘good job.’ Try to tap into that community. Hopefully the track can be your happy place, too.”

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