Track and field is the purest sport -- you run, jump and throw. No tackling,
no penalty minutes. And track builds skills that will help you out in almost
any other sport.
"It really lays the foundation," says Brit Townsend. She is a track and
"Many athletes use track and field to help them in their other sports such
as soccer, basketball, football and more. The sport lays a good foundation
for other sports with the running, jumping and throwing that is involved.
There is a great deal of crossover."
Legend has it that track and field was born when the first human ran from
the first saber-toothed lion. That might be myth.
But we do know the ancient Olympics featured a one-track event, a 200-meter
"stade" (the winner got an olive branch). The modern games have moved on a
bit. Now, track and field is generally accepted as covering 13 events for
men and 11 events for women.
Sprinting events cover all distances up to 400 meters. Explosive, powerful
athletes with fine motor control excel at sprints.
Hurdles are run over 100 and 400 meters. Regulation hurdles peak at 1.067
meters (3'6") for men and 0.838 meters (2'9") for women, but they're lower
for the 400-meter hurdles.
Start by getting your form right over lowered hurdles. Training manuals
like the Fundamentals of Track and Field recommend that you start with hurdles
that are about six to 12 inches off the ground -- unless you enjoy frequent
There are two sets of relays: the four by 100 and the four by 400. It's
easy to get a team together with three buddies at a local track. A baton isn't
hard to fake. Use a cooking spoon or a length of rubber tubing.
"The most enjoyable part of track for myself would have to be the relays,"
says Russell Horsey. He is a second-year member of a university track and
field team. "You tend to find that it's the relays that bring the team together."
Distance events are run over 800 meters and 1,500 meters, then over a distance
of 5,000 to 10,000 meters. They're pretty straightforward, but keep safety
in mind. While training on the road, always wear reflective clothing and run
towards traffic. Warm up. Make sure you replace fluids. And remember that
longer distances aren't best if you're too young.
The jumping events are what separate track from just plain old running.
The aim of the long jump and the triple jump are to see who can jump the furthest
through the air. A safety note: the triple jump (the one with the hop, skip
and jump) places great stress on the heels, knees, hips and feet. Get coaching
help to learn the basics.
The high jump and the pole vault are technically challenging events. They
demand a cross between a sprinter and a gymnast. Coaching help is recommended.
Padding is specially designed for these events, both in terms of height and
Next come the throwing events: shot put, discus, javelin and hammer. Shot
puts range in weight from 1.1 pounds up to a competitive weight of 16 pounds
for men and nine pounds for women.
Small rubber rings and Hula Hoops are good training substitutes for the
discus. They let you learn technique without worrying about weight. If you're
interested in the hammer throw but didn't get a track hammer for Christmas,
you can learn the footwork basics using a basketball in a net with a handle.
Safety concerns in the throwing events are pretty obvious: heavy pointed
objects flying through the air. Use caution and coaching.
Some of the more obscure events include steeplechase. It combines distance
running, hurdling and water jumps. Spikes are required.
Race walks -- you may have seen these at a recent Olympics -- are set at
over 20 km for men and 10 km for women.
Finally, you have the combination events -- the decathlon for men and heptathlon
for women. The events run as follow:
Decathlon - Day One
- 100 meter
- long jump
- shot put
- high jump
- 400 meter
Decathlon - Day Two
- 100-meter hurdles
- pole vault
- 1,500 meter
There are community, school, or club-level track and field programs --
some run over the summer. And not all track and field is outdoors anymore.
Many of the shorter distances are featured on indoor stadium circuits.
"Do technical drills," advises Townsend. "And try to get involved in more
than one sport. If you're going to focus entirely on track, I would focus
on the shorter events. Make it as fun as possible. If you're young, don't
do 10-kilometer [6.2-mile] runs. Develop your speed and your technique first."
Footwear is critical. A good training shoe is lightweight, has an elevated
heel, and a firm heel cup. If you take your sprinting far enough, you'll want
to invest in a pair of spikes. You can get them used for upwards of $35 to
$40. If you're interested in distance events, talk to a footwear specialist.
And above all, never train in worn-out shoes!
"When starting out, a middle-of-the-range shoe is good," says Horsey.
"There's no one shoe for every athlete. All athletes will find shoes that
are better adapted to their type of training, but this only comes with time.
I now know what trainers I can run in without increasing injury risk, so if
I see those trainers on sale I pick up a couple of pairs. I usually have to
change shoes every three to six months."
Being a slave to track and field fashion can be expensive, adds Horsey.
"There's really no need to go out and buy all of the designer gear year in,
year out. I've been competing for 13 years and have only had three track suits!"
USA Track and Field supports about 2,500 clubs, schools, colleges and universities
-- about 100,000 member athletes.
Athletic scholarships cover room, board, tuition and books. Many American
schools have between 25 and 40 track scholarships available. And at some levels,
amateur runners do get fees for appearing at track meets -- more if they place.
"Unfortunately, there's less and less financial support for the sport,
especially at the higher levels," admits Townsend. "When I competed, there
was a lot of opportunity to make money. I was sponsored by a shoe company.
I got appearances money when I competed in Europe. For several years I was
able to earn a good living. It's very difficult for younger athletes today."
Careers in coaching are tough to land in the world of track and field,
but posts at colleges and universities do occasionally become available. And
the skills and techniques you learn in athletics can translate into a career
as a gym teacher, or a job at the local community center gym.
Or volunteer. Events like the Special Olympics and the Para-Olympics have
made track and field open to athletes with a wide variety of mental and physical
handicaps. And they always need help. There's no telling how popular track
and field will become.
"I coached two girls who played basketball who came out for track," says
Rodrick Hurst. He is vice-president of youth athletics for the southwestern
division of USA Track and Field. "It really helped them get up and down the
floor. And because of that, now other people from that team are coming out
to run track!"
USA Track and Field
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American Track and Field
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