A Survey on the Effect of Lane Assignment in Sprinting the Curve Portion of a 400m

Section: TRACK & FIELD

THE DATE WAS JUNE 28, 1992 at the Olympic Trials. The event: finals of the men’s 200-meter dash.

Lane assignments: James Trapp (1), Carl Lewis (2), Mike Marsh (3), Dennis Mitchell (4), Leroy Burrell (5), Mitchell Bates (6), Jeff Williams (7), and Michael Johnson (8).

At the Olympic Trials, the top four runners from each semi-final heat advance to the finals. Of the eight who qualified for the 200-meter finals in 1992, Johnson had the sixth fastest time.

A lottery system was used to determine the lane assignments (3,4,5,and 6) for the athletes with the top four times. The four athletes with the slowest times drew for the remaining lanes (1,2,7,and 8).

Thus, Michael Johnson had to settle for the “slow” lane (8). Though worried about his lane, Johnson narrowly missed tying the world record of 19.72 seconds (set by Pietro Mennea) to win the event.

Lane assignments have always been of prime importance to sprinters in events involving a curve. The curve produces a biomechanical disadvantage due to centrifugal force – the force caused by changing direction from a straight line to a curved path. The centrifugal force causes the runners to expand extra energy in thrusting outward to get around a curve.

An equal amount of centripetal force (an inward pulling by the runner) is necessary to resist the outward pull. Otherwise, the force would topple the runner or force him to run in a straight line.

The outward pulling force may be reduced by the banked curves used in indoor facilities. Outdoor (flat) tracks require the runner to overcome centrifugal force by leaning on the curve, shortening his stride, and/or reducing his speed.

One may conclude that the outer lanes of the track would require less centrifugal force, since the runner has less of a curve to negotiate. Yet you find sprinters disliking the outer lanes. They believe they are the “slow” lanes.

Purpose of the study: To determine whether the lane can significantly affect the performance of the 200-meter sprinter on the curved portion of the track.

The authors chose 15 male subjects with a mean age of 21.9, at least high school experience in track, the ability to sprint 100 meters in at least 12.5 seconds, and some experience in sprinting the curve.

The subjects were aligned in Lanes 1, 4, and 8 on an eight-lane 400-meter track and asked to sprint 100 meters at maximum speed on the curved portion of the track.

The subjects were given 15 minutes rest between three sprinting bouts and were then asked to complete a questionnaire consisting of the following questions:

  1. Which of Lanes 1, 4, and 8 do you believe produces your fastest 200-meter dash times?
  2. Which Lane (1,4,8) do you believe you ran the fastest in today’s trials?
  3. Which Lane (1,4,8) would you choose to run the 200-meter dash in a track meet?
  4. In which lane would you prefer to run a 200-meter dash by yourself?
  5. Would you prefer to choose your own lane in a 200-meter dash finals in a track meet? If your answer is yes, which lane would it be?

A one-way ANOVA with repeated measures was used to analyze the data from the sprint trials, while frequency percentages were used to analyze the responses.

The means and standard deviations for each of the lanes were as follows: (Lane 1)mean – 12.35 seconds and SD = .66; (Lane 4) mean --12.34 seconds and SD = .59; and (Lane 8)mean = 12.36 and SD = .59. The Analysis of Variance revealed no significant difference in the performance times for the three trials. The reliability estimate for all the trials was very high (R = .94).

In response to the question “which lane do you think is the fastest for the 200-meter dash (1,4,or 8),” 12 of the 16 respondents chose Lane 4. The other four subjects chose Lane 1. Obviously, none felt Lane 8 was the fastest for the 200-meter dash.

When asked “In which lane do you think you ran fastest today,” six chose Lane 1, seven chose Lane 4, and two chose Lane 8.

When asked their lane preference for running the 200-meter dash in a track meet, 11 selected Lane 4 and three chose Lane 1.

When asked their preference for running the 200-meter dash by themselves, eight chose Lane 4, five chose Lane 1, and two chose Lane 8.

The final question consisted of two parts. The first asked the sprinters if they would prefer to choose their own lane in the finals of a track meet. Of the 17 respondents, 15 stated “Yes” and two answered “No.”

The second portion of the question asked the “Yes” respondents to choose their lane preference. Seven chose Lane 3, six chose Lane 4, and one each chose Lanes 1 and 6.

The purpose of this study was to determine which lane(s) had a significant impact upon performance times and the runners’ perceptions when sprinting the curve portion of the track.

Physics indicate that the runners in the outer lanes have an advantage over the runners in the inner lanes because of the wider curves. Nevertheless, the study revealed no significant differences in the runners’ performance times.

One explanation might be that the runners did not run fast enough to be affected significantly by the laws of physics.

Another could have been that runners were psychologically affected by being in the outer lanes, causing them to perform at less than optimum speed.

None of the runners chose Lane 8 when asked which lane they thought was the fastest among Lanes 1,4, and 8. In fact, only two runners selected Lane 8 to run the 200-meter dash in a race by themselves. This was odd considering there were no other competitors and Lane 8 should be the fastest when sprinting the curve.

When asked what lane they would select in the finals of a 200-meter dash, most of the respondents selected Lanes 3 and 4. Could they have been influenced by the fact that the best times in the 200-meter dash usually come from the middle lanes?

This is misleading since preliminary times determine lane assignments for the finals. Consequently, the middle lanes are given to the fastest preliminary qualifiers.

Although the outer lane should give runners a biomechanical advantage when sprinting the curve portion of the track, the results are not apparent. In fact, most runners insist that they perform better in the inner or middle lanes. Such statements contradict the laws of physics, unless there is another reasonable explanation. One explanation, as stated by many runners, is that being in the outer lanes puts them at a psychological disadvantage due to their inability to see their opponents.

Thus, any biomechanical advantage gained from running in the outer lanes would be nullified or maybe even overwhelmed by the psychological disadvantage.

It would thus appear that further investigation is needed in determining the psychological effect of positioning (lane selection) in sprinting the curve portion of the track.

Tomas Green, Ed.D., Assistant Professor and Asst. Track Coach, Tarleton State U. (TX) Jamey R. Plunk, Ph.D., Asst. Professor, Stephen E Austin State U. (TX) Nestor W. Sherman, Ed.D., Associate Professor, Texas A&M U.-Kingsville Joe Gillespie, Professor and Former Head Track Coach, Tarleton State U. (TX) Chet Martin, M.Ed., Tarleton State U. (TX)

For the number of professors in this article, I’m surprised they messed up this concept: there is no such thing as centrifugal force. It only feels like it. The centripetal force (towards the centre of the curve) is the only horizontal force acting on the runner.

Also, since centripetal force is proportional to velocity squared, using runners that take 12.35 to negotiate the curve means we can’t apply the results to someone who takes 10.35 seconds on the curve, since the faster runner must apply about 50% more horizontal force (to stay on the curve).