Built for Speed: The Evolution of the Running Track

Woman on a running track

The World Athletics Championships were hosted in London earlier this month. It was a championship that will be remembered chiefly for the final runs in the spectacular careers of Usain Bolt and Mo Farah. There was an unsung hero beneath the feet of these sporting heroes: the shoes they wear and the running track itself are both technological marvels and plastic is integral to both of them. Let’s take a closer look at how the running track has evolved.

The Origins of the Running Track

From the Ancient Greek Olympic Games, right up until the 19th Century, runners ran on whatever surface happened to be around. It might be grass or sand and, if it rained, it would soon be mud. The first steps towards standardising tracks came with the development of cinder tracks in Victorian times. Athletes literally ran on flattened pieces of burned wood.

The Establishment of the IAAF

One of the first tasks that the newly formed International Association of Athletics Federations set themselves in 1912 was to standardise running track surfaces. It took a while. By the 1950s, although synthetic tracks made from rubber and asphalt had begun to appear, some running surfaces still incorporated sand or even hay.

Polyurethane Surfaces

In the 1960s, polyurethane surfaces were invented. The Mexico City Olympics in 1968 marked the first time a synthetic system was used at an international track and field event. For a short time after this, track surfaces reverted to vulcanised rubber, before the company Mondo – track suppliers to the Olympic Games from Montreal in 1976 to the present day – developed a multi-density layered system that brought together the benefits of rubber and plastic. Mondo continues to make improvements to its track surfaces that provide the grip and the “underlayment” that provides the cushioning.

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