Selecting the right surface for your facility

Adding a new athletic facility to an existing one can mean an influx of new sports enthusiasts – players and spectators. It can mean added income, increased use and greater popularity for your new and improved facility.

This shot shows a grandstand view of a track and field facility. A drain between the outer edge of the field and the inner edge of the track ensures that any water running off the field will not run onto the track.

It can also mean an acute attack of nerves and sleepless nights if you’re not familiar with the new facility or the issues surrounding its installation. So, the fact that you’ve decided to incorporate a running track into your sports field is a big step, and understandably you have a few questions (maybe more than a few).

The design and construction of a running track, despite the fact that it looks like a simple oval, is a complex and exacting process. Tolerances for width, slope, markings and more are set forth by the governing bodies, and adherence to those tolerances is expected by the coaches, athletes and officials who will come in contact with that track.

Choosing an experienced running track contractor as a partner in this endeavor can help you get a facility that satisfies everyone’s expectations. Avoid the general contractor trap and go with a specialty contractor with track and field experience. The American Sports Builders Association ( has a list of Certified Track Builders.

Asking the questions

The best start to the process is bringing the right information to the table for the track builder (and possibly the design professional, if you are working with more than one entity). For example, the design-build team should know about the current use of the field:

  • What is the player demographic?
  • What sports does the field accommodate on a regular basis?
  • Is the field strictly for use by one entity (a school’s student body, for example), or is it open to the community?
  • What level of athlete uses the facility? (For example, the athletes might be elementary school rec-level players, high schoolers, college students, etc.)
  • Are you trying to attract different users or do you anticipate a different use as a result of adding the track?
  • Is the field currently used year-round or only in certain seasons?
  • This information needs to be taken into account when designing the running track, since the desired uses will dictate the type of track and the governing body whose specifications must be followed.

It shouldn’t need to be stated, but it is essential the track builder be kept aware of the budget and time frame for the project, as well as any deadlines for planned activities.

Construction around the field means there will be times when athletes will be unable to access the field. Remember that weather can delay construction, so alternative facilities may have to be located for previously scheduled activities.

Planning and design

Mark Wrona of URS Corp. in Grand Rapids, Mich., says it may become apparent during the planning process that modifications to the existing field will be necessary.

“It could be that no changes are needed. It could be that they are needed and that they are significant; for example, if the existing grade of field is not uniform. If the existing field needs any upgrades in the near future, now would be the time to do it.”

Wrona says field managers should work with track builders to determine whether there are other problems with the site. Drainage is key. The presence of too much underground water, or a lack of drainage after rain, can cause a track surface to delaminate over time. Depending upon its surface, a field also may be rendered unplayable by that same rain.

“Keep water from sprinklers off the track,” Wrona notes. “No water should ever run across the track from adjacent areas, either from the inside or outside. This is a design issue.”

Other changes and upgrades should be considered in the design phase. These might include ADA-compliant parking and walking facilities, or the addition of restrooms, concession stands or ticketing booths. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for contractors in midconstruction to be asked about adding such structures. In addition to having a huge impact on the bottom line, such requests can send everyone back to the drawing board.

A running track with a rubberized surface with markings indicating running direction, distance, etc. Having marking and striping done by an experienced professional results in an excellent finished product.

Because fields for different sports, and even among the same sports played at different levels (men’s college lacrosse versus boys’ high school lacrosse, etc.) have different dimensions. A field that hosts multiple sports requires careful planning with regard to track placement. Tony Wood of Verde Design, Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., says the need for fields to be all things to all people has led to problems with track location and with setbacks.

“For the spectators, there is always a natural desire to be close to the action,” Wood notes. “But multiuse facilities have several factors that can conspire to put fans further from the field than they would like. A football field is 160 feet wide, while a good high school soccer field may be 210 feet wide. Track and field events may need to be accommodated on the sidelines also. In many areas, increased access for handicap and emergency services around the entire perimeter may be required. These conditions combine to put spectators in the front row nearly 100 feet from the edge of a football field.”

Some facilities may wish to keep field events, including pole vault and high jump, on the field so spectators can see them. However, for others, the need to have a dedicated sports field may override this wish and a separate field events facility may be constructed outside the track oval. Ultimately, the planning and design of a track and field facility will have to be a process that incorporates the art of compromise.

The construction process

Construction is always a multipart process, and it starts from the ground up. According to the American Sports Builders Association’s publication “Running Tracks: A Construction and Maintenance Manual,” running tracks are built on a pavement of asphalt or concrete, with a base made of crushed aggregate (limestone or gravel), or of processed or recycled asphalt or concrete. The surface (the part visible to the user) is installed over the pavement. Generally, track surfaces fall into two categories: permeable (or porous), meaning water drains through the surface; and impermeable (or nonporous) in which water drains and/or evaporates off the surface.

Once a base is in place, the paving process begins. Asphalt is the most frequently used paving material, although concrete can be used. Track surfacing follows. Track builders are frequently asked whether permeable or impermeable is the “right” choice. The answer depends on the site, weather conditions, geographic condition and other factors.

Products used in the construction of a track surface include primers, binders and coatings. The major product used is rubber (both black rubber particles and colored rubber particles are used, along with premanufactured rubber products.)

Track surfaces are divided into three categories – latex systems, polyurethane systems and premanufactured tracks – any of which may be suitable for a given installation. The best choice will depend upon use, climate, budget and more. A track builder can help select the best option for your installation.

As a side note, some natural surface facilities are still in use today; these include materials such as cinders, crushed shale and so on. However, current guidelines and recommendations are no longer developed for such surfaces.

A view from the 50-yard line of a track and field facility. Note the surface of the field is marked for different sports, using yellow and white lines.

Once a finished track surface is in place, the next step is calibration and marking. This work is always done by a professional who specializes in calibration and marking. Governing bodies have exacting standards when it comes to the measurements of the track itself, and a facility that is out of tolerance, even by an inch, may not be fit for competition. The risk of having to have the track resurfaced and re-striped far outweighs any cost savings.


To keep the new track looking its best, here are a few tips from the pros:

Some track and field facilities include space for field events. This facility has field events within the stadium complex, but outside the track oval itself. The use and size of a field, the presence of a track and owner priorities, must all be considered when it comes to placement of facilities.

A track that is open to the public seems to receive the most wear on the inside lanes from recreational walkers and joggers. Unfortunately, those inside lanes are already the most used area of the track during competition; as a result, it is essential to make them the least used area for recreation. Builders suggest signs be posted asking that walkers and joggers (as well as those with baby strollers) use the outside three lanes. Encourage this type of use by posting the laps per mile for those lanes.

No food or drink should be allowed on the track. (While you’re at it, make sure everyone knows the track is for runners and walkers only – no inline skates, roller skates, skateboards, bicycles, tricycles or other vehicles, except for properly equipped sports wheelchairs. (Oh, and do we really need to mention no dogs should be allowed?)

If athletes wear spiked shoes, some builders recommend a sign stating that the maximum spike length be no more than .25 inch, although many prefer a maximum of 3/16 inch. Those who want to know the recommendation for their specific surface should ask their contractor. Some contractors advocate soft spikes, and some want none at all.

Most track contractors also note that street shoes should not be worn on the track, nor dress shoes, high heels, etc. This may not be a common issue, but have protective mats available if special presentations are to be done inside the track oval during games, meets or other events.

No machinery should be allowed to cross the track itself. Put down mats to protect the track surface from tires if mowers, etc., need access to the area inside the oval.

Keeping the track clean should be a priority. A leaf blower can be used to remove debris like leaves and twigs. Don’t let gravel or grit of any kind remain on the surface either; damage can occur if athletes unknowingly work it into the rubberized surface while running. Your track builder can provide information on the best ways to address problems like stains or other issues with the surface.

Well-designed and well-built track and field facilities have the potential to attract good athletes and inspire great performances. Work with the right partners and you can help keep the investment paying off for years to come.

Mary Helen Sprecher is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association.