Are There Lane Advantages in Olympic Track Races?

Elaine Thompson-Herah (third from left) on her way to a gold medal in the women's 100-meter dash at Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Elaine Thompson-Herah (third from left) on her way to a gold medal in the women's 100-meter dash at Tokyo 2020 Olympics. / Fred Lee/Getty Images

At the Rio Olympics in 2016, South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk surprised everyone by nabbing the gold medal (and setting a new world record) in the men’s 400-meter dash all the way from lane 8—generally considered a tough place from which to win a race.

In events like the 400-meter, where runners have staggered starting positions, those in the outermost lanes (usually 8 and 9) are in front of their competitors for most of the race. Many people believe that without being able to see anyone else, it’s difficult to set your own pace and judge what it’ll take to cross the finish line first. But the innermost lanes aren’t coveted either, since the turns are sharper and that might impact your speed.

In short, the middle lanes are widely thought to be the best spots for any staggered-start track event—and it does seem like those lanes produce the most winners. But it’s not quite that simple. World Athletics, the organization that oversees international track and field competitions (including the Olympics), mandates that the fastest runners from the initial qualifying round get placed in the middle lanes for subsequent rounds. So unless you’re watching that very first round—for which lanes are assigned randomly—you’re always going to be seeing the faster racers in the so-called “best” lanes. When they win, as they often do, it reinforces the idea that middle lanes live up to their reputation.

The only way to ascertain whether middle-laners have an automatic edge is to crunch the numbers from those preliminary rounds, where lane assignments aren’t merit-based. David R. Munro, an economics professor at Middlebury College, did exactly that, and explained his findings in an essay for The Conversation. After analyzing roughly 8000 individual results from international races, he concluded that lane advantages differ based on the race. In 200-meter dashes, he found that the average time for athletes in lane 8 was approximately 0.2 seconds faster than for those in lane 2. This suggests that there may be some truth to the belief that sharper turns cause runners to slow down—and that disadvantage seems to outweigh the disadvantage of not being able to see your competitors, at least for this distance. In the 400-meter dash, Munro found that no lane had any edge over another, though he also acknowledged that “there is more variability in 400-meter times, so it is harder to detect small effects, if they exist.”

And lastly, in the 800-meter dash, runners in the innermost lanes finished the fastest. This, Munro suggested, might have to do with the “lane break.” Basically, 800-meter athletes stay in their lane for the first 100 meters, and then they all converge in the inner lanes. “As they do this, [runners in outside lanes] may have to run a tiny bit farther than their competitors and jockey for position with runners who are already in the inside lanes,” Munro explained.

All data aside, there’s a psychological side to the discussion, too. If you’ve spent years hearing that the outer and inner lanes are hard to win from, it could very well affect your performance when you’re placed there—and some professionals agree that lane advantages are more psychological than physical. It depends on the individual athlete, too. Runners who are especially skilled at navigating curves might feel like they have an edge on the inside, while others who concentrate better without seeing their competitors may prefer an outside spot.

Whatever the case, it is still impressive if someone wins a gold medal from lane 1 or lane 8. But it’s less about the lane and more about the fact that they beat athletes who outran them in earlier rounds.

[h/t The Conversation]