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Stan Becton | | April 7, 2023

Track and Field FAQs: Can you touch hurdles, dropping batons, false starts and more

Kentucky's Sydney McLaughlin wins 2018 hurdles title after a hail storm

If you’re new to track and field and want a better understanding of how things work beyond simply running fast and throwing and jumping far, then this is the article for you. Check out the answers to some of the most frequently asked track and field questions below.

How does wind impact track and field results?

Click or tap here to find out more on wind and scoring in track and field.

Can you touch hurdles in track and field?

In short, the answer is yes. Athletes can’t deliberately knock down a hurdle in a race, but they can touch the hurdle.

So, if an athlete is running a hurdles race and attempts to clear the hurdle while jumping over it in a “hurdling fashion," but clips the hurdle or even knocks the hurdle over, they can continue running. The athlete wouldn’t have deliberately knocked over a hurdle in this case, as they are genuinely attempting to clear the hurdle and complete the race.

Now if an athlete knocks over the hurdle in a race, without attempting to clear it at all, it would be deemed a non-hurdling action, which is deliberate and a violation of hurdling rules.


Can you touch the bar in the high jump and pole vault?

Yes, one can touch the bar in the high jump and pole vault when clearing the height. However, if the bar falls from its place, the attempt doesn’t count. Basically, an athlete can touch the bar as long as the bar doesn’t fall down.

How heavy is the shot put?

In throwing events, the equipment carries some weight. If you don’t believe me, just check the dents in the ground after an athlete's attempts. Let’s look at the shot put.

The shot put ball is made of solid iron brass or any metal not softer than brass, or of a shell of such metal completely filled with lead or other material per NCAA rules. The minimum men’s shot put weighs 7.26 kg (16 lbs.) and the minimum women’s shot put weighs 4 kg (9 lbs.) To put those weights in perspective, a male pug weighs on average 16 pounds and a wall-mounted 32-inch LED TVs is about nine pounds.

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Can you make contact with your opponent on the track?

You can make contact with your opponent, but not much if any. Track isn’t a “contact sport” after all. There are two rules to look at regarding this question, impeding and jostling.

The impeding rule came back to the forefront of the sport at the 2023 DI indoor championships in the 800 meters. The rule determined the NCAA men’s 800 meter champion. So what is impeding?

Per NCAA Rule 9 Article 35, impeding is: “Preventing or obstructing the progress of a competitor along the competitor’s established course.”

As shown in that 800 meter race, if a runner goes off his current path to cut off another runner behind him’s path, that is impeding. In short, impeding is blocking your competitor’s path on the track.

Impeding differs from jostle/jostling on the track, which falls under Rule 9 Article 40. Jostling is “pushing, elbowing or otherwise bumping against a competitor in a rough manner.” 

Think of a crowd during a distance event where runners are fighting for position. While runners can maneuver around one another, anything too physical like elbows and such is jostling and not allowed.

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What’s going on with the water in the steeplechase?

The water in the steeplechase is a part of what makes the event special. The steeplechase is a race over 3000 meters of track that also includes hurdle and water jumps. There are 28 hurdle jumps and seven water jumps in each steeplechase race, but no jumps are included in the first lap. The water jump is always the fourth jump in each lap.

The water jump makes the steeplechase unique beyond its elemental nature. It shortens the 400 meter track by 10 meters because the water jump typically occurs inside the typical oval of the track.

About the hurdle

A water jump requires two things, water and a hurdle. The hurdle is 3.66 meters (about 12 feet) in length (horizontally). The hurdle itself is 12.7 centimeters thick (about five inches). The top of the hurdle stands approximately .914 meters high, just under three feet.

Runners jump over or launch off of the hurdle above, into or over the steeplechase’s water pit. 

How deep is the water? 

The water in the steeplechase is 50 centimeters deep at its lowest point, or about 1 foot 10 inches deep. That’s a depth just under the average female knee according to the national institute of health. The deepest point of the steeplechase’s water stretches for 30 centimeters before sloping back up to track level across the remaining 323.3 meters.

Why the obstacle?

The obstacles in the steeplechase date back to its origins in the United Kingdom in the 19th century, according to World Athletics. Runners raced from one town's steeple (church) to the next, hence the name steeplechase.

The race originally included obstacles like low walls, creeks and rivers, so once brought to the track the obstacles came with, albeit in different forms.

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What happens if you drop the baton?

Contrary to popular belief, you can drop the baton in a relay race and not be disqualified. There’s a slim window of success for those who fumble the baton.

If the baton is dropped as a runner is running around the track, said runner can pick up the baton, even if it rolls/bounces into another, unassigned lane, so long as said runner doesn’t impede anyone else. The runner also can’t lessen his/her distance on the track in retrieving the baton.

If the baton drops when trying to pass the baton, things get more complicated. The dropping of the baton has to occur in a genuine attempt to pass the baton legally within the passing zone (see track markings).

If the baton falls within the passing zone, either runner can retrieve it. If the baton is dropped outside the passing zone, the person who dropped it must recover it. Again, the runner(s) can’t impede anyone else after dropping the baton.

So, athletes can drop the baton and continue to race, it just becomes a lot easier to get disqualified by making a mistake if the baton hits the ground.

How do lane violations work?

In sprint races around a curve — the 200, 300 and 400 meters — athletes must stay in their lanes on a 400 meter track. A lane violation occurs when an athlete steps on or over the lane line to the left. An athlete cannot step on or over the left lane line with two consecutive steps of either both feet or a single foot.

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What's a false start, reaction time, and more?

On your marks. Set. Pow.

That’s how almost every race in track and field begins. However, if an athlete leaves the starting point, blocks or otherwise, before the starting pistol fires after set, it may be deemed a false start.

A false start is any time an athlete leaves early, as measured by electronic starting blocks or the official starter.

Electronic starting blocks can determine a false start by using a false start detection apparatus that is World Athletics approved. Electronic blocks determine a false start by using reaction time. An athlete with a reaction time of less than one-tenth of a second will be deemed a false start and an acoustic signal will emit to at least the start team.  

If the start team judges the start unfair, you’ll often hear a second shot of the starter pistol, after the starting shot, which recalls the runners. If the unfair start isn’t because of a competitor, there won’t be a false start charged to any athlete.

If a false start is because of an athlete, the head starter will stand in front of the athlete(s) responsible for the recall and raise a color coordinated card.

Green means no violation and the athlete is free to run. Yellow means a warning, and a disqualification if the athlete commits the violation again. Red means the athlete is disqualified.

In a combined event, a competitor shall be warned for the first false start and disqualified only after they have been charged with two false starts.

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Here’s what the markings on the track mean

Below you’ll find a list explaining important markings you’ll see on a 400 meter track according to the international color code.

  • Starting line (white) — 100 Meters, 100/110 Hurdles, 200 Meters, 400 Meters, 1500 Meters, Mile, 3000 Meters, Steeplechase, 5000 Meters, 10,000 Meters
  • Starting line (white with green insert) — 800 Meters, one turn stagger
  • Starting line (white with red insert) — 4x200 Relay, four turn stagger;
  • Starting line (white with blue insert) — 4x400 Relay, three turn stagger
  • Multiple waterfall starting lines (white)
  • Finish line (white) — all
  • Relay exchange zones — 4x100 Relay (yellow), 4x200 Relay (red), 4x400 Relay (blue)
    • The area on the track in which the baton may be legally exchanged in relay races.
    •  Each baton exchange zone shall is 30 meters, of which the scratch line is 20 meters from the start of the zone.
  • Hurdle locations — 100 Hurdles (yellow), 110 Hurdles (blue), 400 Hurdles (green), Steeplechase (black)
  • Break line (green)
    • The break line is the arc across the track indicating the position at which competitors are permitted to leave their respective lanes or staggered alleys.
    • This applies to events of at least 800 meters

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