What are running tracks made of?

10 May, 2024

Running tracks are an essential element of various professional and amateur sports – from Olympic running or Track and field to everyday casual jogging. Nowadays, there are numerous different types of running tracks, coming in a variety of materials, each of them with its pros and cons. In this article, we will answer what are running tracks made of and how to choose the best one for you.

The Evolution of Running Track Materials

The history of running tracks dates back to the tradition of the Olympic games in ancient Greece. Back then, there were not many different types of running tracks. They were primarily covered in cinder or dirt, providing a satisfactory base foundation for athletes to run comfortably and with sufficient friction. However, they were not time-proof, as they would sometimes wear off after a single run, requiring to be refilled, raked, and prepared again. A gradual shift to more synthetic materials, like rubber, asphalt, or polyurethane, happened in the XX century in response to a growing public interest in running as a sport.

Types of Running Track Surfaces

The performance and durability of your athletic track are directly connected with the material you choose to go for. While some materials offer superior endurance and longevity of service, others might be less durable yet more affordable and environment-friendly. Choosing the proper material for your specific case is a pledge that your running track will serve for a long time and fulfill everyone’s needs. Let’s try to answer what are track made of and figure out how to choose the best running track surface for you.

Grass and Clay Tracks

Clay and grass are some of the oldest types of running tracks, primarily found in older facilities. Although it is a relatively obsolete choice, having grass or clay as your running track surface material has a few pros:

  • Initial price – natural materials are some of the most cost-effective for initial installation, with grass averaging at $3 to $8 per square foot and clay costing approximately $5 to $12 per square foot. However, it is crucial to mention that maintenance, repair, and replacement of old or damaged surfaces should also be included in the budget in the long run.
  • Eco-friendliness – grass and clay make for the most eco-friendly and sustainable track surface.
  • Visuals – both grass and clay can naturally fit into practically any outdoor design, being aesthetically pleasing and creating a splendid natural setting.

However, there are certain cons which make more and more people shift to synthetic materials:

  • Maintenance – natural types of running track surfaces are incredibly high-maintenance. In terms of grass it requires regular mowing, watering, and reseeding to keep the surface even and less patchy. When it comes to clay, it requires raking to help it remain even, not to mention that it can scatter over time.

Durability – grass and clay are less durable than synthetic materials – weather conditions and extensive foot traffic can damage them, leading to uneven surfacing, bumps, potholes, or mud.

Polyurethane-Based Tracks

The majority of running tracks nowadays are covered with polyurethane-based compounds. Being created in the late 20th century, they are, in fact, a composition of polyurethane layers applied over a solid base, like asphalt or concrete. It is no wonder they dominate the market, given their following pros:

  • Durability – polyurethane-based materials like latex are known for their longevity of service and being almost invulnerable to such damage as tear, shock, weather conditions, and extensive traffic. Due to that, they can serve for up to 30 years if installed and maintained correctly, according to American Athletic Track and Turf. Moreover, their performance is going to be consistent throughout their whole lifespan, making it a perfect choice for athletes.
  • Shock absorption – due to the nature of their construction, polyurethane running tracks are bouncy enough for running comfortably. This kind of elasticity ensures that the runners’ joints will not be damaged, leading to long-term trauma after working out on the track. It won’t cause severe injuries if athletes fall on it. In addition to that, elastic materials don’t tend to form cracks over time, unlike stone, concrete, or asphalt.

Unfortunately, despite all of its pros, polyurethane is also quite a whimsical material, leading to the following cons:

  • Maintenance – to keep all of its properties, polyurethane demands the following maintenance:
    • Cleaning – polyurethane running tracks must be cleaned regularly to prevent the accumulation of dirt and debris, which can detract from their traction and durability.
    • Repairs – all the small cracks and tears must be fixed as soon as possible before they escalate into something massive.
    • Weather considerations – tracks must be covered when exposed to extreme weather conditions, like intense sunlight or heavy snow.
    • Resurfacing – the top level of the track must be resurfaced every 7-10 years in order to extend its lifespan and keep it up to standards

In addition, professional maintenance teams should ideally perform all these maintenance procedures, leading to extra expenses.

  • Price – the price of installing a polyurethane running track is relatively high as well. An average track can cost from $10 to $30 per square foot, based on the quality of the material and the overall area of your track.
  • Heat – polyurethane tends to heat very quickly in high-temperature environments, potentially harming athletes and their comfort.

Rubber Tracks

Although often confused with polyurethane compounds, rubber is a separate material that has also found its application in running track surfaces. Rubber tracks also include polyurethane, primarily present in the colored binder, used to glue together rubber granules, which are the base of such surfaces. Though rubber is less popular than pure polyurethane materials now, it certainly has its pros:

  • Durability – rubber flooring is well-known for being long-lasting and durable for almost anything. Harsh weather conditions, extensive foot traffic, heat, and moisture are nothing to rubber. If installed and maintained correctly, rubber running tracks can last for up to 20 years.
  • Low Maintenance – compared to other surfaces, rubber is a low-maintenance choice. It requires only occasional cleaning and inspection to ensure its state and properties. Also, make sure to fix the cracks or holes if they appear.
  • Eco-friendliness – most rubber is either made of natural materials, where the manufacturing process is zero-emissions and zero-waste, or recycled rubber, which is an effective way to utilize it.

Still, if you decide to go for a rubber surface for your running track, you are sure to face the following issues:

  • Price – rubber is a relatively pricey choice, averaging $8-16 per square foot. However, remember that it will pay off with low maintenance and non-frequent repairs required in the long run.
  • Heat – like polyurethane, rubber will likely get hot under long direct sunlight exposure and extremely high temperatures.

Asphalt Tracks

Asphalt is one of the less-used synthetic running track materials nowadays. However, it can still be a choice for you because of the following reasons:

  • Price – asphalt is one of the most affordable materials, costing approximately $3-$7 per square foot. It is essential to mention that this number doesn’t include regular maintenance, which might accumulate quite a lot in the long run.
  • Versatility – asphalt can be an excellent choice for running and bike races, casual games like basketball, general workouts, or recreational activities.

It is still vital to also mention the cons of going for asphalt surfaces:

  • Hard surface – unlike rubber and polyurethane, asphalt is quite a solid material, while not the most resistant, meaning that high foot traffic, extreme weather conditions, moisture, or impacts with something else can seriously damage asphalt. As a result, it can form cracks and potholes.
  • Maintenance – due to its proneness to forming cracks, asphalt requires much maintenance, like regular inspections and filling in damaged areas.
  • Comfort – as stated before, asphalt is not as bouncy as rubber and polyurethane, meaning running on it is less comfortable and leads to a higher load on runners’ joints.

Indoor and Outdoor Running Track Material - Is There a Difference

The last thing to consider while choosing the best running track material for you is where you plan to install it – for an outdoor facility or as an indoor sports flooring.

While indoor tracks are usually not affected by weather or rapid temperature change, they also lack ventilation, so you must ensure the room is well-ventilated while installing and until the fumes are gone. In addition, grass or clay is also not recommended as an indoor running track material. Moreover, if you choose a surface that would enable elevated indoor running, polyurethane is a go-to choice due to how customizable it is, letting you set different incline levels.

On the other hand, running tracks outside are exposed to many more stressors, like weather, temperature changes, moisture, and external vegetation like weeds, mold, and mildew. Rubber or polyurethane can be an excellent outdoor running track material due to their resistance to these factors and performance over time.

To sum up, rubber and polyurethane are recommended by most American athletic organizations for a reason: sturdy yet bouncy materials that don’t require excessive maintenance are long-lasting and work great for indoor and outdoor spaces.