Are the middle lanes the fastest in athletics? Data from 8,000 racers doesn’t show that much

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As a short distance runner in high school and college, I often wondered which of the eight or sometimes nine lanes on the track was the fastest. It was common knowledge that the middle lanes – lanes three through six – were the best.

This idea is, in a way, anchored in the rules of athletics. For events with several runs – from the College level all the way to the Olympia – The people who run faster times in earlier runs will be assigned to the middle lanes in later runs. In other words, the fastest runners are rewarded with supposedly better lane assignments.

My short-lived rail career is long behind me, but my in Working life as an economist, I think a lot about using statistics to extract meaning from data. With the Olympics in mind, I decided to investigate the validity of the lane assignment folklore from my time as a sprinter.

With 20 years of athletics data from the International Federation of Athletics Federations, I found that the long-held beliefs about lane advantages do not differ from the Data. Indeed, the evidence for the 200-meter sprint suggests that the tracks that are often perceived as the least desirable are actually the fastest.

Tighter curves and offset starting positions are intended to slow down inside and outside lanes.
André Zehetbauer / WikimediaCommons, CC BY-SA

The myth of the middle lane

If lane assignment is a factor, its impact would be most evident in events where runners are required to remain on their lanes for all or at least a large part of the race, e.g. B. 100 meter, 200 meter, 400 meter and 800 meter events.

In my experience, the myth that the middle lane is the fastest is most commonly associated with fast races that also involve corners, i.e. the 200s and 400s. There are two reasons for this view, and they have to do with why? The inside and outside lanes are bad, more than why the middle lanes are better.

The reason inside lanes are bad is because when racing with corners, the inside lanes are slower because the corners are too tight. In fact, researchers studying the biomechanics of running are finding that tighter turns slow runners down.

The reason for slow outside lanes has to do with the offset start required to ensure that every runner covers the same distance. Because of this staggering, runners on the outside lanes cannot see their competitors for most of the race. The thought is that outside runners can have less motivation to chase after competitors or have Difficulty assessing their speed compared to the pack when they can’t see other racers.

Racer in the starting blocks of a 200-meter sprint.
In the 200-meter sprint, in which the racing drivers start offset and circle a curve, the outer lane seems to be the fastest.
Nick Webb / Flickr, CC BY

Not all tracks are created equal

In most races it is the fastest runners are assigned to the middle lanes according to the competition rules. Unsurprisingly, the fastest runners – those on the middle lanes – often win. Do these racers win because these lanes are the fastest or because these runners are usually the fastest?

Similar to clinical trials for a drug, the ideal way to test the benefits of lanes is to randomly assign runners to lanes and see how they average. Fortunately, there is a subset of racing data that does this: Usually, runners are randomly assigned to lanes in the first few runs of events. By only using data from the first few runs of elite athletics events, I was able to remove the bias of assigning faster runners to specific lanes.

Based on around 8,000 individual race results, I found that the belief “middle is best” is not well supported by the data.

For the 100 – which is driven on a straight line – I did not find any track advantages. The myth is less common here, however, so this lack of differences isn’t surprising.

The most striking counterpoint to the assumption “middle is best” is 200. I found that it is actually outside of the lanes associated with faster race times – on average, lane eight is about 0.2 seconds faster than lane two. That is remarkable for a race in which the The world record is 19.19 seconds. Faster outside lanes make biomechanical sense, as tighter corners lead to slower racing times. But the result seems to disprove the idea that not seeing competitors can slow a runner down.

With the 400, I didn’t find any evidence that the middle lanes are the fastest. All tracks appear to be roughly the same. It’s worth noting that there is greater variability in 400 meter times, so it is more difficult to see small effects when they are there. But this indifference between the lanes in the 400 is also striking.

At the 2016 Olympics, people did marveled when Wayde Van Niekerk won the 400 final of track eight, the outermost lane. The astonishment stemmed from the conviction that the track disadvantages eight runners. The data does not support this. The impressive thing about Van Niekerk’s win, however, is that he qualified for the finals as one of the slower runners – so he was placed on one of the “least desirable” lanes.

The last event I watched, the 800, is different from the other events mentioned above. There is a so-called “lane break” in which the runners have to stay on their assigned lanes for the first 100 meters, but can then run on any lane they want. Since the inner lane of a lane covers the shortest distance, the runners on the outer lanes move inwards after the break. In doing so, they may have to run a little further than their competitors and compete for position with runners who are already on the inside lane. I’ve found that racers who start on the inside of the tracks run the fastest times. While outside lanes may have a small advantage over the first 100 meters, runners who have a fixed position on the inside of the lane seem to have an overall advantage.

The next time you watch one of the shorter track and field events at the Olympics, listen to see if someone repeats the old adage that the center lanes are the fastest. The data says this is not true. So when someone takes a surprise gold on the outer lanes, you know they are surprised not because of their lane assignment, but because they are slow to qualify.

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