Indoor tracks and conversions

Indoor tracks and conversions

Texas Tech's circle 232m track

Finish the season ranked inside top 16 in each event and you are in. This is the new and even more ruthless qualifying procedure being implemented for the 2014 NCAA indoor Championships. Whilst it may sound very straightforward to compile a ranking list, the reality is that it is not as simple as this. Banked tracks, flat tracks, oversized tracks, short tracks (in a literal sense), and altitude can all be accounted for so that the ‘net’ performance an athlete achieves may differ slightly from the ‘gross’ performance. This is very much similar to the standard scratch method applied to rate the difficulty of golf courses for handicap purposes.

Due to the fewer numbers of spaces available, indoors has always been the hardest of the three NCAA events to qualify for, and there is an added twist this year: The championships are being held at altitude in Albuquerque.

Discussions have gone on for years about whether these conversions are fair, and persuasive arguments can be used to support either side. Some of these are below, and most are just the contrasting sides of the same points.

First off, here’s the official NCAA Indoor Conversion Chart. To illustrate, a 4:03 mile in Montana at 5500ft can be worth 3:56 at sea level. A 4:02 mile on a flat track is worth 3:59 on a banked track.

The formulas

+ The formulas are not just plucked out of the air. As with anything regulated by the NCAA, conversions have been calculated to be as accurate as can feasibly be.

-   No matter how much insight is given, getting the measurements for conversions right (especially for altitude) will be difficult. A sea level based athlete who goes to altitude for the very first time to race may respond very differently to an Eldoret born Kenyan who is racing at the ‘lowly’ height of 6000ft. Writing this from Iten, Kenya, I can explain this adaptation point first hand. Myself (a 2.16 marathoner and looking to improve) would struggle to keep up with some of the top 2.19-20 female Kenyans on certain training sessions 8000ft, simply because I am not acclimatised like they are.

The tracks

+ There are arguments that the conversions help to create an even playing field. Not every team has the resources to be able to access the prestigious meets and tracks. Viewed subjectively, is a 4.02 mile ran on a flat 165m track at altitude a better than the same time ran on an oversize 320m oval?

+ Unlike outdoors, where all tracks are 400m, indoor tracks can differ tremendously in shape and size. Converted times allow these differences to be taken into consideration.

- The flip side to this is obvious. If distance runners need to head to Seattle in order to give themselves the best chances of qualifying, then so be it. The ruthless nature of the qualifying system makes it far more important than during outdoors to chase times.


-    The most simple argument against allowing converted times is the very fact that they are converted.  The IAAF do not accept converted times for qualifying purposes, and why should the NCAA go against the sports global governing body.

+ Collegiate athletics is very different from IAAF competition and therefore regulated differently.  Considering that collegiate indoor tracks often have multiple uses, it would be unrealistic to expect that they all be 200m and banked. Some are used within indoor football practise facilities, some form part of basketball arenas, whilst others may even be within a campus recreation centre. A track of some description is therefore better than no track, and it may as well be used


These are just a few points, and as can be seen it is easy to formulate opinions on either side of whether to allow converted marks. One thing that is indisputable is that with only 16 places available in each event and no qualifying standards, the next few weeks we will see some fierce competition. In March we will then be able to look back and see what effect that hosting an NCAA event at altitude has on the results.

For the purposes of comedy, here’s Seattle’s Pacific outdoor track. We very much doubt this is competition certified.

Some of our favourite tracks below. By favourite we don’t mean we like them. Some have resulted in lasting hamstring issues, mostly of our own doing. Despite that, they still have a special place.

The good

The bad

The well, different

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