Feature Article - July/August 2005
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A Complete Guide to Sports Surfaces and Flooring

Sure Footing

By Kyle Ryan


For most people, track meets aren't particularly exciting events. They can be difficult to follow, tedious and exhausting—and that's just for the athletes. But track and field, with its numerous sports occurring simultaneously, requires a complex playing arena, especially at the collegiate level. Perhaps no element is more critical than the playing surfaces. Don Paige has experienced it from both sides. A member of the 1980 Olympic Team that boycotted the games in Moscow and a six-time NCAA champion, Paige knows track and field inside and out.

"It's a very technical sport," Paige says. "Track and field is a very complex sport because it does have running, jumping and throwing. It's a lot of events, boys and girls—most sports are not co-ed like that."

Start with the track surface. It essentially needs to have three characteristics: resiliency (soft and not causing injury), good return of energy (that is, send back the energy it absorbs when a foot hits it) and a certain coefficient of friction (a good grip).

"We don't want the track material to be as hard as a concrete sidewalk, and we don't want it to be as soft as a sandy beach," Paige says.

Finding that perfect balance is literally a science. There are essentially four types of surfaces: asphalt, latex, rubber and polyurethane. The last two are the most prevalent, and Paige avoids asphalt and latex altogether. Asphalt may work for many things, but not running, he says, and latex has its own problems.

"The material changes resilience with temperature, and that's not good for an athlete," Paige says. "So on a cold day, the track is firm. On a warm day, the track is very soft or mushy."

In the polyurethane world, there are basically three levels of products, according to Paige (lowest to highest quality): basemat with structural spray, a sandwich system and a full-depth polyurethane system.

A basemat system consists of a layer of rubber granules (up to a half-inch or 13 millimeters deep) bound together by polyurethane, with a top coating of colored polyurethane for stripes or graphics that leaves the surface porous. In a sandwich system, three layers come together to create a cushier surface: a base layer of rubber granules, a sealant layer of polyurethane and top level of colored specially formulated polyurethane. The full-pour system uses two bigger layers of rubber granules in addition to a polyurethane top coat.

Sound redundant? Just think of them as gradually nicer versions of the same thing.

"A good analogy is you can look at the different price breaks between the Ford automobiles," Paige says. "You could probably buy a $15,000 Ford, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40. They're all based on different quality and different levels for different owners. Not everybody wants to buy a high-end Ford product—not everybody drives an SUV for $40,000. Some people drive the Ford Escort, and so that's just what the polyurethane wanted to do."

Installing a track surface is mostly a low-tech, labor-intensive process. For all the science behind it, installation more or less comes down to a guy with a cement mixer and a squeegee. Polyol and isocyanate are mixed to create a viscous solution that is applied with a brush or squeegee across the surface. The liquid is moisture-cured, meaning it reacts with temperature and humidity to harden into its usable form.

"People look at that and say, 'Boy, I wouldn't have thought that's how they do that,'" Paige says. "They dump it into a wheelbarrow…and he goes out and he dumps it onto the track. Then a guy with a squeegee on a pole goes back and forth and squeegees it down on the asphalt surface."

That's where it can get really complicated. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the NCAA have incredibly strict guidelines for the sloping and setup of track-and-field areas. For example, the outside running lane to the inside running lane cannot have a slope that exceeds one in 100, or 1 percent. In field events, the surfaces cannot be downhill more than one in 1,000.

"I have a good idea that maybe the desk that you're sitting at may not meet the one in 1,000 tolerance," Paige says. "These are stricter than airport runways, and so the synthetic-surfacing vendors put these products down by hand because they're trying to make sure they match the elevations that are required for the NCAA and IAAF. It's a very demanding, technical sport, and that's what a lot of people don't understand."

Getting those settings correct involves some high-tech gear like sensitive laser levels, but contractors also should be familiar with their materials—the exact specs of any base stone or asphalt, the exact depth of any polyurethane.

Not surprisingly, it's a time-intensive process, and facility managers often underestimate just how long it will take. Schools mostly try to finish during the summer, when it won't make a difference to have the track closed off for a couple of months. But managers routinely fail to give themselves enough time.

"Say I was going to a track in Chicago, and the coach or the athletic director says, 'Hey, I need it done for spring track season 2006,'" Paige says. "A lot of people think, 'Well, we've got plenty of time.' Well, you don't. I have to be done with that project in Chicago probably no later than October 15th or October 30th because winter's coming. So now you talk to the owner. You say, 'Hey, the schedule is October 15th, and it's going to take six months to build the track,' and immediately you can see the athletic director say, 'Geez, I need a general contractor on board here by June 15th, you know?' And now all of a sudden all these bells and whistles go off—'Whoa, we're behind the eight ball.'"

Starting late can be an expensive proposition as well because vendors often price their work according to season. Here's a hint: It doesn't get cheaper as the weather gets colder. Reprising his Chicago example, Paige points out that a project that begins in September only has through October to work—then it's a long break as November, December, January, February and March pass. And April's no guarantee, either. That's a long time for a work hiatus, and a number of things can go wrong during it.

Protecting the track once installed can be a tough proposition. After all, outdoor tracks get no breaks from the elements. But maintaining them isn't terribly complicated; Paige recommends keeping the surface free from debris and power-washing it a couple of times a year. Taking simple steps like removing grass clippings from an outdoor track after the field has been mowed can go a long way to extend its longevity.

Speaking of longevity, just how long do these tracks have? The standard industry warranty is five years, though Paige says some full-pour polyurethane tracks can last up to three times that long. Really, though, it's anyone's guess.

"It's hard to put a number of years to a product based on two factors: climate and usage," Paige says. "You know, some facilities, they're only open for the track team during practice, say from 2 o'clock in the afternoon to 6 o'clock in the evening. Some facilities are open 24-7, and the local communities use them…so as usage increases, the product's going to wear quicker. It's only common sense."

So is the climate factor. Tracks in sunny, temperate and dry San Diego don't have the vicious freeze/thaw cycles of a midwestern winter or the scorching heat of a Nevada summer. An outdoor surface's two biggest enemies are the sun and water, especially when water changes from liquid to solid during a day.

Ultraviolet rays from the sun break surfaces down by gradually weakening the polyurethane. UV-stable formulas have become more common, though, which also help tracks maintain their colors. In the past, you could have any color of track you wanted, so long as it was red or black. But these days, schools can match their colors or try other eye-catching things with their surfaces, creating aesthetic options that were previously impossible.