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What are the different relay races in Athletics?

There are several types of relay races in track and field. Not all are part of the Olympics.

Men 4*100 m Relay

Men 4*100 m Relay Final at 2022 World Championships (Source: Reuters)


Bikash Chand Katoch

Updated: 17 Jun 2023 1:05 PM GMT

Even within the spectacular domain of Athletics, the most exciting events - usually the closing event - are arguably the relay races. An event which sees a group of athletes work as a team in a sport which is mostly an individual one, it is hardly surprising that the relay races get the crowds roaring the loudest.

What is Relay?

A relay race is a race where members of a team take turns completing parts of course (or performing a certain action). Relay races are common in running, orienteering, swimming, cross-country skiing, biathlon, or ice skating.

Relay In Athletics

Relay race, also called Relay, is a track-and-field sport consisting of a set number of stages (legs), usually four, each leg run by different members of a team. The runner finishing one leg is usually required to pass the next runner a stick-like object known as a baton, while both are running, in a marked exchange zone. In most relays, team members cover equal distances. Olympic events for both men and women are the 400 m (4 × 100 m) and 1600 m (4 × 400 m) relays.

Some non-Olympic relays are held for distances of 800 m (4 × 200 m), 3200 m (4 × 800 m), and 6000 m (4 × 1500 m).

In the less frequently run medley relays, however, the athletes cover different distances in a prescribed order as in a sprint medley of 800 m (100 m + 100 m + 200 m + 400 m) and 1600 m (200 m + 200 m + 400 m + 800 m) or a distance medley of 4000 m (1200 m + 400 m + 800 m + 1600 m). There are also other types of relays like long distance relays (which have more than five legs) and cross-country relays, which are also not part of Olympic or World Athletics events.

4 × 100 metres Relay

The 4 x 100 metres relay or sprint relay is an event where a relay team of four members each run a distance of 100 m in a single designated lane.

The baton exchange has to happen within a 30 m changeover box, which is 20 m before and 10 m after the start of each subsequent leg. The outgoing runner cannot touch the baton until it has entered the zone, and the incoming runner cannot touch it after it has left the zone.

The incoming athlete will typically make a verbal sign to the outgoing runner when approaching the changeover box as a signal they are close to handover. The first team across the finish line, baton in hand, wins. A team can be disqualified if any member drops the baton during the handover or if the handover occurs outside the designated area. The runner finishing the race will generally be the fastest sprinter in a team.

The first Olympic 4 x 100 m relay for men was held in 1912; the first for women was held in 1928. For many years the men’s event at the Olympics was dominated by the US – who won 15 out of 19 Olympic titles from 1920 to 2000. Jamaica won the 2012 and 2016 Olympic titles.

4 x 100 metres Relay World Records

Men – 36.84 seconds set by Jamaica during London 2012 Olympics (Nesta Carter, Michael Frater, Yohan Blake, Usain Bolt)

Women – 40.82 seconds set by United States during London 2012 Olympics (Tianna Madison, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight, Carmelita Jeter)

Usain Bolt anchored Jamaica’s 4x100-meter relay to a world record of 36.84 seconds at London 2012 Olympics (Source: The New York Times)

4 × 400 metres Relay

The event which traditionally brings the curtain down on the track and field programme at many major championships sees four athletes per team complete one 400 m lap each.

The team members cover a distance of 400 m each before passing on the baton within the 20 m designated changeover area. On the first lap, athletes run in designated lanes. The second lap runner will run in their lane until the beginning of the back straight. From that point on, runners can move to hold the inside line on the track.

The first Olympic 4 x 400 m relay for men took place in 1912. Women made their Olympic 4 x 400 m debut at the 1972 Munich Games. The USA has historically dominated both the men’s and women’s 4 x 400 m at the Olympics.

A mixed (two men, two women) 4x400 m relay was introduced at the 2017 IAAF World Relays, repeated at the 2018 Asian Games, the 2019 World Championships in Athletics and also added to the 2020 Summer Olympics.

4 x 400 metres Relay World Records

Men – 2:54.29 set by United States during 1993 World Championships (Andrew Valmon, Quincy Watts, Butch Reynolds, Michael Johnson)

Women – 3:15.17 set by Soviet Union during Seoul 1988 Olympics (Tatyana Ledovskaya, Olga Nazarova, Mariya Pinigina, Olha Bryzhina)

Mixed – 3:09.34 set by United States during 2019 World Championships (Wilbert London, Allyson Felix, Courtney Okolo, Michael Cherry)

The Indian mixed 4x400m relay team finished 7th at World Championships 2019 (Source: AP)

4 × 200 metres Relay

The 4 × 200 metres relay is an athletics event in which teams comprise four runners who each complete 200 metres or half a lap on a standard 400 metre track. The event is a world record eligible event, but is not a standard event at most track meets, though certain leagues regularly conduct this event as part of their programme.

4 x 200 metres Relay World Records

Men – 1:18.63 set by Jamaica during 2014 IAAF World Relay Championships (Nickel Ashmeade, Warren Weir, Jermaine Brown and Yohan Blake)

Women – 1:27.46 set by United States during 2000 Penn Relays (LaTasha Jenkins, LaTasha Colander, Nanceen Perry, and Marion Jones)

4 × 800 metres Relay

The 4 × 800 metres relay is an athletics track event in which teams consist of four runners who each complete 800 metres or 2 laps on a standard 400 metre track. The IAAF ratifies world records in the event and it became a world championship event in 2014 as part of the IAAF World Relays.

4 x 800 metres Relay World Records

Men – 7:02.43 set by Kenya during 2006 Memorial Van Damme meet in Brussels, Belgium (Joseph Mutua, William Yiampoy, Ismael Kombich and Wilfred Bungei,)

Women – 7:50.17 set by Soviet Union during 1984 Moscow event (Nadezhda Olizarenko, Lyubov Gurina, Lyudmila Borisova, Irina Podyalovskaya)

4 × 1500 metres Relay

The 4 x 1500 metres relay is an athletics track event in which teams comprise four runners who each complete 1500 metres or 3.75 laps on a standard 400 metre track. While not a World Championship or Olympic event, the IAAF does ratify world records in the event.

4 x 1500 metres Relay World Records

Men – 14:22.22 set by Kenya during 2014 World Relays (Colleen Quigley, Elise Cranny, Karissa Schweizer and Shelby Houlihan)

Women – 16:27.02 set by United States 2020 during Bowerman Track Club meet in Portland, Oregon (Tianna Madison, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight, Carmelita Jeter)

2 x 2 x 400 metres Relay

The Mixed 2 x 2 x 400 metres relay event was first held at the 2019 IAAF World Relays among senior level major international competition. Each team had to comprise one man and one woman, who would each run twice, but could be lined up in any order.

This event mimics high-intensity interval training. The athletes each have to run a high intensity 400 metres, followed by another high intensity 400 metres, only allowing enough rest time for their partner to run around the track once.

2 x 2 x 400 metres Relay World Records

Mixed – 3:36.92 set by United States during 2019 World Relays (Ce'Aira Brown (W), Donavan Brazier (M))

2x2x400 m mixed relay team of USA - Donavan Brazier and Ce'Aira Brown at 2019 IAAF World Relays (Source: Getty Images)

Sprint Medley Relay

The sprint medley relay (SMR) is a track and field event in which teams of four athletes compete over sprinting distances as part of a relay race. Unlike most track relays, each member of the team runs a different distance.

Sprint medley usually consists of two shorter sprints, followed by two single longer events. Common lengths of the race could be 800 meters or 1600 meters. The 800 meters variation usually would comprise two 100 meters legs, a 200 meters leg and a 400 meters leg. The 800 meter version is sometimes referred to as the Super Sprint Medley Relay to distinguish it from the longer version. More commonly, the 800 meters version is distinguished by abbreviated leg numbers (1-1-2-4).

The 1600 meters variation usually would be two 200 meters legs, a 400 meters leg and an 800 meters leg. It would be named numerically (2-2-4-8). Some have done a 1000 meters variation, which does not fit into an even number of laps, running a 100 meters leg, a 200 meters leg, a 300 meters leg and a 400 meters leg. The (1-2-3-4) format is referred to as the Swedish relay.

Distance Medley Relay

The distance medley relay (DMR) is an athletic event in which four athletes compete as part of a relay team. With its inclusion in the IAAF World Relays program, the IAAF announced on May 1, 2015 that the event would be an official world record event.

Unlike most track relays, each member of the team runs a different distance. A distance medley relay is made up of a 1200-meter leg (three laps on a standard 400 meter track), a 400-meter leg (one lap), an 800-meter leg (two laps), and a 1600-meter leg (four laps) in that order. The total distance run is 4000 meters, or nearly 2.5 miles. Aside from the 400 meter segment, which is a sprint, all legs are middle distance runs.

Distance Medley Relay World Records

Men – 9:15.50 set by Unted states during 2015 World Relays (Kyle Merber, Brycen Spratling, Brandon Johnson, Ben Blankenship)

Women – 10:33.85 set by United States at 2022 at The TRACK event in Boston (Heather MacLean, Kendall Ellis, Roisin Willis, Elle Purrier St. Pierre)

** Note: The American team set the current best indoor time. Nevertheless the distance medley relay is only a world record discipline outdoors, it is a subject to usual ratification procedure to become an outright world record because their time bettered the outdoor mark of 10:36.50.

Elle Purrier St. Pierre, Heather MacLean, Kendall Ellis, and Roisin Willis set the world record for the Indoor Distance Medley Relay at THE TRACK on April 15, 2022 (Source: Women's Running)

Shuttle Hurdle Relay

Shuttle hurdle relay (SHR) is a type of a relay race in track and field in which participants jump (sprint) over hurdles. The shuttle hurdle relay is contested at the Drake Relays, Kansas Relays, Mt. SAC Relays, Penn Relays, Texas Relays, Akron Relays, Alabama Relay, Appalachian Conference Relay, Florida Relays (Gainesville), Knoxville Relay, Long Beach Relay, Santa Barbara Relay, Tennessee Relays, Towson Relays, and Tri-State Relays.

SHR is contested mainly as the 4 x 60 m hurdles, 4 x 80 m hurdles, 4 x 100 m hurdles and 4 x 110 m hurdles.

This events allow four hurdlers to run on the same relay team and has been held both outdoor and indoor. In a shuttle hurdle relay, each of four hurdlers on a team runs in the opposite direction from the preceding runner.

The Mixed 4 x 110 hurdles was also included at the 2019 and 2021 IAAF World Relays competition.

Shuttle Hurdle Relay World Records

Men – 4 × 110m – 52.94 set by United States during 2015 Drake Relays (Jason Richardson, Aleec Harris, Aries Merritt, David Oliver)

Women – 4 × 100m – 50.50 set by United States during 2015 Drake Relays (Brianna Rollins, Dawn Harper-Nelson, Queen Harrison, Kristi Castlin)

Mixed – 4 × 110m – 54.42 set by United States during 2016 Drake Relays (Kristi Castlin, Spencer Adams, Nia Ali, Eddie Lovett)

Long-distance Relay

Long-distance relays have become increasingly popular with runners of all skill levels. These relays typically have 5 to 36 legs, each leg usually between 5 and 10 km (3.1 and 6.2 miles) long, though sometimes as long as 16 km (9.9 miles).

Races under 100 kilometres (62 miles) are run in a day, with each runner covering one or two legs. Longer relays are run overnight, with each runner typically covering three legs. The IAAF World Road Relay Championships was held from 1986 to 1998, with six-member teams covering the classic 42.195-kilometre (26.219 miles) marathon distance.

New Zealand Road Relay Championships (Source: Athletics New Zealand)

Cross-country Relay

For the 2017 IAAF World Cross Country Championships, a mixed relay race was added (4 × 2 km).

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