Relay race

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This article is about relay races in sport. For relay races in electronic circuits and in ladder logic, see race condition.
World Orienteering Championship 2008 gold medal winners in relay, completing hand-off between legs 2 and 3

During a relay race, members of a team take turns running, orienteering, swimming, cross-country skiing, biathlon, or ice skating (usually with a baton in the fist) parts of a circuit or performing a certain action. Relay races take the form of professional races and amateur games. In the Olympic games, there are several types of relay races that are part of track and field.

Swimming relays[edit]

Swimmers about to make the pass during a relay race.

A swimming relay of four swimmers usually follows this strategy: second fastest, third fastest, slowest, then fastest (anchor). However, it is not uncommon to see either (1) the slowest swimmer racing in the second slot, creating an order as follows: second fastest, slowest, third fastest, and then fastest, or (2) an order from slowest to fastest: slowest, third fastest, second fastest, fastest.[citation needed]

FINA rules require that a foot of the second, third or fourth swimmer must be contacting the platform while (and before) the incoming teammate is touching the wall; the starting swimmer may already be in motion, however, which saves 0.6-1 seconds compared to a regular start. Besides, many swimmers perform better in a relay than in an individual race owing to a team spirit atmosphere. As a result, relay times are typically 2–3 second faster than the sum of best times of individual swimmers.[1]

Relays in athletics[edit]

A final leg runner for The University of Wisconsin

In athletics, the two standard relays are the 4x100 metre relay and the 4x400 metre relay. Traditionally, the 4x400 metre relay finals are the last event of a track meet[citation needed], and is often met with a very enthusiastic crowd, especially if the last leg is a close race. It is hard to measure exact splits in a 4x400 (or a 4x100) relay. For example, if a team ran a 3:00 4x400, it does not mean every runner on the team has to run a 45 second open 400, because a person starts accelerating before he/she has the baton, therefore allowing for slightly slower overall open 400 times. A 4x400 relay generally starts in lanes for the first leg, including the handoff. The second leg then proceeds to run in lanes for the first 100 metres, after which point the runners are allowed to break into the first lane on the backstretch, as long as they do not interfere with other runners. A race organizer then puts the third leg runners into a line depending on the order in which they are running (with the first place closest to the inside). The faster teams pass first, while the slower teams have to slide in to the inside lanes as they come available.

4x200, 4x800, and 4x1600 relays exist as well, but they are rarer, especially at the high school level, where schools generally have only one or two competitive strong runners in such events.

Rules and strategy[edit]

Each runner must hand off the baton to the next runner within a certain zone, usually marked by triangles on the track. In sprint relays, runners typically use a "blind handoff", where the second runner stands on a spot predetermined in practice and starts running when the first runner hits a visual mark on the track (usually a smaller triangle). The second runner opens their hand behind them after a few strides, by which time the first runner should be caught up and able to hand off the baton. Usually a runner will give an auditory signal, such as "Stick!" repeated several times, for the recipient of the baton to put out his hand. In middle-distance relays or longer, runners begin by jogging while looking back at the incoming runner and holding out a hand for the baton.

Two runners prepare to pass the baton.

A team may be disqualified from a relay for:

  • Losing the baton (dropping the baton)
  • Making an improper baton pass
  • False starting (usually once but sometimes twice)
  • Improperly overtaking another competitor
  • Preventing another competitor from passing
  • Wilfully impeding, improperly crossing the course, or in any other way interfering with another competitor

Based on the speed of the runners, the generally accepted strategy used in setting up a 4 person relay team is: second fastest, third fastest, slowest, then fastest (anchor). Although some teams (usually middle school or young high school) use second fastest, slowest, third fastest, then the fastest (anchor). Each segment of the relay (the distance run by one person) is referred to as a leg.


The largest relay event in the world is the Norwegian Holmenkollstafetten, 2,944 teams of 15 starting and ending at Bislett Stadium in Oslo which had a total of 44,160 relay-competitors on May 10, 2014.

Another large relay event is the Penn Relays, which attracts over 15,000 competitors annually on the High School, Collegiate and Professional levels, and over its three days attracts upwards of 100,000 spectators. It is credited with popularizing Relay Racing in the sport of Track & Field.

The world's longest relay race is Japan's Prince Takamatsu Cup Nishinippon Round-Kyūshū Ekiden, which begins in Nagasaki and continues for 1064 km.

Athletes in the Southern Counties 12-Stage Road Relay Championships, Wimbledon Common, London, 1988

Long distance relays[edit]

Long distance relays have become increasingly popular with runners of all skill-levels. These relays typically have 5 to 36 legs, each usually between 5 and 10 kilometres (3–6 miles) long, though sometimes as long as 16 kilometres (10 miles). Races under 100 kilometres (62 mi) 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.

Notable long distance relay race include:

American Odyssey Relay - Gettysburg, PA to Washington, DC - 200 miles in total, more or less
Bourbon Chase - Clermont, KY to Lexington, KY - 200 miles, visiting each bourbon distillery along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Blue Ridge Relay - 208 miles, takes place in the Blue Ridge and Black Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina
Cabot Trail Relay Race - 185 mile relay race in 17 stages around the Cabot Trail in Baddeck, Nova Scotia
Capital to Coast Relay - Longest relay race in the United States, Austin to Corpus Christi, TX
Cascade Lakes Relay - 2nd Longest relay race in the United States
Gulf Coast Interstate Relay (GCI Relay) - 263 mile cycling relay and running relay from New Orleans to Pensacola Beach.
Epic Relays - Relay series with 3 relays in Oregon, Utah and Colorado.
Flaming Foliage Relay - Idaho Springs to Leadville to Buena Vista: a revival of the best part of the original Colorado Relay organized by Colorado Outward Bound; runners cross three 11,000+ foot mountain passes (Guanella, Georgia, and Fremont) and four legs are on single track trails. Mid September.
Great Lakes Relay - Great Lakes Relay A 275 mile 3 day/2 night event through the northern half of Michigan's lower peninsula.
Green Mountain Relay - Jeffersonville to Bennington, VT - 200-miles and crosses seven covered bridges, possibly the most scenic relay route in the USA; since 2006
Hood to Coast - The original long distance relay race.[2]
Reach the Beach Relay - Cannon Mountain to Hampton Beach. New England's best relay.
Ragnar Relay Series - The world's largest relay series with 16 relay races in and around the United States[3]
Relay Iowa - A 3 day/2 night, 340 mile adventure relay from Sioux City to Dubuque, IA
Reno-Tahoe Odyssey Relay - Downtown Reno, through the Sierra Nevada and back, a 178 mile team relay.
Southern Odyssey Relay - a 24 hour, 200 mile team relay race, a 2-day relay race through Georgia.
Sunset to Sunrise Relay - Ft. Myers to Jensen Beach, FL
Texas Independence Relay - Gonzales, TX to Houston, TX
Tom's Run Relay - A 200-mile team building fitness event along the entire C & O Canal Towpath from Cumberland, MD to Alexandria, VA run in memory of U.S. Coast Guard CWO4 Tom Brooks.
Tuna Run 200 - A 200 mile relay from Raleigh, NC to Atlantic Beach, NC with a beach party at the end. Known for being fairly flat.
Wild West Relay - Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs, CO - motto is "Get Your Ass Over the Pass!" - 200-miles, crossing two mountain passes, almost 30% of the route is on dirt roads passing through three National Forests; in August since 2005

Shorter long distance relay races have also proven to be popular. These shorter races range from 40 miles (64 km) to 86 miles (138 km), but still incorporate the team aspect. The most popular ones in this category include:

100on100 Heart of Vermont Relay
Brew To Brew 43 miles (69 km) from Lawrence to Kansas City, Kansas,
Civil War Relay 52 miles (84 km) a "sprint" relay (2-mile legs) from Albany or Eugene, Oregon; a relay tradition held around the Civil War football game between the University of Oregon and Oregon State,
Front Range Relay 52 miles (84 km) a "sprint" relay (2-mile legs) from Fort Collins to Boulder, Colorado,
Lake Tahoe Relay which is approximately 70 miles (110 km) around Lake Tahoe.
Market To Market Relay 86 miles (138 km) from Omaha to Lincoln, Nebraska
River To River Relay 80 miles (130 km) in Southern Illinois
Saw Tooth Relay 62 miles (100 km) from Stanley to Sun Valley, ID in the Sawtooth range, (six runners, two legs, non-profit)

TransIsthmian Relay - The only Ocean to Ocean relay race in the world, Caribbean to Pacific.
River To Sea Relay - 91 Miles – 14 Stages – 7 Person Teams (2 stages per team member) (120 Teams) Milford, NJ to Manasquan, NJ + Mid-Relay Oasis

Medley relay[edit]

Medley relay events are also occasionally held in track meets, usually consisting of teams of four runners running progressively longer distances. The Distance Medley Relay consists of four legs run at distances of 1200, 400, 800, and 1600 metres, in that order. The Sprint Medley Relay usually consists of four legs run at distances of 400, 200, 200, and 800 metres, though a more uncommon variant of 200, 100, 100 and 400 metres (Sometimes called a Short Sprint Medley) also exists. See also Swedish relay.

In medley swimming, each swimmer uses a different stroke (in this order): backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle, with the added limitation that the freestyle swimmer cannot use any of the first three strokes. At competitive levels, essentially all freestyle swimmers use the front crawl. Note that this order is different from that for the individual medley, in which a single swimmer swims butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle, in that order.

Relays on coinage[edit]

Relay race events have been selected as a main motif in numerous collectors' coins. One of the recent samples is the €10 Greek Relays commemorative coin, minted in 2003 to commemorate the 2004 Summer Olympics. In the obverse of the coin three modern athletes run, holding their batons while in the background three ancient athletes are shown running a race known as the dolichos (a semi-endurance race of approximately 3,800 metres distance).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ernest W. Maglischo (2003). Swimming Fastest. Human Kinetics. pp. 279–. ISBN 978-0-7360-3180-6. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ retrieved Nov 27, 2012