What is the most painful track event? This question has baffled both experts and bored high school students for literally tens of years. Fortunately, I shall now attempt to answer it.
Before I proceed, a couple points of clarification. First of all, when I say pain, I am talking about purely physical anguish, essentially how much your body hurts at the exact moment when you step across the finish line. This is important to note, because if you are considering mental duress during the race, I believe that the longer an event is, the more mentally difficult it is. Every track event from the 300 (which isn’t often run, but is ever so slightly longer than a professional athlete can maintain top speed, and therefore the shortest event where you have to deal with your body failing) on up to the marathon (which is debatably a track event by technicality, because it is run at the Olympics under the track and field banner and also at NAIA track nationals, but I digress) hurts, and with longer events there is more time spent in pain and, thus, more time to second guess and fight with yourself. I also think that the most painful track event differs between men and women, but I’ll get to that in a little bit. Anyways, moving on.
It is my professional opinion that the optimal equation for pain is total aerobic and anaerobic exhaustion. I would say that events longer than the mile deal almost exclusively with the aerobic side of things (depending on how fast you are), and these will definitely leave you gasping with your heart-rate maxed out, but such events don’t deal with the anaerobic side of things. On the opposite side, events around 400m have only anaerobic exhaustion. Heart rate goes up, but doesn’t peak or leave you gasping. Essentially, there’s lots of lactic acid buildup as your muscles can’t move as fast as you’d like them too, sort of similar to the way maxing out in lifting feels, except, you know, different.
I think that the most painful events are the 400m hurdles and the 800m run. Unfortunately, my expertise is somewhat limited on the 400 hurdles since I’ve never run them, but I have plenty of 800’s under my belt. Usually, at the end of an 800 race, I’m completely dead aerobically and have all the fatigue and super heavy breathing that comes with it. My legs and arms burn and feel like I can hardly lift them, and I get fuzzy, blurry vision and a bad headache for about 5-10 minutes. In a nutshell, it really sucks. The 400m hurdles apparently also provide the same exhaustion, and, although it takes less time, I’d imagine trying to sprint as fast as you can for an extended period while trying to jump over obstacles is rather draining. I’m super biased since I’ve only experienced one of these, but I think the 800 is probably worse, especially when you get better. Pro 400 hurdlers take ~50 seconds to complete a race, and I think the amount of practice they have and their flexibility minimizes the pain of jumping over the barriers since it becomes such a well learned motion, and there’s only so much pain you can subject yourself to inside 50 seconds.
This post is becoming a little longer than expected, so I’ll just talk about gender differences for a second. Women take longer to run races than men and thus every event is slightly different. Short and middle distance races become slightly more aerobic by virtue of the fact that it takes more time to run them and the body is subjected to exhausting conditions for longer. The 800 for women is very similar time-wise the the 1000m race for men, which I know from experience doesn’t hurt nearly as much because it leans to the aerobic side just enough that you avoid the horrible headache-y, vision blurring pain. For women, I’d have to go with the 600m run and the 400m hurdles as the worst. As a weird little side note to add some doubt to the conclusion I just made, I ran the 800 at 2:12 in high school (which would be a very competitive girl’s time) and I now run it at 1:52 and I think the pain has stayed roughly the same. Of course, it is difficult to generalize, because much of this depends on the athlete’s ability, because the better women get, the closer they are physiologically to men, as evidenced by the performances of Caster Semenya and plenty of women from the Eastern Block.