Short track speed skating takes place on a 111.12-metre oval track on a rink measuring 30-metre by 60-metre. Because the corners are tight and it can be difficult for skaters to maintain control, the boards must be covered by protective mats of polyurethane foam at least 20 centimetres thick with a minimum height of one metre. The mats are covered with a water-resistant and cut-resistant material and they must be attached to the boards as well as to each other. Facilities dedicated solely to short track speed skating often use a self standing mat system that does not require boards which provides additional safety for athletes crashing at high speeds.
In world championship competition, men and women skate four distances: 500, 1,000, 1,500 and 3,000 and relay races over 3,000 metres for women and 5,000 metres for men. The competition lasts three days. The events are skated in the following order: 1,500, 500, 1,000 and 3,000 metres.
Instead of racing in pairs as in long track, short track skaters mass start with four to eight skaters on the starting line. Positions are drawn by lot and the competition pits skater against skater. Strategies and tactics are very important in a race. Races are often won by the smartest rather than the fastest skater. In international competitions, skaters must finish among the top two in their heats, quarterfinals and semi-finals to qualify for the 500-metre, 1,000-metre and 1,500-metre finals. Only the skaters who accumulate points in previous finals are eligible for the 3,000-metre final. First place receives 34 points; second place, 21 points; third place, 13 points; fourth place, eight points, fifth place, five points, sixth place, three points, seventh place, two points and eighth place, one point. The winner of the World Short Track Speed Skating title is the skater with the highest number of final points when the championship ends.
The World Cup circuit uses only the 500-metre, 1,000-metre, 1,500-metre and relay races to determine a champion for each distance over the course of the season. Each individual distance is raced eight times, with the top six results for each athlete counting toward the final classification.
The chief official at a short track competition is the referee. The referee oversees the assignment of competitors to heats, determines when the ice must be resurfaced, and monitors the races. Along with the referee, assistant referees ensure fair racing. They have the power to disqualify and can also advance to the next round a skater who has been knocked down by another skater committing a passing foul. The starter is responsible for ensuring that all skaters receive a fair start. Short track skaters are each allowed one false start before disqualification. The timers provide manual back-up to the electronic timing system, the judges determine the placings, and the lap recorders keep track of the laps remaining in the race and pass this information on to the skaters. They also ring a bell to signify the start of the last lap. Track stewards replace corner blocks if they are kicked out of position and watch for skaters skating inside the blocks. The competitor's steward assigns the skaters to heats. The recorder keeps track of race results and prepares the final standings.
Races are skated counterclockwise. Overtaking is allowed but the skater who overtakes is responsible for any collision or obstruction that results from the overtaking. If a skater is lapped, he or she may be moved to the outside track by the referee, and if lapped twice, must leave the race.
The most frequent passing infraction, called charging the block, occurs when a skater passes on the inside of the congested area near the top of the corner. An experienced skater won’t let anyone sneak by the inside and can, by holding his or her track, force overtaking skaters to back off or go around the outside. Another common cause for disqualification is changing lanes or altering the course at the finish. Competitors are supposed to skate in a straight line from the end of the corner to the finish line; veering inside or outside to maintain the lead is grounds for disqualification.
Short track speed skaters use many of the same strategies and tactics as track racers (e.g., running or cycling). Well-conditioned skaters may elect to lead from the gun hoping to wear out the competition. Others may choose to conserve energy for a finishing sprint. And some may throw in several sprints during a race in hopes of causing confusion in the pack. Whatever the strategy, a basic tactic for every skater is to be no worse than second or third with four or five laps to go. This brings plenty of passing as skaters seek to improve their positions in the pack. Passing requires instant acceleration, agility, good balance and nerves of steel.
Relay races normally involve four teams of four skaters per race. Each skater must take at least one turn out on the track. Normally, the skaters will exchange turns in rotation, with those not on the track either resting, covering the skater on the track, or preparing to receive a relay, all on the inside of the track. Instead of passing a baton, the skater on the track needs to only tag the incoming skater to complete an exchange. However, in order to maintain momentum, it is more common for the incoming skater to crouch and receive a push from behind. In the event of a fall, a covering skater may tag the fallen skater and continue the race. A gun will sound indicating three laps remaining, which means that each team may only complete one more exchange. The last skater must complete the final two laps, unless the skater falls.
Because the corners of the short track oval are tight, the speed skate has been modified to maintain high speed and control in the turns. The boot is made of fibreglass molded to the shape of the foot; and the blade, while similar to the length used in long track, has more rocker and is offset to the left so the skater can lean lower and push more effectively in the corners without hitting the side of the boot on the ice. The blades are rounded at each end. Every skater wears safety gear which includes a hard shell helmet fastened under the chin, cut-resistant gloves, knee pads, neck protector and shin guards. The skin suits are similar to those used in long track, but without the aerodynamic hood. Recent modifications in the equipment rules require a cut-proof material, often kevlar, to be used in the composition of the short track skin suit to enhance safety and reduce injuries.