Marathon Race Timing Systems and RFID Technology – Here’s How

Winning the race to keep track of marathon runners

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology is well-proven and widely used for a range of asset tracking scenarios. Typical applications for RFID asset tracking include inventory solutions in supply chain management, keeping track of vehicles and equipment, and managing valuable art and technology assets.

RFID-based technology is also used to track people. Some workplaces such as warehouses, transport yards, mines and other large areas require tracking for safety purposes, to help keep track of where people are and if they might need medical or other assistance.

The technology can also be used to increase security by tracking the location of workplace visitors, and log employee time and attendance for workplace efficiency and accountability. RFID solutions can also provide insights via data analysis to improve processes and procedures by increasing efficiency of movement around the workplace.

But what about other applications for tracking people, such as runners in marathons? You might be surprised to learn about the versatility of RFID tracking solutions.

What is RFID technology and how does it work?

But first, here’s a quick overview of how RFID technology solutions work. A ‘smart’ tag is affixed to an item needing to be tracked. RFID tags come in a variety of shapes, sizes and capabilities, but common to them all is the ability to store information (much more than standard barcodes) and communicate data such as movement and location back to a central database. 

RFID readers are used to ‘read’ tags from a distance, often with the simple wave of a hand in a packed storeroom full of tagged products using a handheld reader or App-enabled smartphone. In addition, fixed RFID readers or stations are strategically located in say a warehouse or workplace and they track the movement of items in and out.

All the information fed from tags to readers is then relayed to a central location where custom RFID software (such as RAMP’s Retail Solution) stores and analyses a huge amount of data to identify the precise location of valuable items in real-time, as well as providing useful insights to help make more informed business decisions. 

RFID technology in marathon running

Running a marathon, at just over 26 miles or 42 kilometres, is difficult enough. But consider the challenge facing race organisers of providing accurate times for many thousands of runners in the same race. Sure, it’s easy to see who crosses the finish line first, but with limited space at the start, the runner with the best time may not have been on the start line when the starting gun fired. 

RFID tracking for marathons and other endurance sportimng events

Further, what about all the people who may start from hundreds of metres back from the start line and may take a number of minutes to cross the official start line to commence their race? Race organisers need to be able to provide accurate times for runners of all abilities who train hard for these events and want to keep track of their progress over this gruelling event.

This is where RFID-based technology can provide a solution for marathon race organisers. 

Specialist RFID technology solutions for marathon race timing

Most RFID asset tracking solutions are not concerned with the time it takes for an item to get from one point to another. Typically, they are used to track where an item or asset is at a moment in time such as in inventory management solutions.

When it comes to marathon racing, the critical measurement is time taken to get from point A (the start) to point B (the finish). Further, the timing system needs to be able to do this for thousands of data points (or runners) in real-time.

What type of RFID solution to use for race timing

There are many different types of RFID frequencies and technologies in use commercially, but not all of them are suitable for race timing. Low frequency (LF) and high frequency (HF) RFID vary in their ability to read tags at a distance, and their scan rate (data points per second) capability. 

For race timing, ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID is the most widely adopted for race timing solutions. UHF can detect 1,000+ tags per second, from as far as 10-15 metres from an RFID reader, making them ideal for wide and crowded start and finish lines in a marathon race. 

Essential components of an RFID marathon race timing system

RFID tags

Tags worn by or attached to runners include programmed data pertaining to the individual runner, and a built-in antenna that enables connection to RFID readers placed at the start and finish lines, as well as other key locations along the race distance. 

There are various ways in which RFID tags can be affixed to runners, and the choice of what will work best depends on the individual race and the other equipment that forms the RFID race timing technology solution. Options include:

  • Tags attached to runners’ bibs.
  • Tags worn on the shoes of runners.
  • Bulkier tags that are strapped around runners’ ankles. 

The most important choice race organisers will make when it comes to their RFID technology solution is the type of RFID tag:

  • Passive RFID tags weigh as little as one gram and do not have a built-in power source. They are relatively cheap and are disposable (no need to try to collect them back from thousands of race participants!). They can be placed almost anywhere and can be easily fixed onto race bibs.
  • Active RFID tags are more expensive as they have a built-in power source (battery) and can be used multiple times. They are also more bulky, which creates more weight for runners to carry in an already difficult race!

While active tags offer some benefits including the ability to transmit over longer distances, passive tags tend to be the most popular choice for most marathon races for their cost, weight and disposability. 

RFID readers

Readers come in a variety of formats and can be handheld or mounted at fixed points along a marathon course. Using antennas, the readers detect RFID tags affixed to runners, and transmit that information back to central servers for processing. 


Antennas are mounted to RFID readers, and also come in a variety of formats and sizes. They can be:

  • Ground or floor-based (such as underneath the mats at the start/finish lines), creating an upward radio field to detect tags.
  • Side antennas that are usually set up in pairs facing each other on either side of the timing line.
  • Overhead (or aerial) antennas that can be set up above a pair of side antennas to create a radio field ‘curtain’ to assist in increasing tag read rates.

Race timing software

Specialised race timing software (available off-the-shelf or customised) captures all the data transmitted from RFID tags via readers and translates it into easily understood race times. 

Other optional components

There are a range of optional add-ons that marathon race organisers might want to consider integrating with their RFID race timing solution. These include:

  • Results kiosk where runners can look up finish times and print their results.
  • Cameras that provide in-the-moment photos triggered by runners’ RFID tags, such as at the finish line. 
  • LED display screens that show race times and results as participants finish the marathon course. 

Choose the RFID provider winning the race in Australia

Whether you need an RFID solution for marathon race timing, want to run inventory management more efficiently in your retail supply chain, or increase visibility for your valuable assets, talk to RAMP, Australia’s leading RFID specialist

RAMP can provide advice and assistance for the design and implementation of a customised  RFID technology solution for the specific needs of your organisation or business.