What is Pole Vault?

pole vault

The Pole Vault

Pole vaulting, although one of the most highly anticipated events in modern track and field, has its roots in humble beginnings, having originally evolved as a practical method of crossing over everyday roadside obstacles such as creeks and ditches, rather than as a means of smoothly clearing jaw-dropping heights. Gradually, however, it grew into the sport that we know and love today, officially becoming a recognized competitive event by the mid-19th century and a summer Olympics cornerstone in 1896.

Pole vaulting is another discipline of track and field that falls under the “field” category. The name speaks for itself as to how the sport works. Pole vaulting used to be for distance but is now done to see how high the vaulters can vault themselves.

History of Pole Vaulting

There is evidence that dates pole vaulting back to the 16th century, at least. There is some evidence that the Ancient Greeks practiced this sport as well. Pole vaulting as we know it today began in Germany in the 1850s. Vaulters used to use bamboo poles, which was recorded in 1857. The poles have progressed to what is most commonly used now, carbon fiber.

Famous Athletes

Tom Ray, a pole vaulter in the late 1800s, used a method where he would climb up his pole when it was completely upright. That technique would later become outlawed, and it became illegal to change your hand position after take-off.

Objectives of Pole Vaulting

The objective of a pole competitor is simple: to take advantage of the straightening motion of a bent pole to successfully catapult himself over the greatest height possible. In competitions, the height that the competitor must clear for each round is marked off by a 4.5m-long horizontal crossbar, and a successful vault is defined as one in which the crossbar remains intact throughout the entire attempt, from the moment the athlete's time is called to the moment he leaves the landing pit.

The participant in pole vaulting goes down the runway with the pole and vaults themselves over a bar that is 4.5 meters (14.76 feet) long. The pole used can vary between 10 feet long and 17.5 feet long, as the heights are customizable to the vaulter. There is a stop board where the vaulter will jam the pole in order to begin their ascent. The vaulter must keep their hands in the same position once they begin their way up towards the bar. The height of the bar is the main goal. The bar will go up as the contest continues, and a vaulter gets three attempts at each height, and can choose to take a pass on a certain height, even if they did not complete it. A competitor will be eliminated with three consecutive eliminations at a given height.

What We'll Be Learning

We'll first discuss the dimensions and the boundaries of the field, the surface upon which all the jumping and throwing events are held. Afterwards, we'll break down the process of the pole vault into seven steps, and explore the rules and strategies for each one.

Pole Vaulting Glossary Terms

Here are all the terms we will be covering related to the sport of pole vaulting in track and field.

  • High Jump
  • Standard Competition Area
  • Arena
  • Track
  • Field  
  • Infield
  • The Runway
  • The Crossbar
  • Standards
  • Uprights
  • The Landing Area
  • The Slideway
  • The Plant Box
  • The Vaulting Box
  • The Vaulting Pole
  • Grip Height
  • The Shift
  • The Plant
  • Drive Swing
  • Pull Turn
  • Jump-Off
  • Vault
  • Pass

The Pole Vault Facility

The pole vault facility is made up of four components:

1. The Runway

2. The Slideway

3. The Crossbar

4. The Landing Pit

The Runway

The runway is the straight, 40 m long stretch of all-weather polyurethane track surfacing, at the end of which lies the slideway and the crossbar. This is where the approach run is performed.

Note that the runway is marked on the ground by white lines, similar to the white lines defining the boundaries of the track lanes. The pole vault competitor must not step on or beyond any of the white lines delineating the runway during the approach run, as doing so will invalidate the attempt as a foul jump.

The Slideway

The slideway, which is also referred to as the plant box or the vaulting box, is the meter-long box that is sunken into the ground directly in front of the crossbar. The dimensions of the slideway is unlike that of a regular rectangular prism's. For instance, its faces are trapezoidal, rather than pure squares, and the bottom of the box is angled on a slant to allow the efficient sliding of the vaulting pole towards the back of the box.

The Crossbar

The crossbar is the horizontal bar that marks the minimum height that the pole competitor must clear. It is supported on either side by two vertical posts called standards, or uprights.

The Landing Pit

The landing pit is the thickly padded mattress located directly behind the crossbar. It has a minimum length of 6 m and depth of 2 m, and is designed to ensure the safety of the athlete upon impact after the flight.

In the mid 19th-century, when pole vaulting first became a competitive sport, competitors performed on grass, using bamboo poles with a sharpened bottom point to launch themselves over the crossbar and back onto the grass on the other side.

The Vaulting Pole

The vaulting pole is a smooth, flexible stick that is designed to absorb all of the athlete's energy as it is bent, then return almost all of that energy as it straightens back into position. It aids competitors in clearing the maximum possible vertical height.

The Construction

The poles may be constructed of any material or combination of materials. However, fiberglass is the most popular material today and is used by almost all competitors, as it is significantly lighter and more efficient than the historically used bamboo or heavy wooden poles

The Dimensions

The poles may be of any length or diameter that is the most optimal for the individual athlete.

The Restrictions

The only restriction placed upon the poles is that their outer surfaces must be smooth. This means that pole selection is largely dependent on the athlete's individual bodyweight, strength, and technical ability. For instance, in order for two athletes to bend their poles the same amount but spend the exact same amount of energy, a heavier athlete should use a stiffer pole, while a lighter athlete should use a more flexible pole.

The Number of Competitors

Only one competitor at a time is allowed to attempt the pole vault. This means that only the eligible competitor may be in the pole vault facility at any given time. All other athletes who have finished their attempts, or are awaiting their turn, must ensure that they are not in contact with any part of the runway, the slideway, the crossbar, or the landing pit..

The Number of Attempts

Every competitor is given three attempts to clear the crossbar at any announced height. However, a total of three failed attempts, at any height or combination of heights, will result in the immediate disqualification of the competitor.

The Time Limit

When there are 4 or more competitors remaining in the event, each will be given a total of 1 minute to initiate the attempt. When there are 2 - 3 competitors remaining, each will be given a total of 2 minutes to initiate the attempt. Finally, when there is just 1 competitor remaining, he will be given 5 minutes to initiate the attempt.

If a competitor fails to initiate the attempt before the allowed amount of time has passed, the attempt will be declared a foul vault.

The Starting Height

The athlete may enter the competition at any crossbar height announced by the event official, at his own individual discretion.

The Pass

If a competitor feels confident enough, he is allowed to pass, or advance onto attempting the next designated height without clearing the prior one. There are no restrictions placed upon the number of times that a competitor is allowed to pass. The competitor is also allowed to pass after failing to clear the crossbar during a round, although the event judge must be notified of this decision immediately after the miss.

The Check Marks

Competitors may place a maximum of two check marks alongside the runway, outside the boundary lines, to assist them in executing a successful high jump. A check mark is a small marker that serves as a guide or a milestone during the approach run.

The Approach Run Start

Unlike the foot racing events of track and field, there is no official start line for the pole vault. Instead, competitors are free to initiate their approach run at any point within the boundaries of the runway. An attempt in which the competitor steps on or over the boundary lines of the runway will be deemed an invalid foul vault.

The Approach Run Strategy

From the preferred start point, the competitor must accelerate down the runway as fast as he can. The length of each stride should remain consistent, with only the frequency of the strides increasing as the athlete nears the end of the runway.

In addition, while sprinting, the competitor must carry the pole with both hands in such a way that he is grasping the top end next to the side of his body at waist-level, while the bottom end (the end that will touch the ground during the vault) is extended in front of his body at an upward angle.

The speed that the competitor reaches just before the takeoff is a key factor in determining the vertical height that he will be able to clear. The greater the speed upon takeoff, the greater the height reached. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial that the competitor understands his personal sprinting style, technique, and level of performance in order to gauge how much time and buildup he will need on the runway to reach maximum speed in front of the slideway.

The athlete must be continuously accelerating throughout the entirety of the approach run. The greater the speed, the greater the amount of forward momentum that will be converted to vertical height.

The Shift Objectives

The objective of the shift is to transfer the maximum amount of energy that has been generated from the competitor's sprint into the pole.

The Shift Position

The shift occurs as the athlete takes his second-last stride before reaching the slideway.

The Shift Strategy

On the second-last stride, the competitor must lower the bottom end of the pole, angling it towards the slideway, while simultaneously allowing his lower hand to slip up the pole toward his upper hand.

On his final stride, the competitor raises his arms over his head as high as he can, making sure that his top arm stays behind his ear, and begins to drive the pole directly into the slideway.

Just before the bottom tip of the pole actually touches the back of the slideway box, it is critical that the competitor's head, shoulders, hips, and top hand are all aligned above his take-off foot in a straight vertical line. This positioning ensures the maximum transfer of energy that has been generated from the competitor's sprint into the pole.

The Objective

The objective of the plant and launch is to position the body in such a way as to take full advantage of the momentum from the approach run and to become fully airborne.  

The Plant and Launch Strategy

As the pole is planted at the back of the slideway, the competitor must use the force of his take-off leg to launch himself into the air. It is important to note that once the competitor's body leaves the ground, his lead leg should remain in front of the body, with the foot under the knee, in a natural running position.

In addition, the grip of the competitor's top hand on the pole should be stiff, as it is this hand that provides support and balance. The bottom hand, meanwhile, should continue to move up with balanced resistance. The bottom arm also should not press forward too much or be held too stiffly, as doing so may stop the shoulders from moving horizontally or cause the hips to swing forward too quickly.

Once the athlete has launched off the ground, he is not allowed to move his bottom hand above his top hand or move his top hand higher up on the pole. Doing so will cause the attempt to be counted as an invalid foul vault.

The Drive Swing Objectives

The objective of the drive swing is to prepare and position the body for the smooth clearing of the crossbar.

The Drive Swing Strategy

As the pole bends backwards under the competitor's weight, the competitor must now begin to arch his torso backwards as well, such that his chest moves ahead of his top arm to form a reverse C.  Although the bottom arm must bend at the elbow to facilitate the arching of the torso, the top arm must still remain straight and stiff.

If, at any point before the athlete has fully exited the landing pit, the actions of either the athlete or the vaulting pole causes the crossbar to become displaced from its original position, the attempt will be declared an invalid foul vault.

The Swing-up Objectives

The objective of the swing-up is to vertically propel the body up towards the top of the crossbar.

The Swing-Up Strategy

The swing-up begins the moment when the pole cannot bend backwards any further, and starts to bend sideways instead. At this point, the competitor must stop driving his chest ahead of his top arm and should now firmly position both of his arms above his shoulders, as though he were a gymnast grasping an overhead high bar.

The competitor must then powerfully swing his legs and hips upwards and inwards towards his upper body, remembering to keep his head down and shoulders dropped. At the point in the swing when the hips have risen to a level higher than the head's, the competitor must start pulling the pole downwards while simultaneously dropping his entire upper body. This ensures that the pole stays bent for as long as possible, and also allows for the continuous rising of the legs and hips.

Finally, the pole will begin to spring back into its straightened original position. By this point, the legs and hips should have swung up to the point such that the competitor is now almost completely upside-down. Furthermore, as the bent pole springs up, the competitor must remember to keep his entire body straight and positioned between the shoulders, instead of tilted towards the front or back.

The swing-up is finished when the competitor's body is completely upside-down. Note, however, that at this point, the pole will not have yet fully straightened back into its original position.

The Pull Turn Objectives

The objective of the pull turn is to maximize the total vertical height and to prepare the body to be thrown over the crossbar.

The Pull Turn Strategy

At the end of the swing-up, the inverted competitor, who is facing the 40m runway stretch at this point, must now execute a move called the pull-turn. This is perhaps the most crucial maneuver in pole vaulting, as it determines the height that the competitor will be able to clear, and thus the success of the overall vault.

To keep the inverted body remaining vertically straight and to maximize the total height of the vault, the athlete must first pull his bottom arm down towards his hips, until his body is vertically straight and extended upwards completely.

Next, using his straight, stiff top arm, the competitor rotates his entire body in a revolution around the pole, which causes the legs and hips to rise even higher. During the turn, the competitor should keep the legs together, the head low, and the body tight to the pole, and prepare to be thrown over the crossbar ‚ feet first and chest facing the ground, by the momentum of the pole as it reaches its full, unbent original height.

The Flyaway Objectives

The objective of the flyaway is to continuously adjust the positioning of the vaulting pole and the athlete's body to successfully clear the crossbar and make the safest possible landing.

The Flyaway Strategy

This is the final step of the vault, in which the athlete is at last catapulted over the crossbar. To start, as the pole straightens out to its full extent, the competitor's bottom hand releases its grasp on the pole. The competitor must then immediately bring the bottom hand into his chest, pointing the elbow up and away from the crossbow to avoid contact with it.

The competitor continues to hang onto the pole with his top hand, keeping his head down and feet high, until his hips have successfully made it over the crossbar. At this point, the competitor's top arm will be pointing vertically straight down, and the competitor's top hand must now push off the pole before releasing its grasp on it. As the top hand releases the pole, the competitor must gently elevate the entire arm so that it now points at a slight upward angle. As the rest of the upper body follows the hips and rises above the crossbar, the competitor should continue to keep the top arm straight and extend out in front of him.

After the entire upper body has successfully crossed over and the head starts to rise over the crossbar, the competitor must immediately pull back both of his arms so that the elbows are pointing out and the palms are on either side of his head. While doing so, the competitor should also gently swing his lower body under the crossbar, which will not only further ensure the smooth crossing of the head and torso, but also prepare the competitor for the landing, which will occur on his back in the padded landing pit (located on the ground directly behind the crossbar).

The Landing Strategy

Once every part of the body has cleared the crossbar, the athlete must stretch out the arms and legs in order to create more air resistance. This will slow the athlete's downward momentum and therefore soften the impact of the fall. To further reduce the potential of injuries, the athlete's back must be the first part of the body to make contact with the landing pit.

A smooth, light landing is as important as fully clearing the crossbar, as a successful fair vault is defined as one in which the crossbar remains in place throughout the entire attempt, from the start of the approach run to the athlete's exit from the competition arena. For instance, it is entirely possible that an attempt in which the competitor has cleared the crossbar can still be declared an invalid foul vault, if the competitor, upon landing or while exiting the landing pit, dislodges the crossbar from its original position.  

The crossbar does not need to fall down to the ground for an attempt will be declared an invalid foul vault. An instance in which the crossbar remains between the two standards, but has shifted from its original position, will also be declared an invalid foul vault.

The Completion of the Attempt

Every competitor is given three attempts to clear the crossbar at any announced height. A competitor is deemed as having completed an attempt when he has fully exited the landing pit.

Fair Vault

A fair vault refers to an attempt in which the competitor has abided by all the boundary rules, and the crossbar has remained in place throughout the entire attempt. In other words, the crossbar must not be dislodged from its original position during any point between the start of the approach run and the moment when the athlete fully exits the landing pit.  

Foul Vault

A foul vault refers to an attempt in which the competitor has broken one or more of the event rules. The height cleared by the athlete in a foul vault will not be recorded or considered in determining the winner.

A foul vault is declared when the one or more of the following occurs:

1. The competitor has failed to initiate the attempt before the appropriate amount of time has elapsed.

2. The competitor has stepped on or beyond the white boundary lines of the runway.

3. After launching off the ground, the competitor has moved the bottom hand above the top hand or has shifted the top hand higher up on the pole.

3. The actions of the competitor or the vaulting pole have caused the crossbar to become dislodged from its original position.

4. The competitor has failed to clear the crossbar.


Every competitor is given three attempts to clear the crossbar at the height of his choice. A total of three failed attempts or foul jumps, at any height or combination of heights, will result in the elimination of the competitor.

The Winner

The winner of a pole vaulting event is the competitor who has cleared the greatest vertical height, as measured from the ground to the center of the crossbar. Note that although all fair vaults of a competitor will be recorded by the officials, only the one with the greatest height will be used to determine the athlete's standing in the event.

Dispute Resolution

In the rare event that the greatest vertical height cleared by two or more athletes is exactly the same, the event official will then examine the number of foul vaults for each tied athlete. The tied competitor with the fewest misses at the height of the tie, as well as the fewest overall misses throughout the entire event, will then be declared as the winner.

In the case that the tie still remains, the competitors have what is called a jump-off. In a jump-off, the tied athletes progress to the next greater height and are each given one attempt only to successfully clear the crossbar. The tied athletes continue to proceed to greater and greater heights, with one attempt per height, until only one competitor succeeds and breaks the tie.