Running jargon busting special: UK vs USA terminology

I’ve recently returned from running a half-marathon in the United States – and in just under nine weeks, all being well, I’ll back back in Texas running the Chevron Houston Marathon.

I’ve written about some of the cultural differences between running in Britain and Texas, and there’s another big area where the running experience is difference: the language.

This isn’t just about the difference in British English and US English spelling (just to settle this: colour has a ‘u’ in and that’s the end of it): it’s the running jargon, lingo and terminology.

So, in the spirit of running jargon busting, here’s an entirely arbitrary guide to some differences in running terminology on both sides of the Atlantic – well, at least ones I’ve encountered.

As ever, a disclaimer: this list is cobbled together based purely on my own personal experiences, so it’s entirely subjective (running terminology varies enough within Britain), and I’ve likely missed a few.


Personal Best (UK) vs Personal Record (USA)

Aka PB vs PR. This one pretty much explains itself. Whether you set a PB or PR doesn’t really matter: it’s definitely worth celebrating.


Start zone/Start pen (UK) vs Start corral (USA)

Start corral is a term used in most American races, but to a Brit, it does seem particularly fitting for Texan events. When I think corrals I think somewhere to round up herds of cows after vast cattle drives. Or cowboys having gunfights in OK ones.

The start corral of the Texan Half Marathon there didn’t feature any cows or cowboys. I didn’t even see a Stetson. Just lots of runners. Probably for the best.


Race numbers (UK) vs Race bibs (USA)

When I think of bibs, I tend to think of the things you stick on babies to stop them spilling food and drink their food all down their clothes. Which, on the surface, bears nothing in common with the bit of paper you pin to your chest showing your race number.

And then I remember what actually happens in the latter stages of a long race, when I’ve been known to spill energy gels and drink all over myself when trying to refuel without stopping. So… maybe race bib is quite fitting after all.


Race registration (UK) vs Packet pick-up (USA)

The place you go before the race to pick up your race number/race bib. The American terminology actually seems better suited here, because most race registration is done online when you enter these days. Because of that, there’s no usually need to actually register for the race at race registration any more – you just head to the desk to pick up your number. Which, as it happens, often comes in a packet.


Bag drop (UK) vs Gear check (USA)

These terms describe the place where you leave your belongings during a race. Frankly, neither seems perfect to me.

When I put a bag into a bag store at a British race, I try not to actually drop it. Something might break. I try to place it down gently.

But ask me about a gear check, and I’d be inclined to check my gear: make sure my shoelaces are done up, ensure my Garmin is turned on, that sort of thing…

And yes, I may well be applying entirely excessive levels of pedantry in both cases here. Deal with it.


Portable toilet/Portable loo (UK) vs Portapotty/Port-a-can (USA)

Whatever you call them, they still smell bad and are generally unpleasant places to spend much time. But when you’ve got to go

As an aside, and to further confuse linguistic matters, many people know these by other names: the Portaloo in Britain, and Porta-John in America. These are, of course, specific brand names of portable toilet units, and should absolutely, definitely, only be used when the portable toilet in question is actually one of those specific brands.

Otherwise you might receive a cease-and-desist letter from Portakabin telling you not to write Portaloo unless you can prove the portable toilet in question actually was a Portaloo product. A publication I worked on may once actually have received such a letter.


Hitting the wall (UK and USA) vs Bonking (USA)

Hitting the wall is a concept familiar to both British and American runners. Bonking in a race? Not so much.

Although… a quick internet search suggests the term bonk was first used to describe the sudden onset of fatigue in the very English Daily Mail in the 1950s. Still, in my experience it’s firmly crossed the Atlantic and left these shores behind.

Which is why, when I read the phrase ‘bonking in a race’, it’s hard to suppress a very childish chuckle.

Bonking. Snigger.


Trainers (UK) vs Sneakers (USA)

Actually, this one doesn’t seem to apply to running so much. Most shops in both countries use the term ‘running shoes’ to label the footwear ‘proper’ runners actually use. Most of the terminology attached to running shoes – cushioned, flat arch, stability, zero drop, etc – seems the same in both countries too. And I still don’t really understand much of it.


Streaker (UK) vs Streaker (USA)

There are two meaning of streaker. In American running parlance, a streaker is someone who runs every day for a long period of time, or who does the same race multiple years in a row.

Perhaps unfortunately, that usage isn’t common in Britain. But the other meaning is. So when I first read about a streaker appearing in a race, well, I pictured someone very different.


So there you go: some examples of how running terms vary in Britain and America. Do let me know if I’ve missed anything…

Read more running jargon busting here


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