When you’re trying to decide on a race to enter, you can spend ages comparing the various descriptions of them that organisers put up on their websites. Some are incredibly detailed, while some are unhelpfully brief. And often, they’re a little bit confusing.
You’ll often find that they’re peppered with odd phrases and bits of running shorthand that are, at times, a little ambiguous. One example of this is the term ‘undulating’, which crops up with unnatural frequency in race route descriptions. I explained the various meanings of undulating some time back, but there are plenty of other bits of jargon stuffed into race descriptions.
Here’s what some of them really mean…
Course profile descriptions
Flat: A bold statement, and reassurance that you can enjoy some hill-free running.
Pancake-flat: May actually be flatter than a flat course. Seriously, it’s likely to be flat.
PB friendly/PR friendly: Mostly flat, likely with a little bit of elevation change. You’ll find this phrase used quite a lot because, hey, who isn’t going to be tempted to enter a race on a course that’s easier to set a PB on. Because, let’s face it, finding a PB friendly course sounds a far easier of improving your time than training harder…
Undulating: a course that won’t be flat, but likely won’t be overly hilly. Or a somewhat hilly course that organisers don’t want to scare entrants off by describing as such. Read an expanded description of undulating here.
Challenging: There will be hills, and they will be steep.
Tough: There will be lots of hills, and they will be very steep.
‘You’ll enjoy the views’/‘Worth it for the views’: The ‘it’ mentioned here is, of course, a relentless grind up one or more ridiculously steep hills.
Brutal: Ye Gods.
Scenic: This sounds like it is a welcome description for a race, suggesting you’ll have nice things to look at. Usually it is, although beware: if this is the only descriptor used for a race, it might be because describing the course with any other terms would involve admitting it’s a grindingly difficult course that takes in hill after hill after hill.
Race course types
Out-and-back: This is a course that involves running somewhere, turning round and heading back. At it’s most extreme, the turning point is occasionally a traffic cone in the middle of the road.
Single lap: A course that starts and finishes in the same place, taking in one big loop. Always a good option if you like plentiful variety.
Multi-lap: A course that will take in two or more loops of a particular section of course. This is both good and bad. It’s good because you’ll know what you’re in for on the second lap, and can adjust your efforts to suit. It’s bad if the loop is particularly dull, or if it contains a tough hill – knowing you’ve got to run up a hill a second time can be a little demotivating…
Point-to-point: A course that stars somewhere, and finishes somewhere else. These offer maximum running variety pleasure, but can be a bit tough for logistics. Although when a point-to-point course is well organised – such as the London Marathon – you’d almost never know.
All-asphalt/all-Tarmac: Yes, this will be a course that takes place entirely on a sealed surface course. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be as smooth as you’d think
Closed-road: The route will take place on roads closed to traffic so, in theory, only runners will be on them. This is good, as it removes the always unwelcome prospect of being squeezed to the side by over-aggressive drivers who don’t think they should have to account for people running on a road (because they’re far more important, obviously).
Open-road: This route will take place on roads which are open to traffic. Which raises the, erm, always unwelcome prospect of being squeezed to the side of the road by over-aggressive drivers who don’t think they should have to account for people running on a road (because they’re far more important, obviously). To be fair, most motorists are very decent people who won’t mind slowing down and giving you room. Sadly, there are always exceptions to the rule, etc…
Mostly smooth with some slippery bits: there’ll probably be grass or mud. Beware if it gets wet
Occasionally muddy in places: will almost certainly be muddy in places.
Muddy in places: Pack your wellies.
Mixed-surface: This means the race will take place on – shock! – a mixture of surfaces. Expect it to be mostly fairly smooth stuff, but be ready for a bit of on-grass action and the potential for some mud.
Trail course: An off-road course. Probably bumpy. Mud often involved.
Race village/race festival: A selection of stands selling running products, offering massages and that sort of time. Sometimes these will be massive. Often they’ll be two stalls in the middle of a big field.
Club/county championship round: runs that are rounds of club championships will often attract higher numbers of runners than other events. And when you get to the start you’ll find most of them are wearing various brightly colours club running tops. But you don’t usually have to be a member of a club to do them.
Accurately measured: Some races really seem to push the fact that they’ve accurately measured the course to make sure it’s the distance that they’re advertising. Which seems an odd thing to advertise, because when you’re entering a 10k race, you’d basically expect the organisers would have checked the course was, you know, 10k long. Although a surprising amount aren’t. And yes, that includes many described as being ‘accurately measured’.
Certified course: Usually followed by a bunch of initials that are the name of a national governing body. This means the course has been verified by some official types as being of the correct length, so any record times set on it can enter the history books. Which matters, because of course you’re going to be running at world record pace (alright, it has an impact on club points and the like too…)
Read more running jargon busting here.
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.
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
Sample usage: “I’m not running tonight, I’m tapering.”
The concept of tapering before a big race sounds both pretty simple and amazing: less running, more resting. After you’ve spent weeks or months training for a long race such as a marathon, the prospect of not training is quite exciting. It sounds glorious, doesn’t it? Ease up for the big race! Stop running! Sit back and relax!
Of course, it’s not really that simple.
For a start, tapering doesn’t actually mean not doing any running. It’s about cutting back just enough to rest your body so that it can recover ahead of the big rest. There are plenty of theories about the best way to do this, from people far more qualified to make them that I possibly can. Most marathon training plans include a three-week taper, which cuts back the mileage you do around 20 to 25 per cent per week.
In short, tapering doesn’t mean that you stop running – most plans still include three or four runs on race week, albeit short distances at an easy pace. Still, tapering does mean doing less running. Still, after months of marathon training, that still sounds pretty exciting.
But here’s the thing… tapering isn’t exciting. It isn’t actually that fun. It’s actually really, really hard. It’s a nightmare.
Wait, how can doing less running be hard? How can spending less time pounding the pavements and more time with your feet up on the sofa be a nightmare?
Because, well, it is. Face it, by the time you’re three weeks out from a marathon, it’s pretty much all you can think about it. You want to be as prepared as you possibly can be. And, after months of training, your mind will likely convince you that the best form of preparation is… running. Training. Pounding the pavements. And pushing it.
It’s ridiculously hard to convince yourself that running less can help you run better. It’s tricky to fathom that easing up and going slower when you do go running can help you achieve more.
It’s a bit of a kicker that you spend weeks looking forward to the point of your race training when you start tapering… only to get there and find it really, really hard.
Sample usage: “Everything was going fine… and then I hit The Wall”
Also known as: The Bonk (as in ‘bonking’, snigger)
The Wall isn’t a real thing, of course. Well, unless you’re into those crazy assault course race things – in which case a wall is probably one of the less unpleasant obstacles that you’ll have to deal with. But since I’ve yet to branch into the world of such events (just don’t see the appeal…), I’m going to write about The Wall that you hit during long runs.
Most runners have heard of The Wall – and chances are most runners who have done a long race such as a marathon will have ‘hit the wall.’ But from what I’ve read, and people I’ve talked to, every runner’s encounter with The Wall is a unique experience. That, contrarily, makes it both quite simple to describe yet hard to explain.
In that way, for me, The Wall is something akin to The Force from Star Wars (bear with me here…). Those of you who grew up with the original trilogy came to revere The Force as a mystical, unexplainable, almost mythical power. And then George Lucas made The Phantom Menace, and introduced midi-chorions – small, microscopic creatures that group within certain people in high numbers, connecting them to The Force. Once The Force could be explained through (admittedly made-up) science, The Force suddenly became a whole lot less cool. (Well, that and the fact the prequel trilogy was a bit ropey…).
Likewise, The Wall can be explained through science: it’s the onset of sudden fatigue and exhaustion, when your running efforts finally deplete the glycogen stores in your body. Thats why it’s important to take on fluid, food and fuel such as energy gels when you’re doing a long run.
But science doesn’t really explain The Wall. Because it’s taken on a broader meaning, reflecting the fact that The Wall is really as much of a mental challenge as a physical one. Because of that, it’s quite an individual thing – so my description of it might not match up with yours at all. So what follows is purely my experience…
To me, The Wall is the point of a race where the pain and exhaustion hits you hard, and you start to wonder if it’s actually possible to finish. It’s the point where you find out what you’re really made of: do you listen to your brain and your aching body and stop, or do you shut it all out and find a way to push through?
I hit my version of The Wall somewhere in the 21st mile of this year’s London Marathon. My early pace had been to do miles in the mid-7m 20s bracket, and I’d begun to slow from that as I got into the second half of the race and my legs began to ache. It was tough going from there, but I kept pushing through.
In the 18th mile, my pace dipped to 7m 41s; the 19th and 20th miles were doing in 7m 55s and 7m 48s respectively. I’d slowed, but I was still holding on. Then came the 21st mile, which is somewhere near Limehouse in the section of the race that winds around London’s Docklands, and my pace began to drop off. Witness:
Mile 21: 8m 23s
Mile 22: 8m 30s
Mile 23: 8m 58s
Mile 24: 9m 02s
Mile 25: 9m 22s
Mile 26: 9m 49s
It hurt. It really hurt. Everything hurt. My legs burned with pain. My brain began to tell me that I was out of my depth, that I couldn’t do this. That my legs wouldn’t hold up. That I couldn’t make it without stopping. That, maybe, I couldn’t make it even if I did stop.
It took some resolve to press on, and to keep myself running at a reduced pace. I remember being passed by a lot of runners in those final few painful miles – and the only ones I was passing where those in a worse state than me; the one who were either reduced to walking (well, limping), or were forced to stop.
I managed to push through. You hear some people talk about breaking through The Wall and then speeding up again. I clearly didn’t. But nor did The Wall succeed in stopping me in my tracks. I managed to run to the finish line – even if the last few miles were probably more of a painful shuffle.
Anyway, that’s what happened when I hit my version of The Wall. But conversations with other runners and my basic common sense tells me my experiences are likely very different to others.
So, The Wall can be explained by talk of depleted glycogen and midi-chorians reserves (well, something like that), but it’s more than that. The Wall is the point where the physical and mental aspects of running a marathon converge to challenge you like you’ve probably never been challenged before.
My advice: when you hit The Wall, keep on running at it. That’s all you can do…
Common usage: “I did plenty of stretching before that run”
Non-running types must be quite bemused when they spy a pack of runners before a race. They’d probably see a big group of people prepare by contorting themselves into all sorts of unusual and vaguely uncomfortable positions – and all in the belief that such stretching will make them run faster, quicker and, er, better-er.
Most regular runners seem to have developed their own pre-race stretching routine. These vary, but usually involve some variation of lunging, squatting, strutting, jumping on the spot, hopping and folding one leg behind another.
It looks odd and it can be vaguely painful, but hey, if it improves performance it’s all good, right? Yeah, about that…
Thing is, there’s some debate about whether or not pre-run stretching actually makes a difference or not. There are, like, proper medical studies with fancy titles and everything (you mean you haven’t read Static Stretching Alters Neuromuscular Function and Pacing Strategy, but Not Performance during a 3-Km Running Time-Trial yet? AND WHY NOT?).
As a result of such studies, plenty has been written about the benefits or otherwise of stretching.
I’m not going to add to that here. I’m not a doctor. Not even close. So I have no idea if stretching actually improves my pre-race routine or not. At my level, I’m guessing probably not. And yet, before a run, I keep on stretching… and I think I know why.
It’s because I have to do something in the moments before a run (aside from going to the toilet, obviously). I need to distract myself, calm my nerves and all that sort of thing. And that’s where the stretching comes in. It’s sort of like my pre-run nervous twitch. And probably the belief that doing some pre-run stretching boosts my performance provides something of a psychological boost.
Probably. Either that, or deep down I cling to the hope that it makes me look a bit more professional. “Oooh, look at him, he’s doing stretches. He must know what he’s doing…”
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Sample usage: “I upped my pace and set negative splits in the second half of the race”
More common sample usage: “I tried to set negative splits in the second half of the race, but my legs ached too much”
Running a race with negative splits basically means running the second half faster than the first half. It’s that simple. Really it is. Your split times for the second half of the race are quicker than the ones you set in the first. See? Simple. That’s all there is to it!
In a perfect negative split race, every split you set would be quicker than the last. Like I said: simple.
Well, it’s a simple theory, at least. In practice…
In practice, setting negative splits means speeding up during a race, which means going faster around the point when you start aching the most. That’s why, in reality, negative splits aren’t so simple.
Running a race to negative splits requires a good deal of self-discipline, to ensure you don’t start out too fast – easy to do when everyone else near you at the start goes charging off. And then you have to work out how to keep upping your pace throughout the event without either taking it too easily at the start, or pushing too hard near the finish. Not so simply done – and it gets harder to do the longer the run. Negative splits in a marathon? No. Just… no.
But isn’t that the great challenge of running? Everything about running is pretty simple in theory. It’s just doing it that can be hard…
This is the first in an occasional series of posts explaining the real meaning behind various running terms
Dictionary definition: having a wave in form or appearance
Undulating isn’t the sort of word you hear every day – but in run course descriptions it’s so over-used it’s a bit of a cliche.
Why? Well, it’s probably because nobody really knows exactly what undulating means. You can work out that a course described as undulating will have some elevation change in it, but the description offers no real clue as to exactly how bumpy it might be. That makes it a useful word for race organisers worried that using phrases such as ‘not flat’, ’hilly’ or ‘steep in places’ might scare off entrants. Because running up hills hurts, obviously.
Essentially, ‘undulating’ is running shorthand for a race route that definitely isn’t flat, but probably isn’t punishingly steep (that’s what the term ‘challenging’ is for…). That’s my theory, at least.
Some organisers stretch the definition a bit, with routes that have surprisingly long and steep undulations in them, which seem far more like, well, proper hills to me.
Also, some organisers just use the word in slightly odd ways. One race I competed in had a course which, rather unhelpfully, was described as “both flat and undulating”…