A Trail Runner’s Vocabulary

“At bat,” “Scrimmage,” “Deuce,” “Hail Mary,” and “Knock Out.” Nearly every sport has its own vocabulary, including trail running. Familiarizing yourself with common trail running jargon can help you learn more about the sport and feel like a part of the trail running community. Listed below are some of the most common trail running specific words you may encounter in your racing and training. This list is not comprehensive and we encourage you to share with us additional trail running words you’d like to share, know the meaning of, or include in a subsequent article.

Vocabulary Signage

Trail Signage in the French Pyrénées. Many Pyrénées trails cross by mountain refuges where trekkers can spend the night. Learn more about mountain refuges.

Terrain Vocabulary

Single-track: Type of trail that is usually only wide enough for one person. Many trail races include sections of single-track, so be prepared as it may be difficult to pass other runners during these sections. (Photo top of page: Max King running snowy single-track at the 2019 US Trail Running Conference in Estes Park, Colorado).

Double-track: Type of trail that is wide enough for four-wheeled off-road vehicles and two-way traffic. Includes fire roads, cat tracks (ie: at ski areas) and other forest service roads.

Switchback: A sharp turn on a trail leading either up, or down. Typically on single-track terrain. To help prevent erosion, it’s best practice not to cut switchbacks. Is it ok to cut switchbacks in a race? Rules may vary depending on the style of race or where the race is being held. It’s best to ask the race director in advance what rules apply in their event.

Gnarly: A trail that is difficult and technical. “That section of the course with those giant rocks and crazy tree roots was gnarly!” Consider “gnar” for your vocabulary short-hand. There’s even a trail race called the Gnar Gnar in Oregon.

Signage: Indications along a trail that give information about the trail and where it leads. Signage helps trail runners avoid getting lost and find destinations, such as lakes and peaks. Signage is maintained by trail maintenance organizations or the US Forest Service. Click to learn about ways to maintain trail signage in your area.

Gear Vocabulary

Hydration System/Water Reservoir/Bladder: Hydration systems are used by trail runners during training and racing to carry fluids. They are often collapsible and can be stored inside a running vest or backpack. Most hydration systems carry between 1 and 20 liters of fluid. Popular hydration system brands include CamelBak, Nathan, HydraPak, and Osprey.

Running Vest/Running Pack: Small, lightweight backpack or vest that can be used during runs to carry gear, food supplies, hydration systems, or other items. Popular running vest brands include ATRA corporate members CamelBak, Salomon, Ultimate Direction, RaidLight and Nike, as well as other brands like Osprey and Nathan. Check out what’s in my running vest!

Poles: Poles can greatly add to a more efficient trail running experience, primarily while walking on uphills. Poles are especially useful in longer in trail running races with lots of sustained or steep terrain. Walking with poles can be a good way to conserve leg power as it allows athletes to engage otherwise unused muscles in the upper body. Learn more in our using poles for a more a efficient trail running experience article.

Sealed Seams: The process of covering clothing seams to make them more waterproof. Rain gear with sealed seams is more effective at keeping water out than rain gear with unsealed seams. Many ultra trail races require jackets with sealed seams in their mandatory gear list.

Drop: A somewhat recent addition to any shoe geek’s vocabulary. The height difference between the heel and toe of a shoe. Most running shoes are around a 10mm drop, which means the heel is elevated 10mm above the toe. “Zero drop” refers to shoes with no height difference between the heel and toe.

Technique & Training Vocabulary

Power Hiking: Technique used to move most efficiently on steep hills (above 15% grade). Knowing when to switch between running and power hiking can improve your performances in trail races with steep slopes and large amounts of vertical gain.

Vocabulary Power Hiking

Power hiking at the Broken Arrow Skyrace.

Tapering: Strategy of reducing hard efforts and weekly running mileage in the last few days or weeks before a competition to maximize performance. Tapers vary in length and intensity and depend on your race distance, personal preference and coaching style.

Strides: Short bursts of fast running, approximately 15 to 30 seconds at 85% top speed, which are performed after an easy run to improve speed and running form. Strides can also be used for warming up before intense workouts or races to prepare the body for faster running.

Competition Vocabulary

Grand Slam of Ultrarunning: Challenge to complete four of five of the most prestigious ultras in the United States in one calendar year. The five races include the Old Dominion 100 Mile Endurance Run, Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run, Leadville Trail 100, and the Wasatch Front 100 Miler.

DFL, DNF and DNS: Acronym’s are a trail runner’s vocabulary must haves. Dead Freakin’ Last (DFL) is the last person to finish a race, Did Not Finish (DNF) is someone who does not finish a race, and Did Not Start (DNS) refers to someone who signed up for a race but did not start.

Angel Pacing: The practice of offering oneself as a pacer to competitors during a race, usually an ultramarathon. Angel pacers can greatly aid runners who are unable to organize their own pacers or crew prior to the race. It is a true gesture of unexpected and random kindness!

Drop Bag: Drop bags are bags of racing supplies, such as energy gels, sunscreen, extra pairs of shoes, etc that runners are allowed to bring with them to the race and leave at designated locations along the course. Drop bags may be prohibited for certain races or only allowed along certain sections of the course, so make sure you check the rules of your race.

Crew: Group of people who accompany a runner to a race and help them with strategy, hydration, nutrition, navigation, motivation, cooling off/warming up, etc. In longer races, the crew can make a great impact in keeping their runner healthy and giving them the support they need to finish the race.

FKT and OKT: Fastest Known Time (FKT) is a record set on a particular trail. FTKs exist on routes up some of the most iconic mountains in the world, including Everest, The Matterhorn, and Kilimanjaro, as well on trails across the US. You can research FTKs near you on the Fastest Known Time website. Only Known Time (OKT) is a time set by an individual completing a route that had never been attempted before.

KOM: King of the Mountain (KOM) is a term used by the popular running application, Strava, to recognize the fastest male and female (QOM) on a particular route or Strava segment. KOMs and QOMs encourage runners to compete amongst their Strava peers and push themselves to run faster.

Vert: The amount of vertical gain in a given route. “Look at all that vert in the Speedgoat 50K course!”

Vocabulary Vert

Andy Wacker getting some “vert” at the 2019 GoPro Mountain Games.

Tayte Pollmann’s articles are supported by American Trail Running Association corporate member Nike Trail Running. You can follow Tayte’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you liked this article, read even more of Tayte’s articles on our website. Photos by Tayte Pollmann.

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