The Difference between American Running Culture and British Running Culture

I got a couple of running magazines for my birthday, but they speak with something of an accent. Both of these magazines (Runner’s World and Men’s Running) happen to be UK editions — so even as I’ve been enjoying the information about different training plans and running gear, I’ve also been enjoying the cultural insights that come along with “running” through this particular corner of Britannia. Some of the differences are quite subtle and small, but other differences seem to be quite significant and meaningful. Maybe you’ll think these observations are silly, but here are a few of the things that I’ve noticed:

  • Units of Measurement – I expected this to be more of a point of cultural divergence than it actually was — with kilometers and kilograms to mark distances and weights, respectively — but I was surprised to find British and American culture more similar than I had expected, in this regard. Instead, the main point of distinction in units of measurement was the reference to body weight in “stone” instead of pounds: as in the headline on one magazine that read, “How I Ran Off 5 Stone.” The use of this unit of measurement was so prevalent that I eventually had to look it up — 14 pounds to a stone — but other than that, the only other pounds that caused any degree of confusion were the financial currency used instead of American dollars.
  • Vocabulary – Most Americans have probably seen enough British media to know some of the classic Britishisms like “niggle” (slight sensation of irritation) and “mate” (friend). Specific to running, however, I was most intrigued by the regular references to “kit” (running gear), “trainers” (running shoes), and “park runs” (shorter races organized by local organizations, seemingly an interchangeable term for a 5K). I can’t really think of any of these vocabulary differences that actually got in the way of comprehension (context goes a long way in helping with this) — but they nevertheless serve as regular reminders of the cross-cultural reading experience.
  • Grammar – The US and the UK seem to have significantly different conventions for usage of the singular and the plural. British sources will say “The team are…” (where American sources will say, “The team is…”). One article in one of my British magazines talked about a particular “sports drinks company” (whereas I’m pretty sure that an American article about the same company would call it a “sport drink company”). I still haven’t completely figured it out — and it just sounds weird to me, even though I’ve heard it many times before — but I think it basically comes down to the fact that British grammar considers a team to be multiple individuals who participate in a sport together yet maintain their individual identities in the crowd. Americans tend to think of a team more as a single unit. Does that mean anything significant? I’m not sure. I do find it interesting (and grammatically irritating).
  • Advertisements (or lack thereof) – I would guess that the British magazines have perhaps 50 percent fewer advertisements than any of their American equivalents. It takes a lot longer to read through all the articles in a British magazine, as compared to the time it takes to read through an American magazine — where half the time is spent flipping past advertisements. As a reader, this is pure bonus! As an American, I’m a little bit concerned what this says about the commercialism and materialism of our culture.
  • Attitude (or lack thereof) – In American running culture, the tone is all, “You are an elite endurance athlete. You must milk every ounce of potential for your next run. You must conquer the world.” In British running culture, it seems that the tone is more, “We know motivation doesn’t come easy, but we hope you’ll give this a try. You won’t always get a personal best, but you’ll have fun getting out there. Slow and steady ‘wins the race’ — even if it doesn’t win the race.” I could be totally wrong on this, but it seems like the motivations are very different. British magazines talk about training programs much like American magazines talk about training programs — except they measure the workouts in minutes not miles. I found myself somewhat irritated by this, but also intrigued. I’m not sure if one cultural vantage point is better than the other, but I wonder…

Again, it may be that I’ve dramatically misrepresented British running culture (if so, I’d love to be corrected!). And maybe they don’t mean anything about our cultures at all! But then again, maybe they do…

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