Chip Time With Running Races

Men and woman during ultramarathon race training
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You may have heard runners talking about their "chip time" from race results. Chip time is another way of saying "net time," or the actual amount of time it takes a runner to go from the starting line of a race to the finish line. This is different from the "gun time," which is the time elapsed from when the race begins (with a starter gun, horn, countdown, etc.) to when the runner crosses the finish line.

Chip times are usually faster than gun times because sometimes several seconds or even many minutes pass between when the starting gun goes off and when the runner actually crosses the starting line to begin the race. The amount of time that it takes you to reach the starting line (since most people are not right at the front of the race) doesn't count in your overall chip time.

Often, races report both chip time and gun time, but the official finish time—which determines who gets first place overall—is still the gun time. In races certified by USA Track & Field, gun time is used to determine world rankings, national age group rankings, records, and annual awards. Why, if it's less accurate? Aside from the role of tradition, some runners believe that the gun time captures some other elements of competition aside from speed.

If the person in the lead is viewed by others as the lead, that changes everyone's strategy. But if you don't know who's in the lead, because you don't know what time they actually started, you can't use this information to inform your strategy.

Chip Time Technology

Many races feature some kind of timing technology, which will be explained on the race's website (Do they use chips? What kind? Do they also use gun time?). Years ago, when you registered for a race, you received a borrowed chip, programmed with your information, at the same time you got your race bib. These chips often attached to your shoelaces, and they had to be returned at the end of the race.

Today, most timed races use race bibs with a timing chip or tag built right in. As you move across a special mat at the starting line, the chip registers that you've started the race. Then, as you cross a mat at the finish line, the chip registers that you've completed the race. Longer races often have timing mats placed periodically throughout the course, too. These track split times, and can also help prevent cheating since there is a record of runners crossing each checkpoint.

Benefits of Chip Timing

Most large races, especially marathons, now use chip timing technology. As a result, runners at the start can line up where it's appropriate for their pace, instead of trying to push their way to the front. For longer distances, the chip also records splits at various points along the course, such as the half-marathon mark during a marathon. This feature is helpful for your friends and family members who may want to track you online during your race, and you can analyze your splits afterward to see how you performed.

Even though the gun time will be your official finish time for the race, you can use your chip time to compare your results to how you've done on past races and see if you achieved a personal record.

Of course, one drawback of a timing chip technology (although most runners would never admit it) is that runners can no longer fudge their race times by subtracting more time than it actually took for them to cross the starting line. The chip doesn't lie.

Tips for Accurate Tracking

The chip is a strip of plastic either on the back or bottom of the bib, technically called a B-Tag. When you put on your race bib, make sure that you don't assume the B-Tag is an unnecessary part of the bib and tear it off.

ChronoTrack, one of the companies that make B-Tags, advises the following to ensure an accurate race time:

  • Make sure your race bib is clearly visible on the front of your torso.
  • Make sure your bib isn't folded or wrinkled.
  • Keep your bib pinned in all four corners, so it lays flat.
  • Don't cover your bib with clothing, runner belts, or water bottles.

By Christine Luff, ACE-CPT
Christine Many Luff is a personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and Road Runners Club of America Certified Coach.