You may have gotten used to getting both "gun" and "chip" times when you finish a race, but what exactly does this mean? How does it work? And in what ways does it affect the sport of competitive running?

Simply put, "gun time" refers to the time it takes you to complete the race, from when the starting gun goes off at the beginning of the race to the moment you cross the finish line.

Assuming, however, you don't begin the race right at the starting line, your "chip time" will be significantly faster. Instead of starting when the gun goes off, chip time begins the moment you run across the starting line, and because of this it's sometimes called "net time."

How does chip time work?

Chip time is actually measured by a small RFID chip — hence the name. It's sometimes attached to you by an ankle bracelet or a shoelace tag, but usually the chip is actually inside the disposable race bib that also displays your number.

When you run over special mats, an antenna sends out an electromagnetic wave. This then causes the RFID chip to send an identification number back to the mat, which in turn communicates this to a computer for recording.

These antenna mats are placed, naturally, at the starting and finishing lines of races, but also sometimes at intervals in between. This has the benefit of allowing runners to take home accurate split times.

The advantages of chip time

Taking part in a chip-timed race can be advantageous for a number of reasons. For one, it can mean less crowding. It can also reduce the chances that your competitors are cheating, since if anyone fails to cross the intermediary mats along the race course, it's clear they haven't fully completed the race.

If you're a runner who's mainly focused on your own personal record, then it can be a more accurate way of getting a sense of how you're doing from race to race, especially when the starting conditions of each race vary.

In general, if your own time is more important to you than place, you may find this net time more meaningful than what is recorded after the gun.

Is gun time the real time?

Currently, gun time is the only method of measuring time that's sanctioned for official use by the United States Track and Field Association (USATF).

A number of historical reasons no doubt came to inform this decision. Gun time also means that certain strategic elements of competition are represented in the final results and rankings.

In other words, gun time measures other aspects of great running besides the simple ability to run fast. Because of this, it will likely always play an important role in determining race results.

Critics of gun time

The discrepancy between gun time and chip time has naturally led to some controversies over the years.

In the 2008 Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco, for example, Arien O'Connell finished the race over 10 minutes before the supposed first-place runner — if you measured by chip time.

O'Connell began the race some 20 minutes after the gun-time winner, as she hadn't seeded herself in the Elite group, which began first.

In the Chicago Marathon of the same year, Wesley Korir of Kenya faced a similar set of circumstances, losing to a competitor with a faster gun time, but a slower chip time.

Which is Better? Which is the Future?

While the technologies that drive chip time are likely to become only more prevalant — especially as virtual racing becomes more popular — gun time is probably not going anywhere soon.

Knowing the difference between the two, however, can help you have a fuller understanding of your own racing ability and progress, as well as help you make decisions on how you want to compete in the future.