Welcome to Earth

What is Bonking?

WELCOME TO EARTH: Fartlek Training

This is Welcome to Earth, the part of POSSESSED where we answer a really obvious question from a dopey little alien from outer space. This month, we received a letter from Borp McNelly, who hails from an unnamed planet hidden behind our Sun. Borp writes:

Hello, POSSESSED. My name is Borp and I come from a planet virtually identical to yours, but you can’t see us because we’re behind the Sun. Our existence was first theorized by your Pythagorean philosopher Philolaus in the 5th century BC. Turns out we’re real and we’ve been abducting you guys and harvesting your reproductive organs for centuries! Anyway, my question is this: What is ‘Bonking’?


Borp McNelly

That’s a terrific question, Borp. The short answer: ‘Bonking’ is running out of energy. But here’s the long answer.

The slang term ‘bonk’ was invented by someone from the UK cycling community in the late 1960s. Apparently, the word was first used by a fellow at either Oxford or Cambridge University in a conversation that may have sounded like this:

‘I say, Barnaby, I appear to have bonked.’

‘You’ve what, Charles?’

‘Bonked, old boy. I’ve run out of energy.’

‘Bonked! What a frightfully marvelous word—did you invent it, Charles?’

‘Why, yes, I did, Barnaby.’

‘Priceless! Shall we take tea with Bunny?’

‘Let’s shall.’


By the 1980s, the term had been adopted by the greater cycling community and later by non-U sectors of the running community. Bonking is a very unpleasant thing, not only because it means the end of the run (or, heaven forbid, race) for an athlete but also because it feels utterly awful. Bonking symptoms include dizziness, disorientation, tremors, headache, collapse (falling to the ground and not being able to get up), and, in more extreme cases, the Brown (complete loss of bowel control). But why does bonking happen?

Bonking is just another word for ‘hitting the wall’. The Earthling athlete cannot run anymore because the glycogen stores that fuel their muscles have been depleted. The batteries are completely drained, and the machine has stopped. To be clear, bonking is not that thing where a humanoid has run too fast or too far, and the urge to cease running is stronger than their will to continue. Determination has nothing over bonking. You can’t use strength of character to make a car with no petrol keep rolling, and you can’t will your body to continue running once you’ve exhausted all its juice. It’s over. It’s also very, very bad for an athlete’s overall health.

When an Earthling’s glycogen supply becomes so low that the body can no longer suck it up, the muscles begin to fail and the system ceases to function. Obviously, having your body shut down on you is not a good thing, and the side effects of this phenomenon can be dire. A human that has bonked may suffer significantly decreased immune function (exposing them to the on average 840,000 germs they encounter each day), the deterioration of muscle mass (your body eats itself to stay alive), cognitive breakdown (not knowing your own name and running headlong into traffic), and, as mentioned earlier, the athlete may be visited by the dreaded Brown.

What’s really interesting about the bonking phenomenon is that recent studies suggest the brain actually shuts down the muscles before the glycogen is entirely absent, thereby preventing any real, lasting damage to the body. Pretty cool if true, but what’s cooler is not taking the risk by bonking in the first place. To avoid having a bonk, Borp, ensure you’re well hydrated, you’ve timed your meals to best aid your performance (and of course, be sure you’re eating good food and enough of it), and definitely ensure you’ve had plenty of rest. If this all fails and you find yourself bonked in a ditch, call someone to pick you up and drive you to McDonalds (a kind of restaurant that almost sells food) so you can quickly replace all the missing calories before it’s too late.

I hope that clears bonking up for you, Borp! And if you’re an alien reading this and you have a question, you can write to us here!