Our Complete Guide to Cross Country Running
Cross country is an amazing sport and activity, albeit a grueling and challenging one. Ask any cross country athlete and you will hear that the things you learn as part of a team often cannot be replicated in other facets of your life.
To put it simply: cross country running will change the athlete forever.
What is Cross Country Running?
Cross country is an amazing sport. You run cross country. Of course, this is a generalization. Sometimes you are running across an open field, other courses are through the woods. The athlete might find himself going over a bridge or stepping into a small creek bed.
Usually, athletes are running on natural terrain, although they might spend a few steps on pavement.
When running cross country, the athletes face adversity that track athletes do not face. For example, the runner might experience a muddy or flooded part of the trail. There are often hills to run up and down on a cross-country course as well.
Cross Country: An All-Inclusive Sport
When interviewing people and asking why cross country is so special to them, the one thing that comes up repeatedly is how inclusive of a sport cross country is.
Athletes report that anyone can try cross country and become a part of the team. Although varsity teams have 7 members, JV teams are often much, much larger.
And on these teams, the race is against the clock and the athlete’s personal records. The fact is, you are always in a quest for self improvement, in addition to scoring for your team.
How Cross Country is Scored
Similar to golf, the team with the lowest score wins. On the team, only the top 5 runners score. The athlete’s addition to the score is actually the place they finished in.
For example, if the top 5 girls on a team finish places 1st through 5th, you add 1+2+3+4+5 together to get the team’s score. If they finish 1st, 5th, 6th, 8th and 10th, you add 1+5+6+8+10 to get your team score.
Is Cross Country Running Hard?
Of course, it’s hard. Anything worth having is difficult. Think about it. You are running on grass, up hills, through trails, over bridges… it is a challenging terrain. No two courses are identical. And your goal is always to run faster.
You also have to keep in mind that since no two courses are the same, it is natural that you might run faster one day than the next. Unlike track, cross country is an entirely different beast each and every time you put on your racers.
Cross Country Vs. Track
At first glance, these two sports are quite similar. The first similarity is the most obvious: you run in both.
The track has field events that are not all running-related, but let’s focus on the track portion for the sake of simplicity.
In track, there are both individual and relay events. Also, the entire track team earns points that work toward a team total. You can win both individual and team accolades.
The track has shorter events, known as sprints. There are also mid-distance runners and long-distance runners.
In cross country, everyone runs the same distance. Cross country often features scenic views on different courses. You also have different terrain to contend with. Courses can be fast and flat, extremely hilly, or somewhere in-between.
How Long is a Cross Country Race?
Typically, a high school cross country course measures 5 kilometers or 3.1 miles. For many years, the girls ran a shorter course of 4 km. In many states, Wisconsin for example, the girls ran 4 km right until 2014 when the WIAA changed the rules to give the girls a distance equal to the boys.
Junior high athletes do not have a specific distance they compete at in most states. A junior high cross country course is typically left to the discretion of the host school, measuring anything from 1.5 to 2.25 miles long.
At the collegiate level, the men race anywhere from 8 km (5 miles) to 10 km (6.2 miles), with the women running a shorter distance. The females usually run anywhere from a 5K to a slightly longer course.
6 Tips When Training for Cross Country
When gearing up for the cross country season, you should be certain to have base mileage under your belt. If you start out the season without a base to work with, the season’s first weeks will be difficult.
Also, athletes who start from nothing can end up injured if they try to jump right into the season. For this reason, coaches encourage cross country athletes to run during the summer as they come off of track season.
As athletes work with their coach to come up with a training plan, it is important to keep these six things in mind:
- Run 5-6 days each week
- Take at least one full day of rest each week
- Your workouts should vary. Be certain to include speed work, hill work, Fartleks or tempo runs, and long, slow runs.
- Strength training is important
- Do not neglect your core
- Fuel your body properly; his means good nutrition needs to be consistent
- Get enough sleep
Extra Tip: Don’t neglect proper cross country running shoes. Click here to review our guide on finding the best cross country running shoes.
Don’t Overthink It
For any athlete contemplating joining cross country or a child considering it, the best advice is to stop thinking and give it a try. Honestly, cross country is a life-changing activity that cannot be replicated. This is especially true if the person has access to a have a coach who is knowledgeable about the sport and inspires all athletes.
Advice for Cross Country Parents
We asked former cross country runners for advice to give parents either on why their child should consider cross country or share their memories of positive aspects of cross country. This is what they said:
Christine Xydias: “As an adult now looking back on my HS cross country team, I see two messages that are some important and that kids don’t get in every sport (and don’t get in the classroom): (1) the importance of lifelong fitness as a goal — not trying to beat everybody, but to be your best self today; and (2) the joy and solidarity in cheering for EVERYONE!
You cheer as loudly for the frontrunner as you do for your teammate (or another team’s runner) who is at the back of the pack. You cheer for everyone, and you’re excited about and share everyone’s successes.
I was visiting my mom this past weekend, and on Sunday morning, I ran along an old route of mine from when I was a kid, and the smell of the outdoors in fall, specifically in the town I grew up in, is distinctive to me, because it’s packed with memories of team pasta dinners; cramming everyone onto the bus to get to and from meets; yelling and screaming for other runners.
The whole deal. I’m never going to make the Olympic Trials, but a supportive XC team, and supportive coaches, taught me to value being my best self today and to value other people striving to be their best selves, too.”
If your child enjoys being outside and thrives on breathing fresh air and beautiful scenery, cross country might be just the sport for them! This is what Allissa Baldwin had to say:
Allissa Baldwin: “I preferred XC over the track! I loved the longer distance, not always turning left, and new pretty courses each week. I also was much stronger from running on grass and trails.”
One of the repeating themes on the positive aspects of cross country for kids was how inclusive it was, that it is a lifelong activity and how wonderful it is to see athletes cheering one another on.
Lauren Thomas, “Cross country gives everyone a chance to grow stronger and faster, no matter their starting point. It allows for individual and team participation, and no other sport has the same level of community encouragement at meets.
Parents and kids from different schools cheer for their favorites but also support other runners. Plus, while it took me until my 40s to believe I could run, I have been able to encourage my kids to do something that they can continue throughout their lives.”
Therese Schwerer, “I ran XC from 7th grade – Junior year of college. I started on a whim, and it became an integral part of who I am today. I don’t think I would have returned to running in 2012 if I hadn’t had the XC background. I was never a star runner, but once I realized that if I listened to my coach, I could improve, I ended up being in a position where I could support and help my team at meets.
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