What is Cross Country Running? A Brief History and Complete Running Guide

Cross-country running is a popular outdoor sport among many runners since it's the only exercise that is just sheer racing.

Unlike other running events, it doesn't have a predetermined elevation, time, or distance. Instead, this kind of running sport allows you and other athletes to run over natural terrain. This has several benefits, such as helping you connect more with nature.

But what makes cross country so special? How did this racing event come about? What are some of its benefits?

Well, I'll tell you all about it in a few. But, first, let's define what cross country running is!

What is Cross Country Running?

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Cross country was dropped after the 1924 Olympics, when most athletes dropped out because of extreme heat during the race. However, some people are advocating for cross country to be added to the Winter Olympics program.

Usually abbreviated as CC/XC running, Cross country is a long-distance racing event that takes place over open country. In essence, the cross country adopts the same concept as other distance running events like road running and long-distance track running.

However, unlike those running events, this sport doesn't follow paths or roads. Instead, runners (also known as harriers) compete to finish a course over terrain, including mud, grass, water, flat grounds, hills, and woodlands. Some common sites for this running event are; parks, forests, and golf courses.

In terms of distance, the cross country can involve long- or short-distance running on natural terrain. Specifically, it can be as long as 10 miles or as short as 3 miles. But as I mentioned earlier, distance doesn't matter in this running sport. Nonetheless, cross country runners have to prepare adequately for the race to enjoy the benefits of cross country running, like developing stamina and keeping fit.

What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is an outdoor competitive sport that’s almost similar to XC running. However, unlike cross country, the sport focuses on direction finding and map-reading skills. Also, it can be practiced by horseback riders, cyclists and canoeists.

Specifically, contestants plot their courses between separate control points over rough plains or hills and woods that should be visited in sequence. More importantly, competitors have to study the master map of the course, copy control positions on the maps and study the description and list of the controls.

In most cases, the maps used for this sport are drawn to the scale of 1:15,000 and feature 5m contour intervals. Moreover, competitors have to choose between more direct routes with obstacles like woods, water and hills, but that will depend on the terrain.

During the race, participants set out from the starting point at 1 - 5 min intervals, and use compass and maps to find, check in and punch/ stamp their cards at the controls. These controls are usually indicated by white & orange marking flags, and may be a few hundred yards or a mile apart. The winner of the race is the athlete who will finish the course in the shortest time.

Different types of orienteering

  • Line orienteering: As the name suggests, competitors taking part in line orienteering are supposed to follow the same course. More notable, visiting controls are only found bny participants that follow the designated route accurately.
  • Route orienteering: Here, the route is usually marked on the ground, instead of a master map. Moreover, the contestants have to indicate the locations of the controls on the maps.
  • Score orienteering: The most interesting thing about score orienteering is that the controls can be visited in any order. This is because the control points are set up in a specific area and assigned a point value depending on the difficulty or distance of the location.
  • Rogaining: This is a team version of contentious orienteering, with each team having 2 - 5 orienteers. The participants of this sport traverse a predetermined route with control points for distances of up to 62 miles (100km) for more than 12 hours.

A Brief History of Cross Country Running

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Humans have been running on natural trails since the prehistoric era when hunters and gatherers would run continuously for days or hours while hunting. However, running changed its focus due to agricultural advancements to become an essential activity for delivering messages or sporting events.

In the 17th Century, racing events such as 'steeplechase; and 'hares & hounds' became increasingly popular in the UK and Ireland. Steeplechase involved racing from the church of one town to the next on horseback, moving over streams, rough terrain, etc.

In 1838, the steeplechase riders of English Rugby school wanted a method to help them train during the off-season. As a result, they designed an on-foot, open-air run through rough terrain. Although this was unintentional, it became the 1st modern cross Country run ever! By the mid-1800s, cross country running had already become a competitive sport across England. For instance, a 2-mil cross country steeplechase was part of the Oxford University in 1860. However, this sport was replaced by the modern steeplechase in 1865.

The 1st official national championship of this track & field sport took place on 7th December 1876 in England. Unfortunately, this event was deemed void since all the participants departed the designed course.

In 1878, this sport was exported to the United States by Willian C Vosburgh, where it mainly served as training for Summer track & field Athletics. 9 years later, the cross country became a formal sport in the USA.

England competed with France in the 1st international cross country competition in 1898. But, the first global world cross country championship was held in 1903 in Scotland at the Hamilton Park Racecourse.

The IOC (International Olympic Committee) established the cross country as an Olympic sporting event in 1912. It became a popular sporting event for the Olympic games, but it was removed from the sport after the 1924 Summer Olympics. This was due to the severe conditions on the cross country course, causing many athletes to get lost or suffer injuries. More importantly, it was deemed as an inappropriate sport for the summer.

In 1973, the event was renamed the 'World Cross Country Championship', when it came under the jurisdiction of the IAAF. IAAF is an acronym for the International Association of Athletics Federation, which is the organization responsible for organizing the World Cross Country Championships.

Today, running cross country is an important part of school sports, particularly college, high school, and middle school track-&-field events. Moreover, many elite cross-country athletes advocate for the reinstatement of cross country racing as part of the Olympics.

Difference Between Cross Country and Track Running?

Track and cross country running are some of the most mentally challenging sporting events available. As a result, most people consider them as the same sporting activity. In the real sense, however, cross country and track running are very different since each sporting event is unique in its distinctive way.

Here are some notable differences between these sports:

1. Track running takes place on a 400-m loop, while XC runs on a course.

Schools and other institutions hold track events on outdoor/ indoor regulations tracks. This is intended to provide more consistent results and allow a smoother run. Specifically, track runners usually compete on a flat, all-weather surface.

On the other hand, Cross country is performed in open-air spaces over rough terrain, including hills, snow, and grassy areas. This increases the training intensity and makes it a bit difficult for runners since they have no idea what to expect. Besides, running races are done on difficult and uneven surfaces that range from mud to dirt to grass.

2. Track running has many events, but the cross country has one.

One major benefit of track events is that they attract many different types of athletes. You'll find jumpers and long-distance runners. Sprinters. Jumpers, etc. In other words, the track incorporates everyone you can think of on the athletic spectrum. The same cannot be said about cross-country, but it's outstanding in its way nonetheless.

3. Cross counter includes many more runners than track.

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Track running usually accommodates 8 to 9 competitors at a time. This is because a track has 8 to 9 lanes, making it difficult to have many athletes participate in an every at the same time. However, the same racing event can have different sections.

On the contrary, cross country runners are always running against many athletes. A cross country running event can even have as many as 300 people competing simultaneously. On the downside, people trip or fall over each other due to the number of athletes heading in the same direction concurrently.

4. Track running requires much more equipment compared to cross country.

Cross country running covers more distance than track running. However, the amount of equipment needed for track running is enormous, depending on the sporting event. For instance, cross country runners only need a jersey and running shoes, and they're good to go.

This isn't the case with the track as it involves much more equipment. For example, throwers need a specific heavy object depending on the event; whole pole-vaulters need a huge pole for skyrocketing into the air.

5. Track events take longer to complete As mentioned earlier, track competition involves so many events.

For that reason, a Track competition can take up to 4 days to complete. However, cross country involves only 1 race for men and one for women. So, regardless of how long the cross country race is, it will always end before Track.

How Far Do You Run in Cross Country?

The distance covered in a cross country race varies widely depending on the racers and the competition level. In general, local races cover shorter distances, while top international cross country championships cover longer distances.

With that in mind, here are some distances covered in cross country for different competitions:

  • International competitions. According to the IAAF, standard distances for international cross country competition should at least be (1.25 - 3 miles) 2000 - 5000m for women and 7.5 miles (12000m) for men. Due to these varying courses' difficulty, word records for cross-county aren't maintained.
  • US middle school distances. In most middle schools in the USA, Cross country races are usually between 1.5 miles (2.4km) and 2 miles (3.2 km) long.
  • US high school distances. Most high school cross country events are about 5 km (3.1 miles) long.
  • College distances. Cross country races for college runners have varying lengths. For instance, male runners can run between 8 km (5 miles) and 10- km (6.2 miles), while female runners cover 5 (3.1 miles) to 6 km (3.7 miles).

Cross Country Rules

Race Course

The natural terrain for cross-country races tends to vary significantly. For instance, the terrain may vary from forest hills to open fields or include running up and down hills and across the river. As a result, the IAAF hasn't established international standards for cross-country racing courses.

Generally, an international event course is a loop course that includes existing natural obstacles but avoids dangerous areas and high obstacles such as deep ditches. More notably, an ideal racecourse for a cross country doesn't cross a road. Instead, these courses are usually laid out in a woodland or open area. Golf courses and parks typically provide the best locations for cross-country running.

According to the IAAF, a cross-country course should have rolling terrain, be grass-covered, and incorporate frequent but smooth turns. Moreover, the course may have one or more loops, with a long straight line at the start and finish. In this regard, a racecourse for cross country running should have 440 - 1310 yd (400 - 1220m) of level terrain before the 1st turn. This helps to reduce congestion and contact at the start of the race. However, the 1st turn maybe after a much shorter distance, especially in smaller competition.

A cross-country course should be at least 5 m wide to allow competitors to pass others during the run. More importantly, the racecourse should have clear marking to prevent spectators' interference and keep participants from making wrong turns. The markings can include; cones, paint/ chalk on the ground, or ribbon/ tape on each side of the course. Alternatively, it can include colored flags to show directions and distance markings, usually after each mile/ kilometer.

Startline

Cross country runners start the race together from a starting line. At least 50 m from the starting line, an official fires a gun, sending a signal to the competitors to start. If some runners collide and fall within the 1st 100 m (328 ft), the official can call the participants back and restart the run. However, this can only be done once. Also, if some runners start or cross the start line before the official fires the starting pistol, the results of those runners are usually disqualified.

Finish

A cross country racecourse ends at the finish line like other racing events. The line is usually at the start of a long walk with flag markings (chute/ funnel) that keep runners single-file to ensure accurate scoring.

To track the finishing positions, finish officials collect small slips from each runner's bib, depending on the scoring system or timing.

Alternatively, the event may have 4 finish officials in 2 pairs. In the 1st pair, one official reads the finishers' numbers while the 2nd official records them. In The 2nd pair, the 1st official reads out the timing while the other one records. Once the race is finished, both lists are combined.

The major drawback of this approach is that the distraction can up[set the outcomes, especially when the runners finish the race close together.

Most cross country races are currently adopting chip timing to reduce the number of officials needed at the finish line and increase accuracy. Every competitor attaches a transponder with RFID to the running shoe in this approach. That way, when the athlete crosses the finish line, an electronic pad will record the chip numbers and match the athlete to the database.

Chipping is the most efficient technique for tracking runners. It ensures that each cross country runner covers the entire racecourse and enables officials to calculate the split times throughout the cross-country race using the checkpoint.

On the downside, this method is very expensive, yet it cannot separate a closer finish properly. Besides, chip timing checks the feet, whereas the rule books claim that it's the torso that counts. In other words, if the athlete's feet are too far away from the chip timing sensor, the finish will not be recorded even if they fall across the finish line.

In recent years, contemporary races have started using fully automated timing technology to increase the accuracy of their outcomes. This has significantly improved the timing techniques of cross-country running.

Scoring

Unlike other running forms, cross country is a team sport in international competition. Each team is usually made up of 6- 9 athletes, but only a certain number, usually 4, will score. In scoring, an individual athlete is awarded points depending on their position after they cross the finish line. For instance, the first place has 1 point, the 2nd place has 2 points and so on.

After that, those points are combined, and the team with the lowest score wins. In case of a tie, the cross country team with the fastest 5th/ 6th man is considered the winner.

The timing used to complete a cross-country race varies depending on the weather, terrain, and the other athletes. Therefore, 2 cross country runners competing in various places worldwide running at the same time may not be of the same level.

Is Cross Country Dangerous?

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Every form of running exposes you to the risk of repetitive motion injuries or impact injuries. Running over natural terrain and irregular surfaces adds to that risk by altering your gait and creating chances for acute injuries. Moreover, you may come across non-natural obstacles such as discarded bottles/ trash, twisting a knee/ ankle, or swerving suddenly to pull a tendon. Even worse, falling while running a cross country may cause head injuries and abrasions.

A typical XC course also involves twists & turns as well as short & steep downhill/ uphill. This rapid course change can expose your legs, hips, and feet to stresses and forces you may not experience when running on gradual inclines or level roads.

Overall, cross country is a safer outdoor sport than other team sports. However, it can lead to some potential injuries that every runner should be aware of before training or taking part in a cross country race.

These injuries include:

  • Runner's Knees: Also known as PFTS (Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome), the runner's knee is an overuse injury that causes pain around the kneecap. It generates friction that wears down the knee cartridge, ultimately causing osteoarthritis.

Symptoms of the runner's knee include feeling sore and stiff when you stand after sitting or resting for an extended period. Also, it can cause your knee to crack or crack while walking.

This injury usually occurs when the knee joint is misaligned. However, it can be worsened by any repetitive, high-impact exercise that exerts pressure on the knees, especially on an uneven surface.

  • Stress Fractures: This type of overuse injury usually occurs in the lower body's weight-bearing bones. It causes the muscles to become fatigued over time. Moreover, the repeated force and stress from pounding feet against the ground moves from the muscles to the bone. This creates small fractures in the bone that appear as small cracks. 
  • Plantar fasciitis: This overuse injury affects the foot's arch. It involves repeated, small fascia tears that run along the bottom of your feet, causing pain and inflammation. In addition, it causes stiffness and soreness allowing the foot's bottom, especially when running or walking after a resting period. Although the pain and stiffness subside as one moves around, the symptoms return every day until the injury heals fully. 
  • Shin splints: MTSS (Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome) is a running injury that occurs because of overtraining. It refers to a throbbing pain in the front of your lower legs and is more likely to occur in girls & women.
  • Muscle, tendon, and ligament strains: A pulled muscle/ strain occurs when the soft tissue in the tendons or muscles like glutes, calves, and quadriceps tear or overstretch. Other factors that cause strain include; jumping, slowing down, speeding up, and pivoting. Cross country runners, especially girls and women, should be conscious of this injury risk when making any of these movements. On the bright side, injury risk to the knee or ankle tendons can be avoided by warming up, cooling down, stretching, and leg toning. 
  • Achilles tendonitis: Cross country runners often tear, rupture, or strain their Achilles tendon when performing push-off exercises. This type of injury is mainly caused by a poor choice of running shoes and tight calf muscles. 
  • Heat illness & Dehydration: As you know, hydration is important for all types of athletes. Dehydration, especially when taking part in cross country races, can cause soft injury and heat illness. Although you can't carry water during a cross country event, make sure you hydrate before and after the run to maintain your fluid levels.

How to Prepare for Cross Country Tryouts?

Cross country running isn't an easy task, hence the need to prepare for anything that may cross your path during the race. For instance, you'll encounter challenging obstacles like rocks, streams, steep inclines, severe weather, etc. Thankfully, proper training helps to improve your performance by giving you the agility, endurance, and strength needed to complete the race.

That said, if you're wondering how to start cross country running, here are some training tips that will come in handy:

Wear the right running shoes

Make sure you find the perfect running shoes for a cross country race. But, they should not be too loose or too snug at the same time.

Finding the right shoes that meet the demands of your terrain and fit your feet perfectly may take some work. Luckily there are various outstanding options online and in nearby specialty running stores. For example, the best men's cross country running shoes include Nike-Spike Flat and Altra Vanish XC.

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Warm up & Cool down

Warming up before a cross-country race prepares your tendons and muscles, thus minimizing the risk of potential injuries like tears and overstretching. In addition, running needs more post-workout cooldown and preparation since it's a high-intensity workout.

It's also good to stretch regularly while training and preparing for a cross-country race. Both dynamic and static stretches are important since they keep your muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and joints healthy.

Nutrition & hydration

Eating a balanced diet while training for cross country is essential for enhancing running performance. Nutritionists claim that focusing on whole foods instead of overloading on carbohydrates gives you adequate energy to run your best. In addition, food fuels your body, helping it visualize what it needs for optimal performance. You can ensure you're getting sufficient nutrients by eating leafy greens, whole grains, and proteins.

More importantly, make sure your body is well-hydrated to avoid heat illness and injury. You can accomplish that by drinking lots of water after and before the run.

Practice on hills

Cross country courses have uneven surfaces and usually include elevation changes. Therefore, you should avoid training on a smooth indoor area, treadmill, or flat track. Instead, you should train outside on uneven terrains such as parks and golf courses or on hills. As a result, your posture and stride will change based on the elevations, preparing your legs and lungs for the XC racecourse.

Technique

Unlike treadmill or track running, cross country athletes must be versatile and prepare for changes in weather, elevation, and surface. Going faster will help to improve your running form/ technique. In addition, striking on your forefoot or midfoot offers a more stable landing than heel striking. Lastly, a cross country requires shorter strides since you'll be running on softer ground than pavement or track running.

Alternative environments

Cross country training is the same as training for track or long-distance road taxes. However, your training should incorporate mixed terrain, weather, and elevation. You can achieve this through activities like:

Training in the rain. Outdoor running means that you'll be dealing with various weather conditions. So, if you're training for a cross counter, don't wait until the perfect sunny day to head out for air. Instead, try and train in every type of weather condition as it will help you get used to running with it. However, make sure you check the weather forecaster to avoid training on extreme conditions like blizzards or tornados.

Running off-road. Mixing up your training surfaces increases your ability to handle any condition you may encounter on a cross-country course. Also, running on gravel, gravel, and dirt strengthens various stabilizing muscles used to endure more variable and softer surfaces. Make sure you keep your eyes on the ground to stay alert for any surprise hole, fallen branch, or rock you may encounter during the run.

Alternate your pace

Be ready to alternate your running pace between sprints and a slow, easy pace during your cross country training. More importantly, make sure you incorporate different types of running workouts into your training routine.

For instance, speed work will improve your overall pace, stamina, and endurance. While tempo runs, switch a fast pace between cool down & warm at a slow pace. In a tempo running workout, the fast pace should be a hard pace you can maintain for an extended period of about 80% effort.

Moreover, fartlek runs make the training fun by the alternating speed at random intervals. Specifically, they're free-spirited runs with no intended length of effort or pace. On the contrary, interval workouts alternate between short bursts of action and an equally long recovery or rest period.

Add strength training to your cross country training program.

In addition to speed work and improving running form, it's equally important to incorporate strength training into your routine. This includes exercises like yoga, Pilates, and weight training. These exercises give your body more muscular balance and improve its overall strength and conditioning. At the same time, conditioning the legs and core muscles provides more support for improved running form.

Recovery

After a hard or long run, give your body time to rest and recover by not running. Instead, perform some light exercises and cross-training into your regimen to keep blood circulating. Some great recovery exercises include yoga, walking, swimming, or riding a bike.

The recovery process can start immediately after you finish running by stretching while the muscles are still warm. In addition, ice the legs, put your feet up to promote blood circulation, and refuel with lots of fluids and nutrient-rich food.

Conclusion

Cross country running has unique tactical aspects that differ from other running forms. For instance, participants subject their bodies to the racecourse, elements, and fellow competitors. They usually run through snow or mud and withstand severe temperatures without special clothing or equipment.

More notably, most courses needed a mass start for the competitors, making it a bit difficult to pass the lead runner. So, if your cross country teammates get an early lead and hold on to it, your team will have an advantage throughout the entire race.

Lastly, to accomplish your cross-country goals, make sure you consider your nutrition, cross-training, and gear. More importantly, create and follow a well-guided training plan to prepare your body for the race.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. When does the cross country season start?

Cross country running usually begins in mid to late October and goes through to early March or late February.

2. Do Cross country runners run every day?

Many great cross country runners consistently run 6 to 7 days per week. However, if you're a beginner runner, start by running 3 - 4 days per week on alternating days to create recovery days. Also, incorporate flexibility and strength training into your regimen to help you accomplish your fitness goals.

3. What is a good running pace for women over 40?

A pace of around 1 mile per 12 minutes is a good speed for female runners above 40 years old.

4. Why isn’t cross country in the Olympics?

Cross country was dropped after the 1924 Olympics, when most athletes dropped out because of extreme heat during the race. However, some people are advocating for cross country to be added to the Winter Olympics program.


About the Author Treadmill Express plus

"Erik Brown" is the health and fitness author for treadmillexpressplus.com. He works with a team of committed experts to create detailed reviews and informative articles about health and fitness. For instance, he covers various fitness-related topics especially on workout equipment like treadmills, stationary bikes and more. If you want to make a wise decision when buying any training equipment, check out more of his unbiased articles."

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