What Is Cross Country Running? + Expert Tips On How To Train For XC

Plus, 4 Cross Country Workouts To Get Started On Your Training

Cross country is one of the sectors of running that is often overlooked by adult runners who take up the sport because it is primarily contested in high school and at the university level.

However, there are also cross country races for masters runners, and even if you have no intentions of training and competing in a cross country championship race, there are plenty of benefits to dabbling in cross country running recreationally.

In this cross country running guide, we will provide an overview of the sport of cross country running, what a cross country race is like, and tips for training for a cross country meet for the first time.

People running cross country.

What Is Cross Country Running?

Cross country, sometimes written as XC or XC running, is a discipline of running somewhat like trail running because it involves racing on off-road terrain such as fields, trails, golf courses, and forests. 

Instead of racing in regular running shoes, many cross country runners—called harriers—wear lightweight racing shoes with spikes or cleats to improve traction.

The cross country season is typically in the fall, whereas track and field are contested in the winter (indoors) and spring (outdoors).

Cross country is primarily a team sport, though some cross country events (also called meets or invitationals) allow individuals to run unattached.

The sport of cross country running has its roots in England, spanning back to 1883 when English rugby players were seeking a way to practice and train during the offseason.

According to USATF, the first English championships for cross country were in 1876, and the first national cross country championships in the USA were in 1883.1USA Track & Field | Cross Country. (n.d.). Usatf.org. https://www.usatf.org/disciplines/cross-country

‌The sport of cross-country is still most popular in England and the US, as well as Scotland,2Cross Country Grand Prix. (n.d.). Scottish Athletics. Retrieved February 14, 2024, from https://www.scottishathletics.org.uk/events/leagues-and-grands-prix/xc-grand-prix/ Australia, and Canada, but student-athletes and masters also compete in regional, national, and international cross country races in many other countries.

The pinnacle cross country running championships are the World Cross Country Championships, formally the IAAF Cross Country Championships, which is the international cross country meet that began in 1973.

Although the IAAF Cross Country Championships was an annual event, the World Athletics Cross Country Championships is now a biannual race.

Currently, cross country is not an Olympic sport, though there is an effort to add it to the Winter Olympics, and men’s cross country was briefly contested at the Olympic Games from 1912-1924.

People running cross country.

How Many Miles Do You Run In Cross Country?

Cross country races are usually 3k-12k, depending on the age group and level of the racers.

The distance for a cross country race primarily depends on the age of the runners competing in the event as well as the country or region where the race takes place.

There are some differences in distances for American vs UK cross country invitationals.

Even though the customary unit of distance in the US is miles, many cross country race course distances are measured in kilometers, owing to the British roots of the sport.

Youth cross country races and middle school cross country races are usually 3k (1.8 miles) or 2 miles long.

High school cross country running championship meets for varsity runners are typically 5k (3.1 miles) cross country courses.

However, smaller meets during the cross country season before state or national cross country championships might be slightly shorter such as 4k, or involve some random distance close to 3 miles based on the course layout where the race is run.

Women’s cross country races at the collegiate level are usually 6 km, and men’s collegiate cross country championships are either 8 km or 10 km, depending on the NCAA division and level of the race.

At the English National Cross Country Championships, senior men run 12km, whereas the senior women’s race distance is only 8km.

People running cross country with fans cheering.

How Are Cross Country Meets Scored?

In a cross country race, the top five runners score points for the team, with the sixth and seventh runners serving as alternates in cases of ties.

The lower the score, the better the team placement. Runners earn the same number of points as the place they finish.

For example, the first place winner scores one point for his or her team, the second runner to cross the line scores two points, the third runner scores three points, etc.

Therefore, the lowest possible team score in cross country is 15 points, as this represents the score of a team that “sweeps” the race, meaning all five runners have finished before the first runner of any other team.

How Do You Train for Cross Country Races?

Training for cross country running includes many of the same elements of training for trail running or regular distance running. 

However, it is more important to train on off-road terrain to replicate a cross country course.

Hill workouts are also particularly important because most cross country running courses are quite hilly.

The distances and types of cross-country workouts you should do will vary based on your age group and training level.

For example, training for middle school or high school cross country meets is going to be somewhat different than someone training for a masters, NCAA, or international competitions.

However, all cross country training plans should include workouts such as long distance runs to build endurance, hill workouts, tempo runs, interval workouts, cross training workouts, strength training, and strides.

People running cross country.

Tips For Training For Cross Country Running

  • Do some of your long distance runs and race pace interval workouts on grass, trails, or other off-road terrains.
  • Practice fast starts since cross country races often have a mass start that then funnels into a more narrow section of the XC course. Of course, you want to do a warm-up before you do this type of workout, but familiarizing your body with starting at a fast pace to get out off the line and then settling into your race pace is a great training strategy for cross country racing.
  • Running on an actual cross country course (such as your home course or the cross country course at the local college) is often the best way to find a safe, measured, appropriate course to train on, especially for tempo runs, fartleks, and intervals.

Here are a few sample workouts to prepare you for race day:

#1: Hill Workout for Cross Country Runners

Here is an example of a hill workout to prepare for cross country races:

  • Warm up 1-2 miles.
  • Choose a hill that takes 30 seconds to 2 minutes to climb at max effort, attacking each hill with good form. Keep your stride short but powerful, focusing on staying on the balls of your feet and keeping your cadence quick.
  • Run 10-12 reps at max effort, jogging slowly back down for recovery.
  • Cool down by running 1-3 miles, depending on your fitness level.

To best simulate race conditions, try to run your hill sprints on grass or trails.

People running cross country.

#2: 1,000m Repeats 

This speed workout is great for training for 5k cross country races. 

  • Warm up 1-2 miles at your easy running pace.
  • Run 5-6 x 1,000 meters at 5 seconds faster than goal race pace.
  • Cool down by running 1-3 miles, depending on your level and race distance.

#3: Threshold Workout for Cross Country Runners

Threshold intervals are run at your tempo pace but are broken up into shorter segments than a continuous 20-minute (or longer!) tempo run.

  • Warm up 1-2 miles at your easy running pace.
  • Run a ladder of 3, 4, 5, and 6 minutes of threshold pace with 60 seconds of easy running in between. Advanced runners can then reverse the ladder back down to 3 minutes.
  • Cool down by running 1-3 miles.

#4: Fartlek Run for Cross Country Runners

Here’s a fartlek ladder workout that the cross country team can do together, which builds teamwork and confidence for race day. 

Runners who are training for a 5k cross country race should just do one round of the fartlek ladder, whereas XC harriers who are training for longer distances should do two sets.

The effort for each interval should be 5k cross country race pace or faster. Slow down to an easy pace for 45 seconds in between each interval. 

Warm and cool down one mile.

Intervals: 1 minute, 1.5 minutes, 2 minutes, 2.5 minutes, 3 minutes, 3.5 minutes, 3 minutes, 2.5 minutes, 2 minutes, 1.5 minutes, 1 minute.

Whether you’re eager to get your kids started with running or want to vary your own training, cross country running is one of the sport’s most challenging and rewarding disciplines.

For more interval training, see this next guide:


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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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