Cross Country Vs Track: A Detailed Comparison

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Young distance runners who are still competing for their school or university usually have “seasons” for running, with different running disciplines for each of the three seasons that overlap with the academic year.

In the fall, runners participate in cross country, winter is for indoor track, and the spring season is reserved for outdoor track.

This leads to the very popular and often hotly debated topic amongst teammates, “Which is better—cross country or track?”

Although subjective arguments could be made for either side of the coin—and we aren’t here to sway the debate in either direction—it can be helpful for newer runners to understand cross country vs track to see how these sports compare.

Most runners have a general idea of some of the main differences between cross country and track, but when you actually use a fine-tooth comb to tease out cross country vs. track, the differences are likely more vast than you think. 

In this article, we will look at cross country vs. track and compare and contrast these two disciplines in the sport of running.

We will cover: 

  • Cross Country Vs Track: Similarities
  • Cross Country Vs Track: Differences
  • Cross Country Vs Track: Training

Let’s dive in! 

A cross country meet start line.

Cross Country Vs Track: Similarities

Before we delve into the differences between cross country and track, let’s briefly discuss how these two sports are similar.

The most obvious similarity between track and cross country is that both sports primarily involve running.

Additionally, when just considering the track events in track & field, cross country and track require little equipment other than running shoes.

Moreover, both sports are often mistaken for individual sports, and while there is an individual component, both cross country and track are actually team sports.

For example, each individual runner will run of their own volition and their own finish time, but the races or meets are usually scored as a team. There are also relays in track, which are notably team events.

Both track and cross country share some of the same physical and mental challenges, and athletes who excel in one or the other tend to have the same athletic abilities, such as endurance, speed, strength, mental determination, high aerobic capacity, and good running form or technique.

A track.

Cross Country Vs Track: Differences

So, how do these two disciplines of running differ?

#1: The Terrain 

Arguably the most notable difference between cross country and track is the terrain on which the athletes run.

Cross country involves running on off-road courses, such as open fields, trails, wooded areas, forests, wood-chipped or cinder paths, or even golf courses.

In contrast, track takes place on an indoor or outdoor track, usually made of synthetic rubber, asphalt, cinder, or similar material.

The track is completely level (save for banked indoor tracks), so the running surface is designed to be as fast and predictable as possible. 

The distance of a track is almost always standardized as well, measuring precisely 400 meters for outdoor tracks and 200 meters for indoor tracks.

People running cross country up a hill.

On the other hand, most cross-country courses are quite hilly and may have sections of uneven footing, such as trails with roots and rocks or lumpy fields and pastures.

Any two cross-country courses can be completely different. One might be a relatively flat and fast golf course race course on groomed grass, whereas another cross country course might be almost entirely in the woods on a hilly trail.

The layout of a course can vary substantially as well. 

For example, you might have a cross-country course that makes one giant loop through a park, while another course might be an out-and-back up and down a mountain, or a course might make several smaller loops around a school and the neighboring forest.

For this reason, it’s sort of an exercise in futility to compare cross-country race times from performances on different courses.

Although the distance may be the same, the difficulty of the courses can vary wildly. 

With track, you know what to expect in terms of the course. The exact composition of the track surface may vary slightly, but for all intents and purposes, you can easily compare track performances from one race venue to another because tracks are all standardized in terms of distance and level surface.

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

People running cross country in the grass.

#2: The Weather 

Cross country typically takes place during the fall, while track is a spring and winter sport.

Depending on the climate where you live in the world, this may mean that the typical weather conditions will vary between the two sports.

Of course, with indoor track, you are competing inside, so any environmental effects are completely avoided. 

The championship season for cross country falls at the end of autumn, so it tends to be quite chilly and cold, whereas the championship season in outdoor track is at the end of the spring or beginning of the summer, so races tend to be quite hot.

Moreover, when looking at the impact of weather on cross country vs track, cross country is more significantly impacted by things like rain, snow, and sleet because courses get very wet and muddy, making footing difficult.

A track race won’t be muddy even on the rainiest spring day.

A track with starting blocks on it.

#3: The Length of the Races

The length of the races or the distances run are one of the other biggest differences between track and cross country.

The track race can be anywhere from a 100m sprint to 10,000m, depending on the age of the runners competing. The distance races max out at 3,200m for most high school competitions in the United States.

There are also specific distances, termed events, contested at each track meet.

For example, at an outdoor track meet, events might include 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, mile, and 3200 m, along with a handful of relays such as 4x100m, 4x400m, 4x800m, and a distance medley relay, which consists of a 1200m, 400m, 800m, and 1600m leg.

There are additional events like hurdles and field events, including various jumps and throws.

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

For example, most youth athletes will run just a couple of kilometers. High school runners in the United States typically run 5K cross-country races.

At the collegiate level, women run 6K and then run 8K or 10K, depending on their NCAA division.

Cross country runners.

#4: The Starts

Cross-country races usually have a mass start, where all the runners competing in the race start together.

There is usually a very wide starting line with runners lining up side by side across the entire length rather than forward and back along a narrower road, as with most road races.

After the starting gun goes off, runners might quickly funnel into a narrow trail or path, depending on the particular cross-country course.

In contrast, during track races, runners might use starting blocks (for sprints) and start in their own designated lane of the track, or they might line up along the starting line in a wave.

Cross country runners racing.

#5: The Competition Structure

In track, runners compete in heats, which are groups of runners. 

There might be one or multiple heats in a given event. The event’s winner is determined by the fastest time in the final heat.

Runners might be seeded by heat, meaning they get ranked based on their previous performance times and then grouped accordingly.

Runners may have to work their way through qualifying rounds, meaning that they will run trials, semifinals, and finals before the winner is crowned.

In cross country, all of the athletes compete together simultaneously, and there is only one heat, which serves as the final. The winner is the first runner to cross the finish line.

Runners lined up on a track ready to race.

#6: The Length Of a Meet

Because a cross-country race involves one single heat for the runners in a given division, a cross-country meet is usually over well before a track event.

Track meets span the greater part of a day, or even multiple days for championship events because there are so many individual events and heats for each event.

Cross-country runners will almost always race in the morning or early afternoon at the latest, whereas track meets can have events up until nine or ten at night.

#7: The Scoring

The scoring for track vs cross country is quite different.

In a track meet, the highest score wins. Points are awarded for your finish place in the event. 

For example; first place usually earns 10 points, second place usually earns 8 points, third place usually earns 6 points, and so on.

The total score the team earns based on how all their runners place in every event determines the winning team.

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.

A runner running on a trail.

Cross Country vs Track: Training

The training for track vs cross country can also be quite different, depending on the distances the runner competes in for each sport.

Track training tends to involve shorter distances and is more a sport of speed, so the emphasis is often on speed work and technique. On the other hand, cross country is truly a sport of endurance and strength, so cross country training typically involves longer distance runs, tempo runs, and some amount of speed work.

Given the differences in terrain for each sport, cross-country training should involve a significant amount of off-road running, whereas track training involves a lot of mileage on the track and roads.

Now that you have the similarities and differences clear between cross country vs track, which will you choose to tackle?

For some great speed workouts check out our interval training guide.

Runners running on a trail.
Photo of author
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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