How Long is a Cross Country Race? Cross-Country Running Guide

How Long is a Cross Country Race? Running cross-country outside in rough terrain is a popular sport. Learn more about cross-country running and get training tips for beginners.

Cross-country Running: What Is It?

Cross-country running is a sport where runners (also called harriers) run on open-air tracks that incorporate natural terrain. The sport can be played by individuals or by teams. These competitions are usually held in the United States in the fall or early winter in the rain, sleet, or snow on non-paved surfaces such as grassy, muddy, hilly, gravelly, or flat terrains. Golf courses, parks, and forests are common sites for cross-country events.

The concept of cross-country running is similar to that of other distance running sports, including long-distance track running (which occurs on a regulation track) and road running or road races (which occur on paved roads).

Cross-Country Running Guide
Cross-Country Running Guide

A Brief History of Cross Country

Cross country running has its roots in the prehistoric world:

  • Prehistoric open-air running: Open-air running had existed since prehistoric times when hunter-gathers ran continuously for hours or days to hunt. As agriculture developed, running changed from a sport to a way to deliver messages or to host sporting events.
  • Seventeenth-century origins: Several racing events gained popularity in Ireland and the United Kingdom (UK) in the seventeenth century, including races called “hares and hounds,” “the paper chase,” and “the steeplechase.” Among the most popular of these races was the steeplechase, in which horseback riders would race from one town’s church to the next, moving over rough terrain, streams, bogs, and other obstacles.
  • 1838 Crick Run: During the nineteenth century, English steeplechase riders wanted a way to practice during the off-season, so they ran an open-air on-foot race through rough terrain, unintentionally establishing the first modern inter-country race.
  • 1912 Olympics: In 1912, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) instituted cross-country running like an Olympic sport. However, its tenure was short-lived since extreme conditions caused many runners to suffer injuries or get lost. After the 1924 Olympic Games, the IOC removed the sport from official sanction.
  • 1973 World Championships: In 1973, World Athletics (formerly the International Association of Athletics Federations or IAAF) began hosting the World Athletics Cross-Country Championships, the most significant major event in the sport, featuring runners from around the globe. The competition continues to be the most significant international cross-country event.
  • Recent cross-country running: Today, cross-country meets are an integral part of school sports, especially middle school, high school, and college track-and-field events. In addition, several high-profile cross-country racers are lobbying for the International Olympic Committee to reinstate cross-country racing.

Cross-Country Race Distances

Depending on the level of competition, cross-country distances vary widely, with longer distances for top international competitions and shorter distances for local races.

  • International competition distances: Regulation World Athletics distances for cross-country tracks are at least twelve kilometers (between seven and eight miles) for men and five kilometers (a bit over three miles) for women, often made up of several loops on a two-kilometer (one-and-a-quarter-mile) course.
  • US college distances: In the United States, cross-country runners race over courses of varying lengths, usually between eight kilometers (just under five miles) and ten kilometers (just over six miles) for men and five kilometers to six kilometers (just under four miles) for women.
  • US high school distances: In the United States, most high-school cross-country races are five kilometers in length.
  • US middle school distances: In the United States, most middle schools run two kilometers in length on cross-country courses.

5 Cross Country-Training Tips

If you’re interested in running cross country, here are some tips to get you started:

Find the right shoes: The right running shoes are essential for cross-country running. Cross-country courses can be hilly, grassy, snowy, and slick, so racing shoes with high traction are not needed for track running because tracks are grippy and easy to run on. Many runners opt for shoes with metal spikes (often called cross-country spikes) or shoes designed for trail running when the course is hilly or rough.

Practice on hills: Since cross-country courses are uneven and often include elevation changes, avoid practicing on a flat track, treadmill, or smooth indoor area. Instead, run outdoors on hills or on rough terrains like golf courses and parks to prepare your lungs and legs for the cross-country course.

Avoid focusing on pace: If you have a running background—either as a track runner or distance runner—you’re likely very familiar with closely tracking your race pace and personal records to ensure the consistency of your runs. Despite the importance of pacing in cross-country races, uneven terrain will make runs less predictable and more difficult to track and control in seconds and minutes. If you’re running cross country for the first time, spend your time getting a feel for it and avoid paying too much energy on the numbers.

Maintain a base: Cross-country running is an endurance sport, so you can’t start practicing a week before the race and expect to win. Instead, it would be wise if you built up a firm, consistent foundation of runs to prepare your body and mind for the challenge. While cross-country runners run year-round, they do rough terrain runs during cross-country season and other races or cardio-based activities during the offseason.

Training with your team: Some cross-country runners run individually, while others run as part of a team, accumulating points during races and keeping a healthy pace for the best team score. If you’re starting, open a line of communication with your cross-country team members. By observing and talking to other cross-country runners, you can learn many best practices and local tips.

Difference Between Cross Country and Track

There is one key distance between cross-country races and track races: location. In cross country, races are open-air events across rough terrain, usually including grassy areas, hills, and even snow, which increases the difficulty for runners. By contrast, schools and other organizations hold track races on indoor or outdoor regulation tracks, allowing for a smoother run and more consistent results.

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