Cross Country Running: A Beginners Guide

Cross country running can seem like a daunting hobby to take up, especially if you’re new to running in the first place.

You might not know what to wear, how to train the most effectively, or what to expect at all when it comes to cross country running. That’s where we come in.

Cross Country Running: A Beginners Guide

This article is going to walk you through cross country running, from start to finish. We’ll cover ground that includes what the sport entails, some of the great benefits of it, and some tips on what type of gear you’ll need to get you started so that you can keep going. 

Let’s learn to walk before we run, and start by explaining exactly what cross-country running is.

What is Cross Country Running?

Cross country running involves running a distance of anywhere between 2.5 miles and 7.5 miles, traveling across multiple different types of terrain, including the ups and downs of hills, through muddy puddles, and over obstacles. 

Originally known as “hare and hounds” or referred to as “the paper chase”, cross country running as a sport dates back to around the nineteenth century, with the first official race taking place in 1876 followed by the first international race happening in 1903. 

It’s a form of running that’s practiced all over the world, and people now compete internationally with several big-league competitions happening all year-round. 

When is the Best Time for Cross Country Running?

The cross country season is considered to start around early October and runs right through until February, although it’s also been known to be pushed back to early March at the latest. 

There’s a certain risk of injury when you’re running on muddy terrain, so it’s important to consider your health and always take the time to recover fully before returning if you have experienced an injury. 

Because this is a pretty wide time frame, it’s sometimes about training smarter, not harder, to make sure that you can continue participating for the whole season.

Is it as Gruelling as it Sounds?

We admit the thought of just taking off and seeing how long you can keep running for is pretty daunting; we’re not saying it’ll be easy.

But one thing that’s often overlooked is just how fun cross country running is. There’s nothing more exhilarating than pushing yourself to your absolute limits whilst dodging and weaving obstacles and puddles in your path. 

While that might sound great, like we said, it can be a challenging hobby at times, and you’ll certainly see just how capable you truly are.

We’ve already mentioned that injuries are not uncommon, so to reiterate it’s really important that you take care of yourself and don’t try to do too much, too soon. 

So… Where to Begin?

If you’ve stumbled across this article, you’re probably new to if not a complete novice when it comes to cross country running, so you might be wondering, where do I even start? 

Start off gradually as you build muscle and get your body used to moving in a new running rhythm. Don’t push yourself too hard at this point, as it’s about warming up rather than pushing your limits just yet. This will also help to reduce the risk of injury. 

For those who are already used to running year-round, we recommend taking a short break before taking up your cross country training as this will give you body and chance to heal and rest up in physical preparation, as well as allowing you to mentally prepare. 

How to Train for Cross Country Running

Once you’ve built up some strength and stamina, you can start to really throw yourself into your cross country training. Consistency is key, here, as you’ll want to maintain a steady amount of progress rather than taking time off here and there and letting it lapse. 

The results are dictated by effort rather than pace when it comes to cross country running because, on top of pace, you also need to think about the terrain you’re traveling over, the elevation level, and any obstacles that may pop up in your path. 

This makes it more difficult to keep up a consistent rhythm so you are required to keep pushing yourself periodically, and you must meet it each time with your full effort. 

To prepare yourself for the challenges of such a demanding terrain, it’s important to begin with your foundation training. This should consist of long runs every week as well as a mix of interval sessions, recovery runs, and tempo runs, and then you can start to incorporate these same training methods on alternative terrain to the pavement. 

There’s Going to be Hilly Road Ahead

Hills are what every cross country runner dreads when they first start out, but you’ll learn to love them as you start to want to push yourself to go further, faster.

They force us to crank it up to maximum effort and they test the upper limits of our capabilities, so they’re an essential part of your training. It sucks, but it makes us better cross country runners, so we suck it up. 

If you were to take it competition level, you’d typically be racing on a course with a variety of terrains, including short and long hill inclines, so it’s good to get some practice in so your body is used to performing under these conditions. 

So Should I Stick to Just Hills?

Yes, hills are important, but they shouldn’t be the only aspect of your training as you’ll need to do more to succeed in cross country running. You should still be including varied speeds and interval work into your training as well, as this will be more beneficial in the long run.

If you’re looking for a bit of inspiration for where to start, here are some examples of beginner hill workouts that will help you to develop your ability and progress your training. 

Before attempting any sort of run or workout it is absolutely essential to stretch out and get yourself properly warmed up, as this will help to reduce the risk of injury.

Don’t forget that this applies to post-workout too, as you should also remember to always warm down after exercise to prevent your muscles from seizing up. 

Beginner Hill Workout - Option 1:

  1. Find yourself a nice hill. Try to find one that’s around 800m in length, although finding the perfect hill might be easier said than done depending on where you live. 
  2. Start to run up the hill using a challenging yet still manageable amount of effort. 
  3. Repeat this 6 times, or 8 as a maximum if you’re looking to really push yourself.

Beginner Hill Workout - Option 2

  1. Try to find a hill that looks pretty steady with approximately a two miles distance. 
  2. Start to run up the hill at a 10 to 15-minute tempo. 
  3. Jog back down the hill, using this descent to recover. 
  4. Repeat this 3 times if you can, or 2 if you’re starting to struggle.

Keep it Varied

Now you’ve got the basics down, you can start to mix up the terrain that you’re running on which is the next step in your cross country training.

Once you’re feeling confident, you can start testing out how you fare on an uneven surface, through mud, over grass, and even softer types of dirt. These are all types of terrain you could experience in a real competition. 

This advances your training because it’ll start to push you in new ways, and it requires more energy and effort from you so you can start to build up better stamina.

Whether you’re performing one of the hill workouts from above or doing something from your regular repertoire of runs, making the transition to different terrains can do wonders for your progress. 

When you’re running on softer ground, it’s less taxing on your joints and it can give your body to rest up and have a break from the more challenging demands, so it’s important to still incorporate some softer runs into your routine as well as multi-terrain runs.

Next Up:200m Sprint Intervals Practice  

Being able to get a head start on your fellow cross country runners can be the difference between first and second place, so being able to put some power into your takeoff will be extremely beneficial come competition day if you’re looking to finish in a high position. 

The 200m interval sprint is perfect to incorporate into training because it will teach your body to get off to a quick start and you’ll have better conditioning and muscle memory to rely on an actual day.

Follow up your sprint with a steady pace for a few minutes, then repeat the rep and continue to do this until you feel like you’ve reached your limit. 

Through this, you’ll also get better practice at running on tired legs and you’ll learn how to effectively pull from those energy reserves that are buried deep within you which you so heavily rely on in this sport. 

Should I Be Wearing Special Gear?

It’s not so much special gear that it should be the right gear, as otherwise, you’ll find yourself in quite some discomfort, quite quickly.

While it’s harder to go wrong in the shorts and sports top department, finding the perfect shoe is another subject entirely. 

What is the Best Type of Shoes for Cross Country Running?

Your feet are literally the two things that carry you through your cross country running training, so it’s important to give them the support they need as otherwise, you could be at risk of serious injury. Getting this right can even improve your overall performance. 

The two main types of cross country running shoes are x-country shoes, cross country running spikes, and trail running shoes.

Running spikes are the most popular choice by a mile as they don’t carry much additional weight and they have more cushioning than track spikes.

But beyond this, how do you know which running shoes are going to be the best for you? This next part of the article will feature reviews of five of the best options for cross country running shoes that are currently available.

The Best Five Shoes for Cross Country Running

OUR TOP PICK

ASICS Men's Frequent Trail Running Shoes, 10, Grand Shark/Peacoat

When it comes to cross country running, comfort is key. Having a great pair of running shoes to train in will make the entire experience a lot more enjoyable, and there will be less chance of injury which could soon cut your season short.

The reversed lug outsole is perfect for frequent trail runs as they provide excellent grip, and the traction they deliver will help you manage even the steepest of uphill battles.

The shoes feature a close weave mesh upper so your feet will stay dry and cool whilst simultaneously preventing dirt or debris from ending up inside, so there’ll be no irritation and no need to stop to pick a stone out of your shoe mid-run. 

They’re also super durable which is essential for outdoor, cross country running, so you won’t have to worry about running through too many pairs too quickly. They may not be cheap, but they offer fantastic performance for cross country running enthusiasts. 

Pros:

  • True to size and highly comfortable 
  • Durable option 
  • Designed for trail running with a patterned reversed lug outsole
  • Great value for money
  • Combines style and substance in a shoe you can count on 
  • Cushioned and supportive for your feet

Cons:

  • Insoles are glued and not removable

EDITORS CHOICE

Salomon Men's Speedcross 4 Trail Running, Black/Black/Black Metallic, 9

Slightly more expensive are these Salomon’s Speedcross 4 running shoes, designed especially for use on trails and various surfaces with an aggressive grip and great traction even on softer ground.

These 4th Gen sneakers feature a contragrip outsole with deep, sharp lugs and they provide the perfect combination of durability and adhesiveness.

There’s also a lightweight muscle midsole that’s cushioned for comfort, which is 30 mm by 20 mm with a 10 mm drop, and this offers an additional layer of protection during training.

With a custom foothold featuring SensiFit and Quicklace, the fit feels like it was made just for you and they sit snugly around your ankle for added support, so you’re less likely to experience an injury. 

The only problem we could find with these sneakers is the fact that they offer no waterproof protection, so they’re likely a less durable option than some of the other shoes we’ve included in this list. 

Pros:

  • Excellent traction and grip on uneven or soft surfaces
  • Muscle midsole provides additional comfort 
  • Secure, snug fit thanks to SensiFit and Quicklace closure
  • Precise foothold 
  • Great ankle support 
  • Lightweight
  • Designed specifically for trail runs

Cons:

  • Slightly more expensive
  • No waterproof protection

BEST VALUE

Saucony Men's Kilkenny XC 8 Flat Cross Country Running Shoe, Pine, 11

The last of the men’s shoes are the Saucony Kilkenny Xc 8 cross country running shoes, great for both training and racing alike. They provide a great fit and customers have happily reported that they’re true to size.

The shoes are manufactured using synthetic and mesh material and the soles are made from rubber. Breathability is one of the key advantages of these cross-country running shoes thanks to the mesh upper, plus, 3D printed overlays enhance the support for your feet and arches as well as being lightweight, so the overall shoe isn’t too heavy.

The molded EVA is also lightweight and provides extra comfort, cushioning, and durability. For added flexibility, there is a carbon rubber outsole which also helps with the traction of the shoes, although there are no spikes to dig into the ground. 

Pros:

  • Designed for cross-country running 
  • Synthetic and mesh material is lightweight 
  • Breathable mesh upper 
  • Provides great support thanks to 3D printed overlays 
  • Molded EVA provides extra comfort 
  • Flexible as well as secure as they fit well 

Cons:

  • No spikes which would provide additional grip

RUNNER UP

ASICS Women's Gel-Venture 7 Shoes, 8, Black/Silver

For women, we recommend the ASICS Gel-Venture 7 running shoes which are available in a wide range of different sizes and colors. They’re made using high-quality synthetic and mesh materials and there’s a rubber sole to run on.

The reputable brand doesn’t just rely on its reputation, as it really delivers on the assured support, comfort, and response that are promised, ensuring you always have the edge in your races or training.

These are a great choice for anyone with neutral to under pronation, and the lightweight cushioning provides enough support and flexibility without adding weight to the shoe.

They feel great on your feet and you’ll feel great while you’re running as the Rearfoot Gel cushioning system bears the brunt of any impact shock even on bumpy terrain.

Pros:

  • Best support option for neutral to under pronation 
  • Trail-specific outsole with reversed lugs to help with any uphill battles on your route
  • Removable foam insole 
  • Highly supportive
  • Highly AHAR rubber outsole 
  • Durable mesh and synthetic upper materials 
  • Absorbs some of the impact shock for you to protect your joints

Cons:

  • Colors are slightly different from what’s shown in the product images 
  • Expensive option

RUNNER UP

New Balance Women's Fresh Foam Arishi Trail V1 Running Shoe, Black/Purple/Neo Violet, 8

Lastly, we also have the New Balance Women’s Fresh Foam Arisishi Trail V1 running shoes. They’re similar to the previous pair in terms of price, but they offer a smaller selection of color choices and focus more on data-driven design.

This means that research is at the heart of these shoes, with features such as the Toe Protect technology, which protects your toes against rocks, roots, dirt, and debris, to keep you safer while you’re on the trail.

They provide great traction thanks to the durable AT Tread dual lug outsole which is perfect for when you’re both on and off-road, so you can mix up your training with just one pair of sneakers.

The no-sew upper ensures a sleek, snug fit and feels super comfortable and lightweight despite what you’d think from looking at them. Each shoe has a fresh foam midsole and an EVA foam insert for even higher levels of comfort.   

Pros:

  • Stylish and supportive 
  • The design was driven by data and research 
  • Toe Protect technology 
  • Lightweight and comfortable to wear 
  • Trail-ready straight away 
  • Breathable and non-sweaty

Cons:

  • Little to no padding on the tongue 
  • Not always true to size so it’s important to double-check the size-guide

What Should Your Strategy Be? 

So, now you have hopefully found the right shoes, what should your strategy for race day be? Do you even need a strategy, or are you confident enough that you could turn up on the day and make the best of any course you end up competing on?

You don’t need to map out every step of your track, but practicing at least some type of strategy in the lead up to your race is one of the best ways for you to build your confidence up so that you feel sure of your strengths and aware of your weaknesses. 

Here are some useful tips and tricks we would encourage you to think about when coming up with a race strategy: 

  1. Try to have a good head start so you don’t end up stuck behind the runners in front of you when it comes to coming round those first few bends in the route. 
  2. Focus on the level of effort you’re putting into your cross country run rather than keeping your eye firmly on the speed or step tracker on your watch.
  3. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the number of people ahead of you, just think about overtaking them one by one, ticking them off like a checklist in your head. 
  4. Don’t allow yourself to be disheartened if you don’t get off to a good start, as you can still bring it back later on in the race. Basically, don’t count yourself out too early. 
  5. Last but not least, remember that you’re supposed to be having a good time! Enjoy it.

The Finish Line

You’re on the home stretch of this article now, so we wanted to leave you with the answers to a few frequently asked questions in case there’s anything we didn’t cover in the article.

Otherwise, we hope that you’ve found it helpful and that you’re one step closer to your cross country running goals! 

Do you really need shoes that have spikes or studs?

Your personal preference will dictate whether or not you should have spikes or studs on your cross country running shoes, but generally, they can be a great addition and can be particularly useful when running on wet or muddy course conditions. 

Can you run cross country indoors?

Nope, cross country running is, by definition, a sport that takes place outdoors on a variety of different terrains and in all weather conditions.

However, you can always train indoors before moving to a more challenging track. 

What is the average mile time for a cross country runner?

Whilst this question obviously depends on the circumstances of the runner, the average mile time for a non-competitive, in-shape cross country runner is around 9 to 10 minutes.

Not quite hitting that yourself? At least it’s something to work towards! 

Suzie

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