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How to Run Cross Country

Four Parts:Training for Cross CountryRunning Cross Country RacesImproving Your PerformanceFinding Motivation to Continue Training

Cross country is sometimes a hard sport to tackle, but it's extremely rewarding because you feel like you've really achieved something incredible after completing a run. Cross country running can take place over grass, mud, dirt trails, rocky areas, water, hills, etc. – almost anywhere off-track or off-road. Although it can feel punishing at times, in the end, the physical results and the friendships built by common suffering are definitely worth the training and far outweigh the pain involved.

Part 1
Training for Cross Country

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    Prepare your gear. The beauty of all types of running is the low level of equipment needed and cross-country running is no different. You'll need shorts or running pants, shirt, a layer or two if you're headed somewhere high (like mountain trails), a drinking bottle or bladder for water, and some running shoes. If you're running anywhere that could cause safety issues (for example, on a trail also used by cyclists or ATVs etc.), wear a safety vest or bright colors as well. Look for sportswear that breathes well when you sweat and a water bottle or bladder that attaches to you and can be used while you're running. It is recommended that you splash out and buy two pairs of shoes:
    • The first pair is for practice. This pair should be well cushioned, or else you'll develop blisters or shin splints from the impact with the ground.
    • The second pair of shoes should be cross country spikes (or flats, if your courses involve paved roads). This pair is for racing. It is a much lighter pair and has thinner cushions for a lower center of gravity. Do not wear these to practice, for they wear out quickly. Also, wearing spikes or flats during practice may lead to an injury because they're not as cushioned as practice shoes.
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    Always warm up and stretch. A warm up should be a couple of laps to a couple of miles or slow running or even walking, depending on how long you have been running. A good method is to walk briskly for 5 minutes, then to run at your pace for a few minutes.[1] This will raise your heart rate and cause a sweat to break. After you've warmed up, stretch. Stretching will prevent or lessen your chances of injury.
    • Don't forget to warm down at the end of training or racing, too. Walk briskly for 5 minutes at the end of your run. Then stretch. It's more important to stretch after you run than before you run. Stretching after you run prevents injuries and works well because your muscles are warmed up and will be at their most flexible, reducing the possibility of pulling them.
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    Take things slow at the beginning. It's a good idea to start slowly and build your strength, stamina, and enthusiasm for the sport. Running hard at the start will likely put you off and cause you to give up. In the beginning, don't tackle seven miles in a single run. Initially, run just to familiarize yourself with how the different types of terrain feel under your feet, and how your body responds to running up and down hills and over rocky, bumpy, uneven surfaces, etc. Don't race at this stage; just get used to running on as many differing surfaces as possible.
    • Find a suitable place to begin cross-country running. Good choices include local parks (keep off the paved areas), trails in your area, hills, and even botanical gardens if you're allowed to run on the grass and mud! If you can map out the suitable places to run in advance, this will cut down on time spent searching for suitable locations.
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    Build your abilities. Start with the mile trial. Most runners will ask one another what their best mile time is, so this is the perfect place to start as it will give you an idea of your current pace.[2] A mile is equivalent to four laps of a standard running track and gives you a good indication of your speed, ability, and stamina over this initial distance.
    • Run at a pace that slightly pushes you but doesn't cause you to struggle; don't worry if you can't do this at the beginning since this is just about defining where you are at the start, and you'll soon start improving. Time the mile run and work out your running pace – it's a pace that is 1 to 2 minutes slower per mile than your mile trial time.[3] Keep running the mile at your initial pace until you feel ready to move on.
    • Move up to two or three miles or kilometres, and keep working your way up. For novices, runs longer than 10 miles (16 kilometres) will hurt you, for more experienced runners, more than 16 miles (25.7 kilometres) in a run will do more harm than good. Use an easy pace at 2 to 3 miles (3 to 5 kilometres), about 3 to 5 days a week over a few weeks.
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    Focus on long-term improvement. Give yourself permission to take as long as you like to build up your strength, stamina, and interest in this sport. It's not a race to get ready; the race is when you are ready and on the track competing with others. Until then, take it steady and enjoy the training. And don't be afraid to walk in between runs; experienced runners mix running and walking to break down training into smaller chunks and to increase your ability to run for longer periods of time (vital for cross-country running).
    • Use your lunchtimes to run. If you have access to local parks, waterfronts, hills, etc., near your workplace, take the lunchtime opportunity to squeeze in some learning time.
    • If possible, find a running buddy. It's easier to team up with someone as keen as you to learn cross-country running. As you improve, the two of you can race off one another during training.
    • Take care with hill running. Too much uphill running can cause injuries to your muscles and joints, and descents that are too fast can also cause harm. Shorten your stride when running uphill and maintain the effort rather than the speed. Downhill, lengthen your stride a little but maintain discipline to stop yourself from sprinting. Focus on your breathing rhythm on hill runs.[4]

Part 2
Running Cross Country Races

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    Enter a race. Once you've done the training and feel that you're ready to begin racing, look around for suitable races to enter. Pay any necessary fees and make transportation arrangements in advance. It's important to change your training style in the two weeks prior to the race, as you focus on the race itself rather than your standard training. Here are some things to keep in mind in relation to specific race preparation:
    • If it's possible, try to run the circuit as a practice run before the event; knowing the race well is an important part of not being surprised and of knowing where you'll hit your pain barrier or meet other challenges.
    • If it's too far away, run equivalent courses in your own area to get yourself ready. In addition, learn all that you can about the course. Check out the enrollment material, look at the relevant websites, and ask questions of other runners on cross country running forums.
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    Adjust your training before the race as needed. Taper off the training in the last two weeks. In the penultimate week, only do two hard runs. Focus on high quality running. In the last week, only do one hard run, about 3 to 4 days before the actual race.[5]
    • Having lots of recovery periods in the lead-up to the race is extremely important.
    • The day before the race should be an easy training day (running too hard will cause your legs to be too sore) and be sure to have at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep the night before the race.
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    Arrive to the track on the day of the race. You've done your race preparation and you're ready to prove something to yourself. Keep in mind that the event is a culmination of all your hard work and
    • Prepare a snack bag and your water needs. Bring a banana to eat after a workout or race. The sugar in the banana will be quickly absorbed by your body, restoring your energy. Also, the potassium found in bananas will help prevent cramps.
    • Turn up at least an hour before the race. This is even more important if you don't know the area, as you'll want to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the terrain and rules, etc., as well as signing in and meeting officials.
    • Warm up. Do this at least 10 to 30 minutes prior to the race. Be sure that have plenty of time to stretch before you make your way to the starting line.
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    Sort out your starting pace. Some people recommend running the first mile of the race hard and fast. The benefit of this is that you can run ahead and keep pace with the top ability level runners, and there will be less people in front of you. This is encouraging and prevents you from being boxed in. [6]
    • On the other hand, other cross country runners prefer to run at their pace from the start, as running out fast can wear you out immediately and lose you time overall.
    • It's absolutely vital to know your pace and race method before you turn up, although as a beginner, if you're prepared to experiment in the first few races, this can be a good time to find out what works best for you. Find a good race pace for you to use and every race make your race pace a little faster.
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    Run the race to the best of your abilities. Utilize the experience you've gained training and your knowledge about yourself as a runner to run the race to the best of your abilities. When racing, don't worry about the times and the spectators. You're running this at a pace suited to you and the pain barrier is enough to contend with.
    • If you get to the top, make sure that you pull away from the rest of the pack giving you a cushion to work with once you enter the final .1 miles of the race, which so often decides the outcome of a race. When you're running ahead of someone else, dart quickly past them to psych them out.
    • Never look at another racer's feet. Otherwise you risk dropping into their rhythm and falling behind; keep your eyes on their shoulders.
    • Be proud of your achievement no matter where you arrive in the race. This is challenging running and even participating is an incredible feat!

Part 3
Improving Your Performance

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    Remain flexible. Before you begin training in cross-country, be sure to revisit the basics on staying flexible and well stretched. Don't forget to warm up before heading out, and to warm down. You might also like to include some minor weight training and some cross-training such as swimming, cycling, and walking, as these will work other parts of your body as well as giving you a break from running but still providing you with exercise and stress relief.
    • Additionally, if you're not already running, speak with your doctor about taking up this strenuous sport if you have any fitness concerns. If you're in bad shape, don't give up; just take it more slowly and be very kind to your body as you get used to the running and exercises. The beauty of running is that you will gradually improve your fitness and stamina.
    • Do push ups and sit ups every day. This will strengthen your upper body, which is also vital in a race. Start with fifteen push-ups and twenty-five sit-ups and work your way up.
    • You may discover that your calves and hamstrings get a little sore if you're not already a seasoned runner. This is a good thing; it means that you're working the muscle in a way it's never been used before. This is similar to when you go to the gym after a long absence and do a complete weightlifting workout. Of course your muscles will be sore, but that isn't a bad thing! You might want to consider cutting back a little if they are especially sore.
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    Eat for best performance. Your fitness as a cross-country runner also depends on what you're eating. Be sure to eat healthy foods and to provide your body with the high energy input that it needs for running. It's also helpful to eat smaller meals, but eat more frequently throughout the day (maybe 6 - 8 smaller meals every 2 to 3 hours).
    • Cut down or cut out the fast foods. They provide empty, non-nutritious calories that don't give long-term energy. Instead, fill up on the complex carbohydrates. Eat lots of veggies, fruits, whole grains, and drink water. Also, get plenty of high quality protein.
    • Before a race, eat lightly. It is recommended that your meal be 2 to 3 hours before a race, and 1 hour before training.[7] Eating any closer to a race can cause you to cramp up.
    • Drink 230 to 460 ml (8 to 16 fl oz) of water or a sports drink an hour before running.[8]
    • Read up on sports nutrition. It's a complex area with lots of ideas but only you know your own body's needs and can make the right choices for fueling it. Do some research and trialing to see what energizes you the best.
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    Set goals. Once you've trialed the terrain for a bit and become used to running on all sorts of different surfaces, focus on little goals and big goals to help build up your resilience and endurance.
    • Set a big goal. Now that you've started, it's time to focus on your first cross country race. Which one will it be? Choose one that is coming up and start working toward it.
    • Start adding one long, hard run to at least one day a week. Do your best to keep running without stopping over a long period of time, such as an hour or two and build it up. Weekends are best for this, although you can also make good use of evenings during daylight savings in the warmer months of the year.
    • Continue training by observing the easy day/hard day routine. No matter how experienced a runner you are, training should not consist of all hard days. Your motivation and your body will soon wear out! Instead, implement a system of training that allows for some days where the runs are easy and other days where you really push yourself. As a beginner, slowly build up to harder training days.
    • Keep a training log. This will help you to keep track of your running progress and will enable you to note when it's time to switch up your training to its next level.
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    Do some research. Look online for training program ideas. There are different training programs suggested by different coaches and cross-country runners. Tailor these to suit your local environs and personal needs. The key is to increase your ability gradually and to ensure that you have covered all the bases including different terrain, inclines and declines, all-weather running, increased stamina and speed, and ability to push yourself just a little further every time.

Part 4
Finding Motivation to Continue Training

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    Reflect on the physical benefits of cross country running. Cross-country running has both mental and physical benefits; after being a cross-country runner you're likely to be more robust and versatile, able to run in all weather types and across all terrain types.[9] If you're usually a road or track runner, adding cross-country running to your training schedule can "toughen" you up and get you prepared for anything. On the other hand, cross country training won't improve just your speed; cross country also focuses on endurance.
    • Cross country running demands a great deal from your muscles but the gradual increase in strength and improvement of your range of speeds occurs without the jarring that is common with track or road training. This means that you can slowly improve your running skills over time without cumulative damaging effects.[10]
    • Other benefits to cross-country running that apply to running generally include its potential to keep your weight in check; it can be varied between individual goals and competitive goals depending on what you seek from it; your legs will be in great shape; and you'll experience energy increases. [11]
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    Consider the mental benefits of cross country running, as well. Cross-country running teaches you a lot of self-discipline; even modest running talent is rewarded by good discipline. And despite (or perhaps because of) the challenges involved in cross-country running, you'll have a lot of time for learning how to push yourself in ways you never thought possible.
    • The end of a cross-country run is filled with the desserts of rewards – you're absolutely and utterly entitled to that hot bath, massage, fantastic meal, and night in a comfortable bed (with the added bonus that you're guaranteed to have an incredibly good night's rest).
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    Refresh your motivation regularly. There will be times when you hit a brick wall during training and when it'll be important to take stock and reflect over why you're training. Revisit the reasons that are inspiring you, including the races you want to participate in, the friends you're making by being a part of the cross-country running scene, the enjoyment you're getting out of increased fitness and stamina, and other similar reasons.
    • If you've been pushing yourself too hard, ease up. Allow time for recovery and remember that you're running for yourself, not for other people. This type of running is about participating and giving your best. It doesn't matter where you come in the races or training, just as long as you're persistent and do your best.
    • Keep in mind that, as with marathons, cross-country racing is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. Make the decision to keep going and to beating your last best.
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    Choose beautiful and breathtaking locations for your cross country races. Once you're comfortable with cross-country running, and you're able to move away from the high school or college circuits, why not combine it with visiting some of the more spectacular places in the world to go cross-country running? For all the hard work and travel costs, the rewards will include gaining an appreciation for the beauty around you, meeting equally enthused cross-country runners from other parts of the world, as well as having the opportunity to stay in some wonderful places if you're prepared to travel too.
    • Cross-country running is popular in many countries, including the USA, Canada, Scotland, England, Australia, New Zealand, and a number of countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
    • IAAF Athletics provides ongoing updates of running races around the world, including cross-country running which you can check out to plan which races are of interest to you. Happy travel running!


  • Find someone you know that tends to be a little bit faster than you, and try to keep up with them and you will do great.
  • You don't have to be fast, cross country is about beating your own time. You can do anything if you put your mind to it.
  • Sprint the last 200 meters of the race and don't slow down even when you are a few meters from the line.
  • If people tease you that you're not fit, or fat, or a bad runner, don't listen. You'll have the last laugh when you're the best runner of them all!
  • Stay positive. Cross country is a mental sport; if you feel you can't do it, you won't.
  • Consistency in training is the most important. It is consistency that builds your stamina.
  • Run in comfortable clothing.
  • Music is a great way to boost your pace. Get a motivating playlist on and run with the volume on high. You won't even realize how much faster you're going!
  • Running buddies can be very useful when it comes to not feeling alone while exercising.
  • Be kind on yourself; if you're a great sprinter but a slow cross-country runner, don't let it get to you. It's rare to find a competitor able to excel in all three types of running: track, road and cross-country.[12] The point is to expand your versatility in running and to gain the benefits that come with cross-country running. Even though it may hurt like mad and not be your favorite running, the stamina and willpower gained can provide you with extra power when sprinting or road racing.And have fun with it
  • Run with a group. This cannot be stressed enough. If you're in high school, join your school's team. It's extra important to find people of a similar skill level, so you can push and support one another. A coach is helpful too.
  • Stay with someone the whole race that could pace yourself. Then at the end, sprint, you might beat them!
  • Don't sprint in the beginning, jog at first then sprint at the end as fast as you can.
  • Think about your running pace. Learn what it feels like. Learning how to run based on feel is an invaluable tool because, as you get more fit, faster paces will feel easier to you, thereby adjusting your training needs automatically to give your body the correct stimulus.
  • Reward yourself as you train. Nice running gear and shoes make for a great reward, as do massages, a delicious healthy meal out, or a new book on running strategies. And while you're at it, why not read books and stories about great cross-country runners to inspire you!
  • If you have no choice but to practice on roads, try to stick to the grass or the road shoulder as much as possible. It's easier on your joints and safer for you in case of a fall or an oncoming vehicle. If you live in an area where grass or road shoulders aren't available, see about visiting a local park a few times a month for a change of scenery.
  • Varied workouts are key to having fun and maintaining your motivation. Even if you like slogging 12 miles (19 kilometers) a day for a practice, mix it up! Change routes if you run on roads, run laps around the town park or playground, or play games like tag, capture the flag, or deer and wolves in place of sprint workouts. Obstacle courses can also be fun and you can scatter workout stations like push ups or squat-thrusts between the obstacles.
  • Always think of what motivates you the most; the Olympic gold, a fitness goal, whatever works for you.
  • Set goals and go further. Say you aim to run to a tree ahead then you want to walk from then on. Instead once you get to your goal, push yourself a little bit further. That way, once you hit your goal just say to yourself "Don't stop now,"
  • Start off with a faster pace and then slow down when everyone settles in line.
  • Do not lose motivation to run during the colder fall or winter months! Treat the adverse weather as an added challenge to your runs; it will make it more exciting.
  • Pace yourself.
  • Always run at a pace you feel comfortable running at throughout the whole race.
  • Always, ALWAYS go to the bathroom before a race. Have a family member or a friend wait at the end with water or any sports drink of your choice.
  • Running with music keeps you motivated.
  • Avoid running with iPods, mp3 players, or the such. For one, other runners will not take you seriously, and it is better to focus on your run than on making sure your device is situated comfortably.
  • Donate your used running gear to a group that reuse or recycle them. Do an online search and help others.
  • Try running by landing on the balls of your feet first more than on your heels. It's more efficient and will help your form a lot. Shoes without a hunky heel can help a lot with practicing this. You may even want to consider kicking your shoes off for a couple of sprints, focusing on correct form.
  • Always eat a light and healthy meal 1-2 hours before your meal. If you eat a meal that is fairly large and oily, during the race you might feel dizzy and have some symptoms of vomiting. When you feel like vomiting, don't stand up, immediately sit down and rest. It doesn't matter if you come first or not. Your body matters more.
  • Close your mouth while running!
  • Never stop mid-race, even if it means going slow. You can regret just giving up.
  • Chocolate milk is great for after practice as it contain calcium and almost rewards you for completing the run.


  • Remember when you increase your weekly mileage, do not do it too quickly. Don't run 3 mi (5 km) miles one week, and 5 mi (8 km) the next. Increasing too quickly will lead too injury. Try increasing by a half mile each week. Or try 10% every week. So if you run 3 mi (5 km) the first week, run 3.3 (5.3 km) the second, 3.6 (5.8 km) the third, 4.0 (6.4 km) the fourth, 4.4 (7 km) the fifth, 4.8 (7.7 km) the sixth, etc.
  • While push-ups, sit-ups, and a certain amount weightlifting are good as they help build core muscle strength, keep in mind that you are not a football player. You do not want that extra baggage. If you lift weights, focus on core and leg muscles (bench pressing and squats are the best for this). In addition, lift a small amount of weight but for a large amount of reps. This will build lean muscle which will benefit endurance.
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    When on roads, even country roads, always watch out for cars. Give them room, even if you have the right of way. It is far better to let them go than to be hit; you have no protection whatsoever.

Things You'll Need

  • Running shoes
  • Running clothes
  • Suitable socks
  • Water bottle or bladder
  • Snack bag
  • Map or itinerary of course
  • Suitable places to practice
  • Patience

Sources and Citations

  1. Amby Burfoot, The Runner's World Complete Book of Running for Beginners, p. 63, (2005), ISBN 1-4050-7741-7
  2. Amby Burfoot, The Runner's World Complete Book of Running for Beginners, p. 62, (2005), ISBN 1-4050-7741-7
  3. Amby Burfoot, The Runner's World Complete Book of Running for Beginners, p. 63, (2005), ISBN 1-4050-7741-7
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