What Is Cross Country Running?

C. K. Lanz

Cross country running is an individual and team sport for runners who run outdoors over natural terrain that can include grass, hills, and woods. Outdoor racing dates back millennia, but the rules of contemporary cross country running were first developed in late 19th-century Britain. Women and men compete in races that typically take place during fall and winter when the regular track and field season is closed. Runners can be exposed to snow, rain, and hail. Most courses are between 2.5 and 7.5 miles (4 to 12 kilometers) long.

Cross-country running takes place on natural terrain.
Cross-country running takes place on natural terrain.

This track and field sport, as it is known today, was developed in Britain in the 19th century. The first official national championship was held in England in 1876, although the race was declared void because all the participants left the designated course. In 1898, England raced France in the first international cross country running competition. The official international championship was inaugurated in 1903 and renamed the World Cross Country Championships in 1973, when the event came under the jurisdiction of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

A cross country running course may be up to 7.5 miles long.
A cross country running course may be up to 7.5 miles long.

The IAAF has not developed an international standard for cross country running courses in large part because the natural terrain varies significantly. In general, international event courses are loop courses that incorporate existing natural objects but avoid high obstacles like deep ditches and dangerous areas. An ideal cross country course does not cross a road and is undulating with smooth curves. Runners begin together at the start line, and the race may be restarted if some fall and collide within the first 328 feet (100 meters).

Cross country teams may adopt different strategies for each race.
Cross country teams may adopt different strategies for each race.

A cross country running team in international competition usually consists of six runners, of which only a certain number, often four, will score. An individual runner is awarded points based on his or her position after crossing the finish line. The points are added together, and the lowest-scoring team wins.

Due to the different running surfaces and terrain, teams will adopt unique strategies for each race. In some cases, it may make sense to sprint at the beginning to get clear of the crowd of runners at the start line. In other cases, runners will maintain an efficient and steady pace. Some teams will run together as a group while other teams encourage their individual runners to run their own races.

Runners who participate in cross country running events are often challenged mentally as well as physically because they subject their bodies to the course, their fellow competitors, and the elements. They often have to run through mud or snow and endure extreme temperatures without special equipment or clothing. Additionally, in many races the runners will be running in close proximity to their teammates and competitors.

Many cross country runners also participate in other road and long-distance track events during the spring and summer. Some compete in mountain running, a variation of cross country in which competitors complete difficult uphill and downhill courses. Others can test their endurance by competing in ultrarunning, or races that are longer than a traditional marathon.

Mountain running, a variation of cross-country running, typically involves uphill and downhill jogs.
Mountain running, a variation of cross-country running, typically involves uphill and downhill jogs.

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Discussion Comments


The first time I saw women running cross country on TV, I found it so interesting. The runners were jumping across streams and running through woods as well as running the more traditional routes. The sport appeared to be a lot of fun. At least, it was a change from the running events I am accustomed to seeing when I turn on the TV.


Sometimes I lose focus when I am running on a track or on an exercise machine. The routine gets monotonous. I prefer to cross country running workouts because I never get bored. There is more to see, and the variety of the terrain and my surroundings keep me motivated.


When I was in high school, I ran cross country, and not because I necessarily wanted to. All basketball players were required to run cross country to get prepared for basketball season. We had to run three miles each day, and we had to run the distance under or at a set maximum time. If you couldn't make the time, you couldn't play on the basketball team.

The cross country running training helped a good deal with our conditioning. I don't think any of us players would have been on the cross country team had we not wanted to play basketball, but all things considered, I didn't mind it too much.

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