What Makes Cross Country Different from Track?

Young distance runners who compete for their school or university often have different running disciplines for each season that coincide with the academic year. In the fall, they participate in cross country, while winter is reserved for indoor track, and the spring season is dedicated to outdoor track. This leads to the perennial debate among teammates—Which is better: cross country or track? While there are subjective arguments for both sides, understanding the differences between these two sports can be helpful for newer runners. In this article, we will compare and contrast cross country and track and explore how they differ in the world of running. Let’s dive in!

Cross Country Vs Track: Similarities

Before we delve into the differences, let’s briefly discuss the similarities between cross country and track. The most obvious similarity is that both sports primarily involve running. In addition, both sports require minimal equipment other than running shoes. While they are often mistaken for individual sports, both cross country and track are team sports. Each runner competes individually, but the races or meets are usually scored as a team. Both sports share similar physical and mental challenges, requiring endurance, speed, strength, mental determination, high aerobic capacity, and good running form or technique.

Cross Country Vs Track: Differences

So, how do these two disciplines of running differ? Let’s explore the key differences:

1: The Terrain

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 with a standardized distance of 400 meters for outdoor tracks and 200 meters for indoor tracks. Cross-country courses are often hilly and can have sections of uneven footing, such as trails with roots and rocks or lumpy fields and pastures. The layout and difficulty of a cross-country course can vary substantially, making it challenging to compare race times from different courses. With track, the course is predictable and standardized, allowing for easier comparison of performances.

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2: The Weather

Cross country typically takes place during the fall, while track is a spring and winter sport. As a result, the weather conditions for each sport may vary depending on the climate. Cross country races often face challenging weather conditions like rain, snow, and sleet, which can make the course wet and muddy, affecting the footing. On the other hand, track races are not affected by weather conditions, especially indoor track races.

3: The Length of the Races

The length of the races or distances run is another significant difference between track and cross country. Track races can range from a 100m sprint to a 10,000m race, depending on the age group of the runners. The distances for cross-country races are usually between 3k-12k, depending on the age group and level of the racers. Youth athletes may run a couple of kilometers, while high school runners in the United States typically run 5K cross country races. At the collegiate level, women run 6K and can eventually run 8K or 10K, depending on their NCAA division.

4: The Starts

Cross-country races usually have a mass start, where all the runners competing in the race start together. The starting line is usually wide, with runners lining up side by side. In contrast, track races often have runners using starting blocks (for sprints) or lining up along the starting line in a designated lane or wave.

5: The Competition Structure

In track, runners compete in heats, with the event’s winner determined by the fastest time in the final heat. Runners may have to go through qualifying rounds, including trials, semifinals, and finals before the winner is crowned. In cross country, all athletes compete together simultaneously, and there is only one heat, serving as the final. The winner is the first runner to cross the finish line.

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6: The Length of a Meet

Cross-country meets are usually shorter than track events. Cross-country races involve one single heat for runners in a given division, making the meet usually over before a track event. Track meets can span the greater part of a day or even multiple days for championship events due to the numerous individual events and heats.

7: The Scoring

The scoring system for track and cross country is different. In track meets, the team’s score is based on the individual finishes in each event, with the highest score winning. Points are awarded based on the finish place, with the first-place usually earning the most points. In cross country, the top five runners score points for the team, with the lower score representing a better team placement.

Cross Country vs Track: Training

The training for cross country and track can also differ based on the distances runners compete in for each sport. Track training tends to focus more on shorter distances and speed work, emphasizing speed and technique. In contrast, cross country training is geared towards endurance and strength, involving longer distance runs, tempo runs, and some speed work. The terrain also plays a crucial role in training, with cross-country training often including off-road running, while track training involves running on the track and roads.

Now that you have a clear understanding of the similarities and differences between cross country and track, you can make an informed decision on which sport to tackle. For some great speed workouts, check out our interval training guide.

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