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Cross Country vs Trail Running: What’s the Difference?

Cross Country vs Trail Running: What’s the Difference?

The Popularity of trail running has increased dramatically over recent years. Racers participate in events that involve a mixture of endurance, technical skills, and types of terrain. The rise in participates and racing events makes many wonder if this popularity is just a reboot of the age old event, cross country. However, in all actuality – trail running is a completely different sport than cross country. So, let’s define cross country vs. trail running:

Cross Country is a team or individual sport that takes place on an open air regulated course with a racing distance between 5k and 10k. It is most popularly known as a school age sport with most participants no longer participating after College. Trail Running on the other hand is a running sport that is more popular with a wide range of ages and typically takes place on mountainous hiking trails. Racing distances can range from 3 to 200+ miles. 

Cross country and trail running both are sports that include running in the outdoors. They contrast because of factors, like: distance, terrain, clothing, gear, and nutrition.

Both sports have a small number of participants compared to road running, but have major differences from each other. If you want to get involved in either of the sports, knowing the distinctions between the two is important. Cross country and trail running are two separate types of sporting events, and you want to make sure that you are competing in the one that is a best fit for you.

What is considered Cross Country?

Cross Country is a team or individual sport that is governed by the International Association of Athletics Federation. The 5k to 10k races take place on open-air courses like grass or dirt, with some hills as well. Cross country is the natural terrain version of long distance events taking place on the track.

Usually people can start cross country as young as middle school but can continue their career past college. USA Track and Field also has master’s events and a championship for people older than 21. It is a competitive environment for the 8 weeks that it lasts each year. Running clubs are usually available, so that athletes have a resource and support group even with the competitive nature of the sport.

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Cross Country Distance

Courses for cross country are usually between 5 kilometers and 10 kilometers long. Depending on the length of the race, athletes typically run a certain amount of loops. Each racer or team will start in a box on the starting line, and a pistol initiates the start of the race. Many track and field athletes will participate in cross country events, so the field of participants is competitive.

Cross Country Terrain

Grass, dirt, gravel, and sometimes trails through the woods makeup a cross country courses. There can be some hills but they usually are not too difficult (but can affect a person’s pace). The trails are usually groomed and not as technical as a hiking trail would be. Cross country runners focus on their speed because the course is highly regulated and well maintained.

Even though it is nearly impossible to standardize a cross country course, they all are similar in a way. Multiple details and criteria are required to setup a race course. The criteria includes items like: width of the course, the distance between the start and finish, where the first turn is located, markings, etc. Due to the requirements of a course, races tend to be similar.

Cross Country Clothing & Gear

Clothes. Runners dress minimally like they would for a track and field event. Participants will wear short shorts or singlets. In the winter they will wear long sleeved shirts and tights so they can retain warmth without losing much mobility.

Cross Country racing flats –

Shoes. Cross country runners usually wear light weight shoes that have spikes screwed into the forefoot part of the sole. Not only do they possess spikes but they have different types of spikes (length) depending on the condition of the course (whether mud, snow, dry, etc.) Spikes can be as long as 25mm if the course is muddy but also short as 6mm for harder, drier surfaces. Some runners might opt of spikes and wear flats for races that include more pavement than the usual grass and dirt.

Cross Country Nutrition

Since races are only between a 5k or 10k there is no need to carry water or eat during the race. Cross country is a fast paced event, and stopping for water would just slow the racer down. Their main focus is on time, and since they rarely race over an hour aid stations are not necessary.

Famous Cross Country Races

Cross country has a certain season where races take place which is usually the fall and winter. They are organized races with set distances and are highly regulated. The community is highly competitive and consists of different teams. Many racers will join a local team that will have set practices and workouts throughout the week so they have help following their intense schedules. Training is so regimented because a season is usually only 8 weeks.

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Cross Country was an Olympic event form 1912-1924. The sport caused an organizational issue because technically it was a winter sport at the summer Olympics. After the 1924 Olympics, almost half the runners dropped due to extreme heat which ultimately lead to its short run . Runners have requested to the Olympic committee to add the sport again, and it has been considered being added to the Winter Games.

Some events have taken place in snow so it would not be anything new for a cross country runner. As of right now they are trying to push a more “extreme” version of cross country for Paris 2024.

The IAAF does host the World Cross Country Championships. Kenya has dominated the event by winning over 40 times. Ethiopia is second in overall wins with only about  half the number as Kenya.

USA Track and Field National Club also holds a masters in long-distance in people over the age of 21. There are many other races throughout the fall held by USATF Cross Country that people can use to get ready for the championship. The races are pretty easy for athletes to locate on the USATF website.

Health Benefits of Cross Country Running

Running can provide both mental and physical benefits. The harder the heart works the stronger it gets. Running increases the flow of oxygen and allows for your ligaments and joints to become stronger. Running in general is a good way to lose extra pounds and maintain a steady weight.

Changing terrain, like the hills on a cross country course, means more muscles are used which strengthens the legs. Uneven ground stabilizes lower leg muscles and makes them better at shock absorption. The surface makes it less likely for an athlete to get an injury because natural terrain is less stressful on joints like pavement is.

Running can also increase confidence and reduce stress allowing it to have a positive impact on mental health. A few minutes of running allows your brain to release endorphins that improve your mood. The activity can help improve the quality of sleep as well.

What is considered Trail Running?

Trail running is a sport activity that  combines running, steep inclines, hiking, and technical surfaces. Generally races take place on hiking trails or mountainous terrain. Distances can range anywhere from a 5k to over 200 miles. There is a lot of variety in the types of races that you can sign up for because events are not regulated by any sort of committee in the United States.

The sports activity brings a variety of running levels together. The community is supportive no matter what an athletes experience or ability is. Runners will find that the person they are competing against will be cheering them on all the way up till the finish. It is easy to see why such a challenging sport like trail running is popular because there is such a supportive environment no matter where you go.

Trail Running Distance

Trail Running has a larger range of distances. Races can be anywhere from a 5k to over 200 miles. Anything over a marathon length is considered an ultramarathon. Many of the races are not highly regulated so distances are usually around what is expected. (Ex. a hundred mile race might actually be a 104 miles.)

Not only do some races not meet the exact number of miles that is advertised, they also can be self navigated races. This involves participants to use a map and compass to navigate the course. In some longer distance events race directors might require a map due to course markings being tampered with after being placed.

Trail Running Terrain

Trail running usually takes places on hiking trails. As a trail runner what they focus for a race, and it will be distance and elevation. There is a variety of difficulty and distance due to the various places that trail runs can take place.

Elevation is a huge factor in deciding the difficulty and experience needed to finish a race. But there are some races like Badwater 135 that takes  place in Death Valley during the hottest time of the year. Some races schedule their races during extreme climates to add an additional challenge.

Since trail running is not heavily regulated you find a mixture of terrains and distances that affect the difficulty of a race. There can be flat races with minimal elevation change and ones with over 20,000 ft of elevation gain. Running on the trails is more technical because of this. Again, there are other factors like climate and actual elevation that the race takes place in that can affect the degree of difficulty.

Trail Running Clothing and Gear

Clothes. The type of clothes trail runners wear depends on the distance and what the course is like. Shorter distances on well groomed trails are going to require more minimal type of clothing similar to cross country. 

As you get into the longer distances, trail runners have to think about  things like the weather, river crossing, chafing, etc. All these can factor in to the runners experience and if they even finish a race.  These factors might require a runner to change their shoes and/or clothing at aid stations. Long runs during the week are the perfect time to practice clothing and how it holds up to longer distances.

Trail running shoe –

Shoes. Trail running requires a special type of shoe that usually has a deeper rubber lug that provides better traction. Due to the variety in distance and terrain, there are many different types of trail running shoes. Shoes can have rock plates, extra cushioning, and/or minimalist profile. Many runners have different types of shoes for different types of trails and distances they try to conquer.

Gear. Trail runners, especially participants in the higher distances, usually have to carry their own water, food, and other supplies. There are different types of water bottles and packs that people use to carry their gear. There are water bottles with pockets, belts, and hydration packs. There is no the right way to carry your gear, what they use is all up to the person and the type of race. Longer distances usually require certain gear, which makes the hydration pack more common for ultrarunners. Usually runners doing shorter distances will opt for the handheld water bottle.

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Trail Running Nutrition

Trail runs can get into distances longer than a marathon. In that case it is not just a race to the finish line but also an eating contest. Participants have to take in account of their nutrition. Ultrarunners have to continually practice what they eat during a race, because GI issues can cost them a finish.

A lot of runners eat gels and nutrition bars to get them through the races. As you get into the 100k and 100 mile distance, you start to see athletes consume real food like sandwiches and sometimes even pizza.

Famous Trail Running Races

In the trail running community you hear a lot about three big races, Western States, Hard Rock 100, and Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc. All three are 100 mile races that take place during the summer and attract athletes from all over the world. The races are really hard to get into and usually require placing top ten the previous year’s event or getting in by a lottery.

Not all of the big races are a 100 miles. There are also races like the Moab Marathon, TransRockies Run, North Face 50 Mile Endurance challenge, and many other races that are well known. Some are qualifying races for those 100 mile races as well. When getting into the longer distances, participants usually have to have a qualifying race so that experienced runners are tackling these longer events.

Trail Running’s Health Benefits

Running altogether has physical and mental benefits. Running strengthens the heart and cardiovascular system, but tail running also strengthens the legs far greater than road running. Events can take twice as long even though there is not a huge difference in distance because of elevation change.

Climbing mountains strengthens the legs, but downhill running actually strengthens them more. Running downhill can put force that is 5xs one’s body weight. It also involves eccentric loading which means the muscles lengthen as they contract causing more damage to the muscle, which makes the muscles stronger.

Trail running can also improve mental health. It can lower risk of depression and anxiety. While running in the outdoors it will also increase their enjoyment of the activity which means they are more likely to repeat the activity. Exercising regularly is good for your overall health.

Which one is more difficult? Cross Country vs Trail Running

Cross country versus trail running could be debated for days on which one is more difficult. The answer kind of depends on the person and what they think is harder. Cross country runners focus on their pace because the terrain usually is not too difficult. Trail runners focus on distance and elevation, and their race times usually are slower. Certain aspects of each make them hard in their own way.

Cross Country is fast paced and races are between a 5k and 10k. The season is eight weeks long so the training is usually very structured and involves becoming apart of a team because the schedule is so regimented. For the most part cross country events are ran faster than trail. The races are highly regulated especially so they meet the exact distance requirements.

On the other hand trail running involves even more muscles. Due to the more technical terrain and elevation change, I usually tell people to add 2 minutes onto their pace when they start out on the trails. The pace really differs depending on the difficulty and the distance of the trail.

Trail running also is more of a mental game, especially when you get into the ultra distances. There is this mental aspect that you have to overcome as well than just simply keeping your legs moving. The mind is tricky, and will start to take a mental toll the longer you are out on the trails.  

When a runner is on the trail longer, that means nutrition comes into play. Eating the right food for is vital in a race. If nutrition is not practiced, it could lead to an athlete to DNF.

At the end of they day it depends on what we are comparing. If we were to take a 5k cross country race versus a 5k trail run, most people would probably agree that the 5k trail run would be harder due to the technical terrain. But if we were to judge them on a more broader scale I would say that both sports are equally as hard.

Cross country is a sport focused on speed and pace at a shorter distance. Trail running is more focused on distance and elevation. In all it depends on the individual person and what they think is harder. If speed and improving pace is hard for you then you might find trail running easier. If elevation and longer distances are a challenge  then trail running may be more demanding for you.

As a trail runner, I think cross country would be much more of a challenge for me. I meet a lot of long distance runners that hate running in 5ks, and would probably agree that cross country is more difficult. I am sure you would find cross country runners that think the opposite.

First time advice for beginners?

Volunteer. The first thing I tell everyone who is interested in any type of running, volunteer. Cross country and trail running events are put on because of volunteers. They are so important to the race. Volunteers are the people handing out water and/or food while also cheering you on. Most races would not be possible without them.

Also by volunteering you get a first hand experience of what the events are like. Volunteering is an inspiring experience and it will be hard for you not to sign up for a race right after. Also you get to learn the ins and outs of the events.

Make mistakes. The next step, is just go for it. Running in general is a learning process. Elite athletes are continually improving and making changes to their workout schedules, how they race, etc. It is okay to make mistakes because improvement requires time and and the ability to be flexible and adjust. I train and run completely different than I did a year ago. The more mistakes you make the better you will be at your sport.

Community. Lastly, both communities are smaller than road running, which makes them more supportive and easier to get involved in. Cross country might be more competitive, but at the end of the day it still has a close knit community just like trail running. Almost every person you meet wants to help you and in honestly loves to talk about running. They want to give you tips and help you gain success.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people by visiting a local running store and/or join a local running group. Both are a great way to meet people that run as well. The first day might be nerve wracking, but in no time you will be spending your Saturday mornings running and brunching with a new group of friends no matter the sport.

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