A Step-by-Step Guide to Cross-Country Running

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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A Step-by-Step Guide to Cross-Country Running

If you love trail running and racing 5Ks, consider combining the two into one short, but intense, cross-country race. Cross-country can be a happy medium that isn’t as rugged as trail running but still has that open-air, not-on-the-road appeal. “Expect taped off routes over the contours of a park, a wooded conservation area or golf course, and there is a finish line where the agony ends after a only a few kilometers of racing,” says XC Masters racer Nick Jardeleza.

Even if you didn’t race cross-country in college or high school, if you find the idea of a mud run or Spartan race to be intriguing, cross-country is an easy starting place. Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting started:


“An adult can definitely start racing cross-country at any time and any age,” says Jardeleza. “Like most running groups, this one is low-cost, meets once a week for structured workouts and generally functions on the group activity setting. Everyone is there to run. Everyone goes at their own pace. Everyone is welcome. Everyone improves.”

To find a group in the U.S., check out US Track & Field and search your state for clubs that are open to Masters and have a ‘field’ component (as in track & field) listed, as those are typically the ones that have cross-country teams.



If you want to race cross-country, know that races are shorter and harder efforts. (Think: 5K or 10K). “I guess the main difference I perceive between the two would be lengths. Length of time and length of distance,” says Jardeleza. “The repercussions of each are parallel and in direct relation to intensity. Shorter time means more intensity in terms of pace, pain and recovery time.”

Adds CTS coach Andy Jones-Wilkins, “If you’re interested in racing cross-country, you don’t want to pay attention to pace per mile — pay attention to effort level. Practice running uneven surfaces: grass, hills, off-camber sideways runs. Make sure your ankles and knees can handle running on those surfaces.”


“Spikes are pretty much essential,” says Jardeleza. “Length of spike and amount of mesh on the upper are two major variables to shoe selection. They won’t be comfortable to just wear around, but they should not give blisters by the end of a 30-minute sprint through the mud either. I wear the spikes for grassy/muddy races with little-to-no gravel or pavement sections. I wear the spikeless ones for races on dry grass and dirt sections with/without pavement portions.” Confused? Spikes sound more intimidating than they really are, and you’ll quickly see that they aren’t as scary (or pointy) as they sound.


“Get a really good warmup in. The race will be over very quickly and will hurt a lot … but it will hurt even more without a proper warmup,” says Jardeleza. Because you hit singletrack — that means you have to run single-file — quickly in cross-country racing, you want to be ahead as soon as possible. “The start is actually a big deal,” he adds. “There is this thing in bike racing called the holeshot. Basically, it’s getting to a determining point in the course first, so as to make it more difficult thereafter for competitors to pass.” Think about going for the holeshot at the start of the run as well … or at least being one of the first to make it into the woods.

“It’s fast and hard and from the gun, you’re redlining,” says Jones-Wilkins. “So be prepared for that.” You can practice this by warming up during a normal trail run, then adding quick sprints, fartlek-style, in the first 15 minutes of your run, so you’re ready for the hard efforts required to excel in cross-country.


At the end of the day, cross-country racing as an adult — any run racing, really — should largely be about fun, not your results. “Cross-country racing is much like the awkward goofy kid in the family. No less intense or painful or whatever else is so great about running, but definitely odd and more casual about its weirdness,” says Jardeleza. Embrace that. “Cross-country racers grow funny hair and wear funny shoes and are always covered in mud and can run hard enough to get lactic paralysis in less than 6K. But they laugh. They approach the whole race season as a team.” And that’s worth celebrating.


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About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.


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