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How to win cross country running

Popular in the early 20th century across the world, cross country running is once again taking off. To help you get ahead of the pack when it comes to the sport, we’ve gathered below some of the best tips and tricks for people looking to improve their cross country running game before everyone else catches up.

The history of cross country running

Cross country running originates back to England as early as 1837, when schools began competitions against each other in the sport. The first championship was held in 1867 and from there, it was introduced to the Olympic Games in 1912. Cross country was a popular event for the Games, however in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, a heatwave on event day resulted in only 15 of the 38 runners in the final reaching the finish line, with the rest needing to be rescued by medics. The public were so horrified at the conditions the cross country athletes endured that Olympic officials ruled to ban cross country running from future Games (though it remained a part of the modern Olympic pentathlon).


Fast-forward to nearly a hundred years later: cross country has returned and for the first time, will appear in the 2018 Youth Olympics in Argentina, with rumors this will then pave the way for it at a future Olympic Games. 


Popularity of the sport has always bubbled below the surface thanks to schools continuing to race and compete in the discipline since its beginning, though it’s mainstream appeal has had a general increase over the last 30 years especially. The mixed terrain of forests and fields and race distances that an “average” runner can accomplish without much effort (12km for men’s and 8km for women’s at the professional level), mean it is a sport accessible to all. Many people describe cross country as one of the “purest” forms of running and that the cross country championships – held every two years in March – is seen one of the world’s most difficult races to win because of its low barrier of entry. Many of those who do top the cross-country podium have gone on to win at the Olympics in various disciplines over the years.


Cousin to cross country, and still well practiced across the globe is orienteering – the sport of navigating maps to locate and run to key points in a timed race through forests and outdoor courses. On athlete and World Champion Matthias Kyburz shared his tips for orienteering with us here, relevant to anyone looking to better their outdoor running skills in general. More recently, cross country has led to the birth of “trail running” – taking the competition courses further into rough and mountainous terrain from the relatively flatter, open fields and forests of traditional cross country running.

7 tips for getting ahead in cross country


1. Train hills

One of the parts of cross country running people often underestimate is how much up and down is involved. Though events will be a maximum of 12km, courses vary and can have large ascents and descents that can make or break competitors. For those looking to do their first cross country, focusing on hill sprints and uphill running is one of the most effective ways to spend your training time to become accustomed to the hardest part of the race. To help, see our guide to running uphill effectively here, and be sure to include hills in every training session you can leading up to race day.


2. Off the track and onto the trail

Many college and high-school runners training for cross country know that the running track isn’t the place to be for the sport. Grass and rocky trail routes give you the perfect combination of training terrain that best represent what the actual event will be like. Even running along the sidewalk or road running aren’t as valuable as training on the uneven paths of the fields and forests. You need to know how to handle rocks and dirt and slipping and sliding as you’re sprinting along to be great at cross country, and that can only come by training off the regular running routes.


3. No weather is bad weather

When it comes to being a cross country runner, you’re going to get dirty. Rain and mud are a very real part of events, and can hugely effect the outcome of races. Even the cross country World Championships themselves, usually held in the Northern hemisphere and always in March, are full of wet, slippery terrain as the remnants of winter lie on the courses. Therefore, when it comes to training, weather is no excuse to not be out there, with many of the top schools known to schedule their trainings for when weather is especially bad as you never know what might happen on race day…


4. Arms get ahead

As champion trail runner Ben Allen says:

your arms can become a less controlled force, unlike in normal running, as they provide you with counter balance. You might look like you’ve had a few drinks waving your arms about, but there is a method to the madness and those arms are doing a vital balancing job, so relax and let them do their thing.

The same is true for cross country running – let your body feel what’s right and use your arms in arcs to balance along uneven terrain (and deter any rivals looking to squeeze past in these often-narrow segments of the race).


5. Know the course

Races can often be full of surprises, such as bottle-necks across narrow bridges, sharp turns and confusing forest turn-offs. With this is mind, knowing the course before you run it can provide a huge advantage when it comes to the competition. The best thing to do is a walk or drive-along the course to see for yourself all the potentially interesting obstacles. This knowledge may give you some advantage and will help you plan when to make your move on race day, especially coming in to the final few kilometers. If walking the course is simply not possible, a map and discussion with race organizers or others who have run the route that day is what could wipe minutes from your time, as you can know what to expect and stay in your flow while those around you during the race are distracted by the uncertainty of what lies ahead.


6. Have the right equipment

Just like in all running races, the shoes are the gear that matter most. Cross country events traverse dirt and mud, bitumen and concrete, forest and flats – all over a relatively shorter distance run. Speed is crucial, however so is grip as falls are common. At On, we’ve seen a large amount of cross country runners converted to our trail running shoes as they are often as light (or lighter) than the cross country spikes some runners wear. They might be exactly what you’re looking for when choosing the perfect pair of cross country running shoes, so feel free to have a closer look for yourself here.


7. The end is what matters

Like the 10km at the Olympics, cross country events at a professional level often see competitors play a game of tactics, choosing to keep close together in a pack until the final few kilometers before making their move. This is important to remember if you fall or are forced back in that pack: resist the temptation to speed to the front of the group and burn all your energy too early. A better tactic is to find and regain your rhythm after a fall and once you feel ready, use your speed towards the end of the race instead of earlier to regain your position. The aim is that once you start going all out you don’t stop until the end, overshooting others who may be waiting to make their move in turn, as you get ahead onwards towards your win.