Running is a traditional and well-loved sport for all ages. According to Statista, over 1 million high school students participate in outdoor track and over half a million in cross country each year- with boys being slightly higher in their participation rate than girls.
Many athletes, coaches, and fans debate: What is the difference between track and cross country? For students in high school and college wishing to compete in running activities, the nuanced differences can make a difference in how they choose to spend their time and train throughout the year. Understanding these differences can help them on their path to a successful running career.
While there are a few similarities, there are even more differences. Let’s take a look at what is the difference between cross country and track.
What is Track?
The track is a sport that consists of running events held on an oval track. There are various distances, including sprints (100m and 200m), middle-distance races (800m to 3000m), long-distance races (5000m- 10000m), and hurdle events. In addition, the track also includes throwing events like javelin and shot put, jumping events like long jump and high jump, and relay races.
There are two seasons for track and field: indoor and outdoor. When these seasons occur will vary by region. Traditionally, indoor track is held during the winter months, approximately from December to March; while outdoor track is in the spring from April to the end of the school year.
Alternatively, the outdoor and indoor track schedules might be reversed in warm Southern states like Texas and Arizona to keep kids out of the scorching spring heat.
What is Cross Country?
Cross Country (XC) is a sport that consists of running races on an open course over natural terrains like fields, hills, and woods. Races typically range from 3 to 12 kilometers (roughly 1.5 to 6 miles). It is considered an endurance sport since it requires a combination of speed and stamina to cover the distance in the shortest amount of time.
Unlike track, there is only one season for XC: Fall. This season typically runs from August-October.
Track vs. Cross Country: The Similarities
There are a few key similarities between these two sports. The most obvious one is that they both involve running (unless you are also doing throwing or jumping events). Plus, the most basic piece of equipment both sports need for performance is a good pair of running shoes.
Overall general similarities include:
- Athletes participating in both need to train for endurance, speed, strength, agility, and power.
- Both require a standard of physical health and mental discipline to successfully participate.
- At a competition, both sports are scored as “team” sports. How they are scored is different (see below).
Track vs. Cross Country: The Differences
Now that we’ve covered the similarities let’s cover the differences between these two running sports. There are more differences than you might initially realize.
1. The Predictability of Running Terrain
This is the most obvious difference between track and cross country- the terrain of each course.
Track races are held on a flat, synthetic oval track, typically made of rubber or sand. This makes the track surface fairly predictable, and the turns are usually gentle, making it easier for a runner to maintain their speed while turning.
Cross-country races, on the other hand, take place on an open course with varying terrains, including grassy meadows, hills, and woods. The terrain often changes throughout the race (sometimes multiple times during the race), making it more difficult for runners to maintain a consistent pace.
Overall, uneven footing with cross-country races requires more energy and focus, making it a more technically difficult sport.
2. Running Course Difficulty
To take the concept of predictability of a running course a step further, it is worth mentioning that the difficulty can vary significantly for XC.
On the one hand, a running track is quite predictable. While the exact material used on the track may vary, it will always be a flat oval of the exact same length.
On the other hand, the technical difficulty can be quite different with each cross county race, depending on where it is held, weather conditions, and more. Roots, hills, mud, and other obstacles can all make a course more or less difficult, depending on the specific race.
3. The Distance of Races
Track races come in many distances, ranging from sprints to long-distance events like 5,000m and 10,000m. But each race’s distance remains the same throughout a season or year.
Cross Country races are typically between 3 and 12 kilometers, though this distance can vary by race course, league, and age group.
While there is some overlap in distance, the technique needed to run on a rubber rice track repeatedly will be different than the strategy need to run on unpredictable open terrain.
4. Weather Changes
The weather conditions are also a key difference between track and cross country.
The weather is always consistent for indoor track, regardless of outdoor temperature. This makes it much easier for athletes to focus on their training and performance rather than worrying about outside factors like wind speed or rain.
Outdoor track is more closely related to cross country since it is held in the open elements. This means the weather can be quite unpredictable sometimes, making it more difficult to plan a race.
Cross Country takes place entirely outdoors in the fall, from August to October. This makes it even more important for runners to pay attention to the weather and adjust their training accordingly. By the time their end-of-season races come around, they often have to deal with cold fronts and chilly weather, even snow sometimes.
Outdoor track is in the spring, from April to the end of the school year. This season often brings warmer temperatures and sunshine, but there is still a risk of cold days and rain.
Overall, the unpredictable nature of weather can cause a huge headache for athletes, coaches, and meet directors alike. It requires a level of flexibility and resilience to push through whatever elements the weather throws at an athlete.
5. Race Day Structure
On the day of the competition, the complete structure of how races begin, and progress is also quite different for track and cross country.
For track, due to limited space on a track, events will usually begin with timed heats. There are a few different types of starting positions used (i.e. blocks), and groups of runners will start at the same time. A track meet will also require balancing other events on the side of the track, ensuring that athletes competing in more than one race can compete in all their specialties.
For Cross Country, the race begins in one mass start, with all the racers at once, often regardless of age or gender. This can cause extra chaos as runners jockey for position at the start. If needed, race directors will stagger starts between divisions so that athletes in different classes don’t get tangled up as they try to run through the same course.
At the finish line, track races are often timed electronically with a finish chute equipped with RFID chips or other timing technology. Cross Country usually relies on manual timers and volunteers stationed at the finish line to record the times. Typically it’s easier to determine the winner of a cross-country race since racers are often more spread out as they cross the finish line.
6. How a Team Wins the Competition
The way a team wins a competition is also quite different between these two sports.
In track, teams accumulate points for each event an athlete or relay team completes. Points are assigned based on how each runner is placed. How many positions get points varies with competitions but can range from 8-12.
In Cross Country, the top five runners on each team earn points for the race, with the lowest score winning the meet. For example, if a team has six runners and three finish in the top three positions, they would be awarded the lowest possible score: 6 points (first place gets one point, second place gets two, and so on). This type of scoring makes it essential to have a deep team and consistent performance on race day.
7. Training Style
The coaching and training styles between track and cross country also vary greatly due to the different demands of each sport.
Track coaches tend to spend more time focusing on individual events, such as technique and pacing for sprints and long-distance races. Cross-country coaches must prepare their athletes for various race conditions and terrain. This means more focus on overall strength and endurance and drills to improve agility and speed over hills and changing surfaces.
The approach to practice also needs to be tailored for each sport, with track athletes spending more time working on speed-endurance intervals while cross-country runners need longer periods of running at lower intensities. Additionally, cross-country athletes often spend extra time practicing on trails and in the hills to get comfortable with the uneven terrain.
Track and cross-country are two sports requiring different training approaches and techniques. Understanding these unique requirements is the key to success for both athletes and coaches.
Track Vs. Cross Country: Is One Better Than the Other?
The answer to this question is not as simple as it may seem. Both track and cross country provide unique benefits for athletes, coaches, and spectators alike, so one can’t really be said to be “better” than the other.
Track offers a fast-paced environment where you can test and compare your speed and endurance to other runners nationwide and globally. Cross country is more of a test of endurance and strategy.
Each sport has its own set of challenges that can allow athletes to find out what they are best at.
Ultimately, the choice between track and cross country comes down to personal preference and goals. Whether you’re looking for short sprints or long-distance races, you can find a track or cross-country event that suits your needs.
Whichever sport you choose, always remember to have fun and push yourself to reach new heights of performance!
How Athletes Are Choosing Their Sports and Events
In reality, since there is no overlap in timing for cross country and track, many athletes that love to run will choose to participate in both. This is particularly true for cross-country runners that want to keep training through the winter and spring.
It is important for athletes to experiment with different events and distances, as it can help them identify the areas they excel at most and give them an idea of what type of events to focus on during the season.
For example, some athletes may thrive when running distances of 400 meters or less, while others might be better suited for longer distances such as the 5000m or 10km. By experimenting with different types of events and distances, an athlete can better understand what challenges they should pursue in their training and racing.
Should a Young Athlete Specialize?
If a young athlete is serious about what type of running they want to specialize in, with plans to compete collegiately or professionally, they might start to narrow down their focus early on in high school. Regardless of whether they decide to specialize, it’s important for them to participate in a well-rounded program that promotes a balance of strength, cross-training, periods of rest for injury prevention, and running.
Specializing in one specific sport before high school and teenage years (around 15 or 16) is not recommended, as it can lead to mental burnout and repetitive injuries from overuse.
What is the Difference Between Cross Country and Track – Enjoy Running in All of Its Forms
At the end of the day, track and cross-country both offer great opportunities for athletes to have fun and reach their full potential. It is up to each athlete to find out what type of running best suits them, experiment with different events, and reach for success in whichever sport they choose.
That said, when it comes down to it, perhaps the best way to enjoy running is to participate in both track and cross-country events and relish the unique experiences that each sport offers. So get out there, have fun, and make every run count!