What makes cross country running so exciting?
The distinctive earthly smell of oozing mud, the biting wind, freezing rain, treacherous ground and waves of charging feet – cross country running and racing is about as close to the experience of a medieval battle you can get. Envision an army of Highland warriors, who have swapped their kilts for shorts and vests, all standing in line in a muddy field, ready to charge their opponents. The atmosphere is electric – filled with nervous anticipation, excitement, rivalry and camaraderie.
I myself am an experienced runner, as well as an admirer and enthusiast of this very trying sport. I won the National Cross Country Championship in 2012 and 2014 and was asked to share my thoughts and opinions on why it’s worth getting into the world of cross country…
1. Shake up your running routine
If you find that your running motivation is dwindling, it may help to change your focus and try something new. Getting off the road and out into the mud and hills is an amazing escape – even in the dark depths of winter!
Cross country adds another string to your bow and will push you to train in higher heart rate zones!
2. No single race is the same
For the first time since the summer games in Paris in 1924, cross country running will feature in the Olympic Games again. However, luckily you do not have to be an Olympic athlete to compete in this great event! Cross country events vary in distance from 4km up to 10km, depending on age group and gender. And they are held in many different locations around the country.
This means that no single race is the same and times don’t matter! So, set your beloved running watches aside, line up with fellow passionate runners and enjoy some amazing courses!
3. Improve your speed
For the most passionate of us, cross country races are also a great way to improve speed. They are known to be tough because of the type of terrain: usually soft, wet and muddy. It’s harder to run as fast as you do on tarmac over open ground or on trails. Add some hills and you have the perfect mix to bring your cardio up. As mentioned above, generally cross country events will never be more than 10km. Thus, training your body to sustain at a hard effort, over a set distance, will drastically improve your running.
4. Improve your endurance
Cross country running will benefit both trail AND road runners. On even surfaces, the intensity and amount of effort you put into your training, dictates what you get out, and the gains made in speed and endurance.
Whether on the roads or trails, if you continuously run at a ‘cruising’ pace, you’ll plateau after a few weeks. Cross country adds another string to your bow and will push you to train in higher heart rate zones!
Uneven terrain and hills will require more energy than running on a flat road. Running uphill makes you fight against gravity, which places greater loads on your body than running on the flat. Hard? Yes! But the extra forces your muscles are required to exert will build strength, power and aerobic conditioning.
How do I sign up?
Now that I’ve enticed you to give cross country running a try, your next question may well be “How do I sign up?”
It's pretty simple. Sign up to a local running club and they will keep you right. Running clubs are not only an avenue into cross country, but also a great place to meet and socialise with like-minded people. There are team prizes up for grabs at many cross country events and even relay fixtures, making teamwork and camaraderie an integral part of the sport.
As is true of city marathons and half marathons, closed circuit cross country courses have a great number of supporters along the route. Folk will line up across hills and fields to support fellow club mates and friends. This creates a razzmatazz and vibrant atmosphere that spurs you on through any weather!
What kit do I need?
“How to get to the finish line?” may be another question on your mind and whilst this can seem daunting, having the correct kit will certainly help you get there. For shoes, cross country running spikes or trail running shoes are advisable, but which you choose is up to you!
For the seasoned racer, many will go for XC spikes as they are the lighter, more flexible option. However, trail shoes are also a very good option. These offer more structure underfoot and are versatile across different terrains (some cross country courses may be very muddy, others more compact woodland trail paths), as well as still providing a great grip.
Pair the correct shoes with synthetic running socks and that’s your feet taken care off. The rest of your kit is all about layering – cross country races are rarely cancelled so treat it as an ‘any weather’ event. Close-fitting base layers under your running club vest will help maintain body temperature, as well as wick away sweat, and synthetic running shorts or running tights will prevent unwelcome chafing and move easily with your body. Browse our full range of running clothing to find what you need.
When is the cross country season?
The cross country season runs from October through to March with races all over the UK. There are local leagues right through to national events, so you can do as many, or as few, as you would like. You’ll have opportunities to run around lots of country parks, manor house grounds and farming fields – something for everyone! With the cross country season coinciding with winter, there can be a lot of mud, rain, snow and wind, but so long as you’re equipped with warm layers, hats and gloves, cross country is a really enjoyable and fun world to be part of!
It can be hard work (as are most runs) but the sense of achievement is second to none! For Scottish runners, event fixture information can be found on the Scottish Athletics website. For any English, Welsh or Irish runners, your equivalent national athletics organisation will have all of the information you need.