Cross Country vs Track – Differences and What to Expect

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If you are a high school athlete and love to run, you’ve got opportunities in every season: cross country in the fall, indoor track in the winter, and outdoor track in the spring.

But what’s the difference between cross country and track? Do competitions look the same? What about practice? Do you need different gear for each one?

In this article, we compare the two in detail so you know what to expect for both.

What is Cross-Country?

Cross country is an outdoor running event on grass or dirt trails. For high school, it’ll be set up on school fields, nearby parks, or golf courses. Runners participate as teams, and races come in various distances, from 1.8 miles to 3 miles.

What is Track?

Track is also a team competition but takes place on a track, as its name suggests. It can be held indoors or outdoors and often includes various events like distance, sprints, relays, and hurdles – there will likely be some field events, like discus or javelin.

Similarities Between Cross-Country and Track

The obvious similarity is that they both involve running. In a school context, they’re both team sports, although runners can choose to run individually or join a club team once out of school.

That’s about where the similarities end! Both are running sports, but there are more differences than similarities.

Key Differences: An In-Depth Look

Here’s a quick overview of the differences between cross-country and track.

Terrain and Race Environment

We’ve already mentioned location, and this is probably the biggest difference between cross-country vs track.

Cross-Country

Cross country is run on grass, sometimes with some dirt trail parts thrown in. It may be on school grounds, sports fields, nearby parks, or golf courses.

While it’s primarily on grass or dirt trails, sections may include asphalt road or sidewalk crossings or hard-packed dirt or cinders.

Expect hills, sometimes very steep hills. The length will vary depending on the meet’s location. But you won’t find too many completely flat courses.

Track

Track is run, well, on a track. In spring, it is an outdoor track, and in winter, it is an indoor track. A standard track is consistent and predictable, both in surface and length.

The exact material used varies based on specific tracks, but they are often made with a synthetic material that has some spring to it and is porous enough to allow track spikes to dig in and give you extra traction (more on footwear in a bit!).

Distances in Races

Tracks are already laid out at a specific distance of 200 meters for indoor and 400 meters for outdoor. Event distances vary but start at 100m and can be as long as 3,200m in high school. Cross country takes place over a longer course, but distances are demarcated beforehand, so there’s a definite start and finish.

Cross-Country

Cross-country can range from 3 kilometers—1.8 miles—to 12 kilometers—7.5 miles. However, most high school cross-country events are 5 kilometers—3.1 miles.

Track

Track events can span from 100 meters to 10,000 meters, but high school events tend to stop at 3,200 meters—8 laps around a standard 400-meter track.

The distances in track are primarily multiples of 400 meters, with the exception of the 100- and 200-meter events.

Race Starts

The race starts are different between cross-country and track. This is due to the differences in race format, how runners are grouped, and the terrain.

Cross-Country

Cross-country races begin with every runner lining up on the start-line. Once that starting gun goes off, it’s a free-for-all mass start—every runner starts running at the same time, generally in a crowd until the stronger runners begin to pull ahead.

Track

For most events, track runners start in a specific lane and stay in that lane. It’s much more orderly than cross country.

In longer events, runners merge into a closer-knit group as the run progresses. For distance events, sometimes runners start in a tight group without lane assignments.

Competition Structure

Track and cross country have different event structures. This includes how the competitions are organized and scored.

Cross-Country

Cross-country is similar to how most people think of a running race. All athletes start at the same time and run the race together, and whoever crosses the line first wins. It’s the most basic form of racing.

Track

Track is a little different. Smaller groups of runners compete together in heats, and there can be multiple heats within one event—usually trials, semi-finals, and finals.

These groups can be determined by previous race times—those with similar times get grouped together, and runners are either knocked out of each round or advance to the next heat.

The final heat consists of runners who’ve made it through the previous rounds. A final winner is crowned based on the fastest time in the final heat, which means the winner could have come second or third in a previous heat.

We should note that the number of heats depends on the number of competitors and distance of the event. Sprinting events will have multiple heats while distance events might not have any.

Scoring

Although a final winner is crowned in each event, team scoring works a little differently in track and cross-country.

Cross-Country

Cross-country scoring feels like it works backward. Runners score points based on the position they finish—first place will score one point, second place scores two points, and so on.

The top five runners score points for their team. Sixth and seventh place will only come into play if there’s a tie and an extra score is needed.

The team with the fewest points wins.

Track

Track works more like you might expect, with first place scoring the highest points and each subsequent place down earning fewer points.

In most cases, the winner scores 10 points, second place scores 8 points, third place 6 points, and so on. At the end of the event, the team with the most points wins.

Duration of Meets

Cross-country and track aren’t similar in how long each takes. Track is for the patient, while cross-country is a much faster meet.

Cross-Country

Cross-country events have two races—a men’s and a women’s race—each lasting an hour or so, depending on how slow the last-place finisher takes. With the pre-race hustle, post-race cool-down, and chats, the event may extend to a couple of hours in total.

Bigger cross-country meets might have multiple men’s and women’s races, which will take a few hours longer.

A high-school cross-country meet usually starts in the afternoon, and by early evening, you’re home and ready for your recovery routine!

Track

Track meets can be lengthy affairs! Not only do they usually include multiple heats within each event, but they also often include multiple events within each meet. They’re likely to take longer than cross-country events!

Weather and Seasonal Impact

Cross country and track are run in different seasons, so you’ll need to be considerate of seasonal weather during races.

Cross-Country

Cross-country season is in the fall, so it’s usually cooler. Because they are outdoor, cross-country meets can also be disrupted by rain, wind, or snow. Often this will lead to a meet being canceled. If the race does continue, you can expect to encounter mud and slick conditions as you run.

Track

Track season falls in spring and ends at the start of summer, which is pretty hot. You’re more likely to fall prey to dehydration on one of these extended, warm-weather meets than you are during a cross country meet.

Winter track is held indoors, so weather shouldn’t be an issue except when traveling to and from the meets.

Gear

More specifically, shoes. You can wear whatever you want to run in, but track and cross-country runners may benefit from different kinds of running shoes.

Cross-Country

Cross-country running can be unpredictable, so runners typically wear shoes with more traction for practice. For cross-country meets, athletes usually wear spikes for better footing on those steep inclines and around sharp turns.

Track

Running with track spikes can improve your performance. They’re not required, but if you want to compete at higher levels, they’re worth considering.

However, you don’t need fancy shoes if you’re on a budget or new to track. The track is smooth and even, so you don’t need shoes with high traction.

Training for Cross-Country

Cross-country training should include endurance training, light speedwork, terrain-specific training, strength and flexibility work, proper nutrition, rest and recovery, and mental strategy.

Cross-Country Training: What to Expect

Your cross-country coach will create a training plan for you and your team to follow. Most high school cross-country training includes a combination of:

Light Cardio Warm-Ups

Anything that gets the blood pumping without a high potential for injury. It could be a brisk walk, a light jog, some running drills, or even something like jumping rope for a few minutes.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretches require you to move your muscles through a range of motion repeatedly, instead of holding them in one position like static stretching. These include things like arm circles and leg swings.

Running Drills

Running drills are specific exercises to improve a runner’s form and technique. They focus on things like cadence, foot strike, and agility. They might include things like high knees and butt kicks, and they’re usually done as part of the warm-up.

Long Runs

The training plan will include at least one long run a week. Its purpose is to build aerobic endurance and mental toughness, and it’s done at a slower pace than the runner will run during their race.

Hill Training

Hill training involves running up and down hills of varying steepness, sometimes in shorter bursts and other times in longer, more gradual ascents and descents. Hill repeats help build muscle, increase power, and increase endurance.

Fartleks

Fartleks are a type of interval training. Although the word means “speed play,” a fartlek workout usually includes intervals of slower-paced running, alternating with faster intervals. They’re often less strictly structured than intervals or repeats.

Progression Runs

As training continues, the coach is likely to include a progression run. This kind of run starts at a slow pace and gradually increases throughout the run. It builds endurance, speed, and mental toughness.

Cooldown and Static Stretching

A light cardio cooldown like a walk gives your body time to flush out metabolic waste and time for your cardiovascular system to calm down.

Some coaches may include training runs on different terrain, to build strength in the feet and ankles. But this depends on the terrain available.

How to Train for Track

Training for track combines technique/form training, speedwork, and event-specific training. You’ll also focus on nutrition, rest, and recovering properly between training.

Track Training: What to Expect

The track coach will create a training plan for you. Track training will focus more on shorter speed workouts, like:

100 to 400-Meter Repeats

Repeats are a structured form of interval training where runners complete a set number of intervals—called repeats—at a fast pace. Each repeat is followed by a rest period or a low-intensity interval, like walking.

The coach may choose certain distances—from 100 to 400 meters—depending on what specific events the athlete will be doing.

Mile Repeats

These are intervals of one mile, run at a fast pace, with rest or light activity in between. They can help improve speed and muscle strength, even if the athlete is doing shorter events.

You’ll also do dynamic stretches to warm up, along with light, easy cardio or running drills to get the blood flowing. Your training sessions will end with a cool down and static stretching.

Some coaches will also include weight training to build strength, and plyometrics to increase explosiveness.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.