Cross country is undeniably one of the most versatile activities out there.
What sets it apart from most forms of fitness is its sheer accessibility; unlike, say, hockey or soccer, cross country running can be done virtually anywhere on the planet.
Whether you choose to run on a trail, path, or sidewalk, all can be done simply by stepping outside. It also does not require you to learn any complex maneuvers or specialized knowledge that one would have to commit to memory in a sport.
But what is this misunderstood exercise, exactly?
Unlike its commonly interchanged counterpart track running (which mainly involves running one or two miles at a time, on a track that looks like the one in the photo), cross country consists of running long distances over a variety of terrain.
Thus, building stamina and endurance are vital aspects of cross country as a whole.
Getting into it may seem like a daunting task at first, especially if you’re unsure of how exactly to start. Once you manage to learn the basic elements, however, you should be able to begin your running journey with ease.
Begin with Apparel
The first thing to consider before beginning cross country running is the necessary outfit—which, in this case, consists of shirts, pants, and socks.
The proper running attire is critical in ensuring long-term improvement. You’re going to want garments that are made up of lightweight and breathable fabric, such as nylon or polyester.
These minimize chafing by pulling moisture (primarily sweat) away from your skin, making your runs more comfortable overall.
In terms of shirts, it is recommended to wear short-sleeved ones; although it may be frigid when you first start a run, your body temperature will quickly begin to rise. Wearing long-sleeved shirts will likely only contribute to the increased heat of your body and make the run more uncomfortable for you.
The same cannot be said for pants. Both shorts and tights (usually known as “compression pants”) can be worn during a run. The comfort of either depends on each individual person, so it would be wise to test both out to see which would work for you.
Regardless of which type you decide upon, consider purchasing a pair that has pockets. This will keep you from having to carry any items that you cannot leave at home or in your car (such as your keys or phone) while on your run.
Lastly, look for running socks that provide both comfort and stability. During runs, your feet have the potential to rub up against your shoes and form blisters. In order to prevent this from happening, choose socks that provide as much heel coverage as possible. Note that this does not mean the back of the sock has to extend up to your ankle; if it is long enough to shield your heel, it is more than sufficient.
Mainstream sporting goods shops like REI, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Big 5 and Scheels distribute all of the garments mentioned above, though you could easily find them at other retail stores like Old Navy as well.
Running shoes, of course, are also integral to your running experience. Though they may be a bit expensive upfront (a quality pair can easily cost you anywhere from $70 to $120), they are absolutely worth the investment.
The price, after all, is far cheaper than any medical bill you could obtain from an injury caused by wearing improper equipment—which is absolutely a potential risk. Falls, sprains, fractures, and other similar are very likely to occur if you are not utilizing the shoes that are right for you.
Which pair you should get, however, depends mainly on the structure of your foot. Much like with any other shoe, the arch of your feet (whether it be neutral, low, or high) combined with your feet size will combine to determine what sort of shoes you should acquire.
To obtain the most accurate information regarding your feet, I recommend going to a running store such as Fleet Feet where specially-trained employees will examine them to judge exactly which shoe would be the best fit for you. The shoes that worked for me were New Balance’s 860v10, which have lasted me in numerous runs across several different types of terrain.
Another extremely crucial (yet commonly overlooked) aspect of cross country running is ensuring one’s safety through stretching both before and after any of your runs. Doing so not only tones your body and increases your overall flexibility, but also increases the chance that you will prevent muscle injuries.
This video by fitness instructor Paige Jones does an immaculate job of displaying a variety of stretches that you can perform.
Stretches can be separated into two distinct groups: dynamic (ones that you should do pre-run) and static (ones that should be done post-run).
Dynamic stretches, as the name implies, involves actually moving around while stretching. Conversely, static ones allow you to remain in place while you stretch.
According to Megan Kennihan, a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified personal trainer and running coach, dynamic stretches “warm” up your muscles before a run, causing them to loosen up. The static stretching performed after a run, she says, can not only lessen muscle soreness, but will also lower your high post-exercise heart rate.
These routines, if done consistently, will greatly benefit you in the long run (no pun intended).
There are a few key points to remember both before and during your cross country journey:
Don’t start out too strenuously. It is tempting for some beginning cross country runners to want to start off by running several miles a day, seven days a week. This is not a healthy method of becoming a stronger runner. Instead, start out by running one or two miles a day, then build upon the mileage from there. Gradually increase the distance you run, and you’ll eventually be able to run 5ks and 10ks with ease.
Run consistently. Simply running one or two days a week will not help you progress. Instead, three, four, or even five days per week will give you both the experience and training you need to continually improve. That being said, running too frequently without giving your body a break can lead to severe injuries (see the tip below).
Allow your body to rest when it needs it. This cannot be stressed enough. Too many times I have seen runners push themselves past their breaking point only to fall victim to injuries caused by overexertion. Severe fatigue, vomiting, and feelings of faintness either during or after a run are just a few of the signs that you need to rest. Running everyday can place unnecessary stress on your body. This can be avoided by devoting a day each week to simply avoid running (aptly known as a “rest day”). According to Runner's World, rest days can actually help you become stronger due to the fact that taking a day off helps prevent stress fractures and protects tight tendons (among a myriad of other reasons).
Watch out for your footing. The terrain that you run on---particularly trails---is likely to be full of dangerous pitfalls. Jutting rocks, unseen crevices, and even camouflaged animals are all commonplace on any given running path. Making a misstep can cause you to twist or sprain your ankle. I have done this before, and allow me to tell you firsthand that it’s not a pleasant experience. Ensure that you are aware of where your feet are hitting the ground.
Cross country is just as much a mental sport as it is a physical one. During your runs, your legs will inevitably begin to feel fatigued.. Quite literally every runner experiences this at some point or another. It’s at this moment when our minds begin to doubt if we can keep running. Much of cross country revolves around the internal battle we have with ourselves while running. There will undoubtedly be times when you feel as though you absolutely have to give up, that you can simply not take another step. Part of what makes someone a proficient runner is being able to ignore those thoughts and persevere.
You, like everyone else that has become a runner, are capable of succeeding, no matter how unlikely it may seem at the moment.
Cross Country Runner