The Beginner’s Guide To Cross-Country Running

Hands up who loved cross-country running at school? Anyone? Well, never mind, we’re adults now and there’s lots of stuff we didn’t like as kids that we now recognise as excellent, like olives and alcohol.

Cross-country running is another one of those things, even if many keen runners steer clear of it, restricting their autumn and winter running to the roads as soon as heading off-road starts to get a little sticky.

Sure, cross-country races might occasionally involve tackling lake-sized puddles and mile-long bogs, but that’s all part of the fun. For more information about how and why you should get involved this season, we spoke to Rob Wilson, head of marketing at premium running clobber company SOAR Running and cross-country captain at Highgate Harriers running club.

It’s cold, wet and usually very muddy. So what makes cross-country running fun?

It’s pure. There’s not the stress that comes with racing over fixed distances and chasing times or PBs. It’s just back-to-basics racing with no other goal than to beat as many people to the finish line as possible. What’s more, there’s a huge amount of variety – flat, hilly, muddy, firm, twisty, short, long – and different runners are suited to different courses, so there should be something for everyone. It’s also over relatively quickly – less than an hour in most cases – so you get a real buzz from the intensity.

When is the cross-country season?

It typically starts in mid to late October, running right the way through to late February or early March. It’s long, so pace yourself!

Is there a standard distance for the races?

League races tend to be around 6km for women and 8km for men, though increasingly those distances are being equalised. Championship races, such as at a county level, regional or national levels, are 8km for women and 12km for men, with the exception of the men’s Southern Championships which is a whopping 15km. In Scotland the national championships have been equalised as 10K for both men and women.

What is the typical terrain you’ll tackle?

Grass and parkland, in varying degrees of muddiness as the season progresses, are the most common surfaces you’ll encounter in British cross-country, but you’ll still get a fair amount of variety from course to course. Don’t be surprised to encounter trails, clay or an out-and-out bog.

Do you need to be a member of a running club to attend races? And what do they cost?

You don’t have to be, but it does make it easier. Normally a club will be a part of a league and affiliated to regional and national cross-country bodies, and your race entry will generally be a part of your club membership fee. You can also enter races independently or as a guest, with the fee ranging from anywhere from £5 to £15 or so.

If you’re a complete beginner, are you going to feel out of place? Is the standard very high throughout the field?

No, certainly not. This is one of the inherent beauties of cross-country. In the same field you’ll find elite thoroughbreds, complete newcomers, veterans and juniors. It really is all abilities.

Do you need spikes or can you wear trail shoes?

Either will be fine on most courses, especially earlier in the season when it’s not so wet and muddy. But on particularly muddy courses, and as you start to seek out more performance gains, spikes are your best bet.

Is there any other kit you need aside from appropriate shoes?

A lightweight vest, shorts and socks for racing. Gloves and arm warmers for when it gets really cold. And for before, after and warming up you’ll want layers including tights, long-sleeved tops and a waterproof jacket.

What are some examples of good training sessions for someone working towards a cross-country race?

Fartlek training is great for cross-country. The speed-play nature of it mimics the ups and downs and the variations in intensity of a race. Plus a weekly long run will give you the strength required for longer races.

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