Cross Country vs Outdoor Track: Should You Pursue One or Both?

May 20, 2024

When it comes to high school and college athletics, two popular sports often come up in conversations: cross country and outdoor track and field. Though they both involve running, these sports are distinctly different in various ways. In this blog post, we'll explore the main differences between cross country and outdoor track and field, and discuss whether it's feasible for athletes to pursue both.


Cross Country

Cross country races take athletes on a journey through natural landscapes, including grassy fields, muddy paths, rolling hills, and sometimes even wooded trails. Runners navigate through these varied terrains, facing challenges like uneven footing and changing elevations. Each race offers a unique experience, testing runners' adaptability and resilience. Let’s take a look at the main aspects of cross country.

Environment and Terrain

Cross country races are held over natural terrain that can include grass, mud, hills, and occasionally gravel paths or dirt trails. The courses are designed to challenge runners with varying landscapes and natural obstacles, making each race unique.

Race Distances

The typical race distances for cross country vary depending on the level of competition. In high school, courses usually range from 3 to 5 kilometers (approximately 2 to 3.1 miles), while college races can be longer, often between 6 to 10 kilometers (approximately 3.7 to 6.2 miles).


Cross country is primarily a fall sport, with the season starting in late summer and culminating in regional and national championships in November.

Competition Format

Races involve a mass start, where all runners begin at the same time and race to complete the set course. The courses are often marked with flags or cones to guide the runners. The layout and difficulty can vary greatly, adding to the sport's unique challenges.

Team Scoring

In cross country, the team score is determined by the finishing positions of the top runners from each team. The lower the combined score of the top five runners, the better the team performs. The team with the lowest total score wins the meet.


Outdoor Track and Field

Track and field events unfold on a standardized 400-meter oval track, where athletes demonstrate their skills in a variety of disciplines. This sport includes a wide range of events, from sprints and middle-distance runs to jumps and throws. Each competition provides athletes with the opportunity to showcase their speed, strength, and technique. As the outdoor season spans from spring to early summer, athletes participate in individual and relay events, striving for excellence. Let's explore the main aspects of track and field below.

Environment and Terrain

Track and field events are conducted on a standardized 400-meter oval track, usually made of synthetic materials. This controlled environment ensures consistency in track conditions, making it easier to compare performances across different competitions.

Event Variety

Outdoor track and field includes a diverse range of events. Runners can compete in sprints (100m, 200m, 400m), middle-distance (800m, 1500m), long-distance (5000m, 10,000m), and hurdles. Additionally, there are relay races, jumping events (long jump, triple jump, high jump, pole vault), throwing events (shot put, discus, javelin, hammer throw), and combined events like the decathlon and heptathlon.


The outdoor track and field season typically takes place in the spring and early summer, from March to June, with major competitions and championships held during this period.

Competition Format

Athletes compete in individual events and sometimes in relays. Performances are measured by time, distance, or height, depending on the event. Competitions can be large multi-event meets or smaller dual meets between two teams.

Team Scoring

In track and field, points are awarded based on finishing positions in each event. The team with the highest total points across all events wins the meet.

Can Athletes Pursue Both?

Absolutely! Many athletes successfully participate in both cross country and outdoor track and field. In fact, the skills and endurance developed in one sport can complement the other. Here's how:

Complementary Training

The endurance built during the cross country season is beneficial for long-distance track events. Whereas the speed and technique honed during track season can improve cross country performance. Training for one sport often overlaps with and enhances training for the other.

Seasonal Benefits

Since cross country is a fall sport and track and field is a spring sport, athletes have the opportunity to compete in both without significant overlap. The winter months can serve as a transition period, allowing athletes to recover from the cross country season and prepare for track and field.

Versatile Skill Development

Participating in both sports allows athletes to develop a broader range of skills. Cross country enhances endurance and mental toughness due to varied and often challenging terrains. Track and field, with its diverse events, helps athletes improve speed, strength, and technique.

Team and Individual Success

Both sports offer opportunities for individual accolades and team success. Athletes can contribute to their teams in multiple seasons, fostering a sense of camaraderie and school spirit year-round.


Final Thoughts

Cross country and outdoor track and field are distinct yet complementary sports. Cross country challenges athletes with natural terrains and longer distances, while track and field offers a variety of events in a controlled environment. Pursuing both allows athletes to develop a versatile skill set, benefit from complementary training, and enjoy a continuous athletic season. Whether you're an aspiring runner or a seasoned athlete, participating in both sports can enhance your overall athletic experience and performance.

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