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Cross Country Running


What is Cross Country Running?

Cross country is long-distance running in which teams of runners compete over open or rough terrain. The significant difference between cross-country running and track and field running is the variability of both weather and footing. The courses may include grass, sand, hills, mud, woodlands, and water.  Although the distances are generally standardized, courses will vary with each race. Distances in United States (US) amateur running differ based on gender and league. An athlete can compete as an individual, a team, or both.

Age to start Cross Country Track...

Most elementary schools in the US do not have cross country teams, but many running clubs exist for boys and girls of all ability levels from ages 5 -18.   To avoid interference and conflict with athletes competing in school programs, clubs adjusts their training schedules to fit their needs.  Youth running clubs compete in local, regional, and national championships sanctioned by the AAU or USATF. Course distances  vary depending on the age of the athlete. Common championship distances are:

Age Group Distance
6 and under  62 miles   (1km)
7 & 8 1.24 miles (2km)
9 - 12 1.86 miles (3km)
13 & 14 2.48 miles (4km)
15 - 18 3.11 miles (5 km)

Joining a club will give your child an opportunity to meet others with similar interests, get coaching from experts and establish a training program.   A great place to start to find a credible club is the USA Track & Field website at  Simply enter your zip code to generate a list of the USATF-registered clubs in area. 

Track and field clubs offer skills training for children from as early as 5 years old to the age of 18.  Training is for all ability levels and the season consists of practices, local youth track developmental events and often culminates in national competitions. The national youth competitions start with children as young as 8.

Club programs are usually comprised of 9 divisions. The athlete’s birth shall determine the age division that he/she will compete in.   Age is determined by the athlete's age by December 31st.    Proof of age is required to participate in AAU or USATF sanctioned events.  Athletes must provide a copy of the birth certificate that the team must keep on file. Generally, USATF competitions use 2-year age groups with the youngest 10 and under. AAU meets generally use 1-year age groups with the youngest 8 and under

AAU Junior Olympics Age Groupings for the 2009 Competition Year

Age Division Age Birth Year Distances
Primary 8 & under 2001+ 2000 meters
Sub-Bantam 9 2000 3000 meters
Bantam 10 1999 3000 meters
Sub-Midget 11 1998 3000 meters
Midget 12 1997 3000 meters
Sub Youth 13 1996 4000 meters
Youth 14 1995 4000 meters
Intermediate 15 & 16 1993 - 1994 5000 meters
Young Men/Women 17 & 18 1991 - 1992 5000 meters

USATF Junior Olympics Age Groupings for the 2009 Competition Year

Age Division Age Birth Year Distances
Bantam 10 & under 1999+ 3000 meters
Midget 11 & 12 1997-1998 3000 meters
Youth 13 & 14 1995-1996 4000 meters
Intermediate 15 & 16 1993-1994 5000 meters
Young Men/Women 17 & 18 1991-1992 5000 meters

Once your child reaches middle school in the United states, grades 6 thru 8, Cross Country is usually offered as a sport however youth running clubs are still very dominant in this age group. The course length varies, as listed above, but middle school cross country distances are generally around 2 miles for both male and female.

In high school cross country races are usually a little over 3 miles. Boys and girls compete during the same sports season but they are on different teams: girls varsity, boys varsity, girls junior varsity, boys junior varsity. High school cross country is a


Scoring in cross country is different than any other sport, wherein the less points each team has the better. On the varsity level, each team has seven runners competing, but only the top five runners for each team "score," meaning only their points count. However, the other two runners are equally important. Referred to as "blockers," they can often alter the outcome of a meet by placing in front of the top five "scoring" runners from other teams, and thus giving other teams more points. The teammates score will be the points equal the place the runner finished in the race. For example, if a runner were to finish in 2nd place, that runner would get 2 points. All five runners’ points would be added up at the end of the race and the team with the least amount of points is the winner.  A perfect score in cross-country is 15 points; that means your team "sweeps the race" by finishing in places first through fifth.

Like the varsity team, on the junior varsity level only the top five runners score. However, the JV race differs in that there is an unlimited number of runners each team can have in the race.

What are the governing organizations for track and field?

USA Track and Field  (USATF) is the national governing body for track and field, road running, cross country running, racewalking, and mountain/ultra/trail running in the United States.  The  International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is the world governing body for track and field.  The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the organization through which the nation's colleges and universities govern their athletics programs .

USA Track and Field  (USATF) has approximately 57 associations that organize local, statewide and regional competition and training events across AmericaThe USATF,  holds Junior Olympic games the last week in July and the  participant record is over 70,000 in track and field events.  USATF also hosts Junior Olympics in cross country, as well as national championships in track and field, cross country and race walking.  Beyond USATF, a number of other national, regional and state organizations create track and field and running events throughout the country and world.

The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), for example,  is one of the largest, non-profit, volunteer sports organizations in the US dedicated exclusively to the promotion and development of amateur sports and physical fitness programs.  This organization hosts hundreds of track and field events each year through its local, state and regional clubs, as well as national championships and the Junior Olympics.  The youngest participates are 8 and under in AAU.  The AAU Junior Olympic Games are known as the largest national multi-sport event for youth in the United States.  It has become the showcase event of the AAU Sports Program.  The AAU holds Junior Olympic sport games one time each year.  For an athlete to be eligible for this event, they must qualify by ranking in the top four in a national event.   The AAU Junior Olympics participant count is usually over 15,500 in twenty two different sporting events, including track and field.

Youth membership in AAU or USATF is not required to compete during regular season.  However, membership in USA Track & Field, is a required for an athlete to compete in the State, Regional, National Junior Olympic meets or the State and National Youth Outdoor Track & Field Championship meets.   Athletes can either compete as part of team or club or as individual or 'unattached' status.  A membership card cost is about $12-15 dollars. 

Young track and field athletes can participate in both AAU and USATF competitions. There has been some debate over which organization is 'better'; however, opinions differ and competition varies from year to year.


What is the season for track and field?

Cross-country is a fall sport, meaning the official season lasts from September until State Championships at the end of November. The fall cross country season is a great way to stay in shape and improve endurance and fitness for your next track season

What is the commitment level...

Most teams begin pre-season practicing during the summer to get in shape for the season. Club practices take place approximately 3 days per week for about 1 - 1/2 hours. School teams practice everyday.  Practices will usually focus on athletic endurance, hill running, some speed training, pacing, race tactics, and more. 

The season will  last about 11 weeks There will be approximately six  to eight meets throughout the regular season beginning in early October which are held at different venues.  The post season runs from the end of November through mid-December.  Meets usually begin at 9:00 a.m. with a course walk.  Races are then held successively starting with the youngest age groups.

Local district championships take place in November and national championships take place in December. To be eligible for National Cross Country Championships your child must qualify at the local district championships throughout the country.  The championship-level competitions are contested all over your state and throughout the United States. 


Cost to participate...

Club fees are between $90 - $150 which may or may not include a uniform.  Discounts may be given for families who register more than one athlete or if the athlete registers for more than one season during the year.  The fees required for each track meet that your child enters will vary. Generally, meet registration fees will cost around $5 - $15.

In addition, you will need to purchase track shoes and pay the necessary fees to register for USATF and/or AAU if needed.

Required equipment...

Cross-country running involves very little equipment.  Most of the time the athletes wear shorts and vests or singlets, usually in club or school colors. In particularly cold conditions, long-sleeved shirts and tights can be worn to retain warmth without losing mobility.

The best shoe for any long-distance sport is a very light shoe that has built-in support for the arches. Many runners also like to have spikes (cleats) for rough terrain. Spikes are lightweight racing shoes that incorporate metal spikes, known as teeth, into the sole. There are both screw-in kind and the permanent teeth. For the screw-in type the teeth are changed depending on race conditions. For instance, larger spikes would be used for muddy conditions.  Regulation teeth for cross country courses range from .25 -.5 inches. Some leagues do not allow spikes and therefore rubber studded shoes may be required . It is important to check with your coach to get his/her opinion on what you will need.