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I wonder about the differences between running on a track and running cross country.

I know that it is very dependant on the condition of the x-country course, but I did some research and failed to find comparable times and distances. I also ask myself if it is healthier or worse to run cross country instead of running on the road.

So, are there benefits to running cross country and how much more time should I expect to be needing for the same distance?

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3 Answers

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That's going to be heavily course dependent, unfortunately. If you have a wide, well packed trail, times are not going to be much different than they are on a track. If you get a typical European x-country course (Many USA cross country courses, esp at the high school level are not much worse than golf courses), then you're fighting rougher terrain, and often worse footing due to mud/water/weather conditions. That's where your time difference is, and why the exact same course in different years can produce wildly different times. A course on the road is not going to be much different in times regardless of weather, unless you are at the extremes of the scale (very hot or icy footing). A road race at 75 Fahrenheit on a mild day won't produce times much different than 50 degrees and raining, where an off road x-country race will be a much greater difference in those two conditions.

Some of the benefits to running off paved roads is that it's easier on your feet (impact), gives you a more thorough workout because you are having to work on balance more, and is generally much more interesting than running on streets. The downsides are that you are more susceptible to injuries sustained by mismanaging the terrain, tripping on a tree root, sliding in mud, things like that.

Just as an informative, cement is the hardest surface to run on, followed by asphalt, then progressing from hardpack dirt on up the scale. Most modern running tracks are of a spongy type surface that is more forgiving than asphalt is.

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I didn't compete in my youth, but what I gather from the book Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich, is that the biggest difference is that the whole CC vs. track thing isn't just a matter of the terrain, but how the events are scored. In CC, you are scored as a team and in track (except relays) you are scored individually. In CC, you commonly run on turf, so CC shoes are quite different from trail-running shoes, as they often have cleats.

As for the benefits of exercising on trails vs track:

  1. A huge break in the monotony
  2. Better scenery
  3. The varying terrain gives you all-around better exercise as you are constantly switching muscle groups

The consensus of most scientists is that running through the wilderness is what we evolved for. We certainly didn't evolve to run on tracks.

As for the cons: you have to watch out for bears, cougars, and NRA members out shootin' in the woods. :-) (So far, evolution has been on our side for surviving the first two.)

Regarding timing, once or twice a month get on the track or a flat paved course and do an all-out workout to gauge yourself and compare with others, and run in a 5K every few months. 4 out of 5 of your daily workouts ought to be slow-paced, and running on the trails actually helps you to slow down when you would otherwise be running a lot faster.

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Rubberized tracks are a very forgiving, comfortable surface to run on, so I wouldn't rule it out if there's one available. But for me, at least, running more than a couple of miles (more than 8 laps on a standard 1/4 mile track) gets really boring unless I listen to an audio-book on my iPhone or something. If you're really good at tuning out and letting your mind wander, or you have something interesting to listen to (or a running partner to talk with), running on a track is a convenient, consistent way to go.

Running cross-country (on non-paved surfaces) is certainly more interesting than running on a track. Unless you run a regular route, it's not as easy to gauge your progress, because there will always be differences in elevation from route to route that can mask or simulate fitness increases. But I don't get as bored, especially when I'm running cross-country on trails.

Running "cross-country" on paved surfaces is about the same, but a little more punishing on the joints if you don't run with good form, and a little more boring, as paved trails/roads are usually in less-interesting locations than unpaved trails and dirt roads.

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