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Cross Country Race

Cross country is the epitome of fall endurance running.

Tags: event guide, cross country

Typically run on nature trails of varying terrains, cross country races promote setting long-term goals and can help students increase endurance and mental toughness. A cross country race is usually 5K (3.1 miles) for high school students and 3K (1.86 miles) for middle school students. The cross country season typically starts in September and ends in November. During a race, individuals and/or teams compete against one another to earn the fewest points.


We suggest planning a cross country race several weeks in advance to ensure a smooth event. Use the following resources to prepare:


Pick an outdoor location that is safe and accessible. Cross country courses typically include hills and flat areas through fields and wooded trails. You can use a measuring wheel to establish a course. If you don't already have a course in mind, contact your local parks department to identify potential parks or venues for your event and to get information on any permits you may need to secure.

  • The standard distance for a cross country race is 5K (3.1 miles) for high school students and 3K (1.86 miles) for middle school students, but the distance can be modified slightly to suit your students' needs.
  • Make sure to measure the course accurately.
  • Clearly identify the start and finish line(s) and mark the entire course for race day using cones or chalk.
  • If participants will be out of sight for all or part of the race, plan on having plenty of marshals to guide runners and monitor the course.


If you will have a lot of participants and/or a narrow course, split the participants into groups, known as heats, and start heats one at a time.

  • We suggest no more than 50 runners per heat.
  • Decide how to organize heats in advance. You can divide participants by sex, class, age, height, skill, or simply by random assignment.
  • Plan on a way to identify and separate heats. One option is to have separate areas with signs where each group can congregate. You can then walk each group to the start when it is their turn to run. Another possibility is to distribute colored or numbered stickers or wristbands to identify each heat, which you can then check as runners line up to run.
  • Gather each heat 15 minutes before its start time so you can make sure all of the right participants are present for their heat.
  • If you have time, you can start each heat so it finishes before the next one begins. If you are tight on time, you can space each heat several minutes apart. In that case, be sure heats are far enough apart that runners in different heats will not overlap with one another.


There are many ways to time a cross country race. If you are interested in learning about more advanced options that may require bibs, officials, or advanced timing technology, e-mail us at

  • Designate a timer at the finish line. If a printing stopwatch is available, click it each time a runner crosses the finish line to record their place and time. Later, you can use this information to compile the race results. Alternatively, assign a timer and a recorder. The timer will call out times as runners finish for a colleague to write down.
  • Enlist several adults at the finish area to keep runners organized. When runners cross the finish line, keep them in order in a narrow area called a chute until you can note their finish places, names, and teams. Expedite this process by giving runners a sticker before the race with their name and team that you can remove at the finish line and organize on sheets of paper. If you don't have stickers, use a stack of pre-numbered index cards, indicating finish places, and hand them to runners as they finish. Runners can then proceed to a finish table to fill out their names and teams on the card. You can later match the finishers' names and places to the times on the stopwatch.


Cross country races are scored individually and/or by team. A runner receives points based on the place in which they finish. The goal is to earn as few points as possible. If your cross country event does not include teams, each individual’s score is the place in which they finished. Note that boys and girls races are scored separately, whether or not they run together. Keep reading for tips on how to score a standard cross country race.

  • A standard cross country team has seven scoring runners. You can allow teams with more runners as well as individuals, but they will not be considered in the team scoring.
  • The first five runners' scores are included in the team score. For example, if Team A's runners finish in 2nd, 7th, 8th, 12th, 18th, 30th, and 31st, Team A receives 47 points. The team with the lowest score wins.
  • Each scoring runner receives points corresponding to their overall place among other scoring runners. For example, if Team A has eight runners that finish in 1st through 8th place, and Team B's fastest runner finishes 9th, Team B’s top runner receives 8 points (Team A’s eighth runner is not included in scoring). In the event of a tie, you may consider including sixth and seventh place runners in team scores to determine a winner.
  • While the sixth and seventh runners do not count towards their team’s score, they can still help their team win. If the sixth runner on a team comes in before the fifth runner on another team, they help increase the other team's score.


Awards, however simple, are a great way to boost a participant's sense of achievement. You can award ribbons, patches, medals, certificates, or other small prizes to all finishers, top finishers, and/or top teams.

  • For a traditional team-scored event, tally the results and present awards to the top teams and top individual finishers.
  • For a less competitive event, you can station someone at the finish line to hand out participant awards as students finish or give them to each teacher or coach to distribute to their teams.


Make water available to runners at the finish. We suggest 24 ounces (3 cups) of water for each participant. You can buy water in gallon jugs and use small cups. Assign one or two adults to the water table at the finish line. Water fountains work, too, if you have ample access.


Always finish by congratulating the runners and thanking any helpers and spectators.



Consider starting the event with a group warm-up where you gather all participants together and have them follow along as an adult leads a simple warm-up routine comprised of dynamic stretches and/or a brief jog. You can also organize a group cool-down.

  • Try to position the warm-up/cool-down leader above or below the runners (using stairs, a hill, or a stage) so the kids see the leader and can copy their movements. Provide a microphone if available.
  • Play energizing music, if possible.
  • Check out these sample warm-up routines for some ideas:


In competitive settings, cross country runners often wear spikes. Spikes are shoes with metal spikes that improve a runner's traction. For a race with many beginners, or when a significant portion of the race will be run on hard surfaces (like concrete or asphalt), you may consider disallowing spikes. Check for any rules against spikes at the location of your race.


A complete list of all the Cross Country Race planning documents:

Event Planning Guide (pdf)

Planning Timeline (pdf)

Cross Country Staffing and Supplies Checklist (pdf)

Youth and Schools

New York Road Runners Mission