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Youth Sports Profile: Cross Country Running

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If your child loves to run and loves to be outdoors, cross country running could be the ideal sport for him. There's no running circles around a track in this sport—the variety of courses and terrains is what keeps many cross country runners coming back for more.

The basics: In cross country running, races are held outdoors on natural terrain. That usually means hills and grass or dirt surfaces (golf courses and parks are common venues). Most races are 4 to 12 kilometers long (or 2.5 to 7.5 miles).

In cross country competition, runners race individually, earning points for their team based on their finishing position. So a first place finish earns one point, second place two points, and so on; the team with the least number of points wins.

Because of the uneven terrain, cross country running requires a different technique than running on a track or road. Runners have to be able to shorten their stride, use their core muscles to help balance and stay upright, and angle their toes slightly outward to keep from slipping on the course.

Age kids can start: Kids as young as 5 or so can start running informally and joining in community fun runs. Very talented kids under 8 can participate in the Junior Olympics (see "Levels," below). Most kids start competing in cross country running in middle school or high school.

Skills needed/used: Cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance.

Best for kids who are: Determined; happy to spend time outside in all kinds of weather.

Season/when played: Traditionally, interscholastic cross country competition happens in the fall, with track and field events taking place in the spring; some cross country runners also compete in longer distance track events.

Team or individual? Both. Runners race in individual events on behalf of a school or club team. Kids that start out in cross country running may later enjoy competing in individual events, like 10Ks or marathons, although many of these are held on roads rather than off-road trails.

Levels: USA Track and Field's Junior Olympics offers events for kids in 2-year age groupings, starting from 8 and under and continuing to age 17-18. Your child can likely join a cross country team in middle or high school. High schoolers typically run a longer course.

At the university level, the NCAA oversees men's and women's events. The men run 10,000 meters and the women run 6,000 meters. Distance runners compete in the summer Olympic Games (every four years) and in half-marathons and marathons all over the world—many of which are open to amateurs too, making long-distance running a lifelong sport. (Again, these events tend to be held on tracks or roads, so they differ from true cross country events.)

Appropriate for kids with special needs: Yes. The Special Olympics has a track and field program (known as athletics) that includes long-distance running events.

Fitness factor: High, since kids must put in a lot of training time and build strength and endurance.

Equipment: Running shoes (cross country shoes come with and without spikes) and a uniform for competing. For training, runners wear comfortable, lightweight clothing, plus gear for rain or other inclement weather as needed.

Costs: Individual event registration fees range from free to $20 or more. Joining a club may cost as little as $15 and up to $250 or more, depending on the type of club. Many clubs also require membership in USA Track and Field or the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), at a cost of $15 to $20 a year. School teams are usually free or have a nominal participation fee. For both types of teams, fundraising is often required to help cover the costs of special events or travel to out-of-town meets.

Time commitment required: Clubs and teams usually require practices two to three times a week, or more for advanced athletes. A meet can last an afternoon, a day, or an entire weekend.

Potential for injury: Medium. Overuse injuries are possible if a runner trains too intensively. Outdoor training and meets mean a risk of dehydration and heat stress. You can get a tip sheet on preventing running injuries from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

How to find cross country programs: Check with your child's school or your local parks and rec department. If your child is in elementary or middle school, she may be able to join a running club that participates in cross country events.

Associations and governing bodies:

If your child likes cross-country running, also try: Track and field, cross-country skiing, hiking, rock climbing.

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