Andrea Hill competes in the 2021 Canadian Cross Country Masters Championships in Ottawa.

X-country is a sport for all ages — here’s why you should try it as a masters athlete

Like many road runners, the idea of cross country running — famous for steep hills, cold mud, and uneven terrain — was unappealing when I first considered it as an adult. 

But last fall, with race schedules still in flux because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was excited to run any in-person race I could. So when I learned the Canadian Cross Country Championships would take place in Ottawa, where I had recently moved, I signed up in the masters division.

The race was run in sub-zero temperatures on a course that has been described as “a swamp” and “unsafe.” Runners in the masters event had to run through a frozen stream three times and, when I finally finished, the laces on my spikes had frozen, trapping my feet inside. Yet mere hours after stumbling through the finish chute I was already making plans to do it all again next year — and am encouraging other masters athletes to do the same. 

Here’s why.

Cross country forces you to listen to your body. Many road runners tend to be ruled by their watches, constantly checking splits and measuring the value of workouts by numbers. But splits don’t mean as much in cross country where no two steps — let alone kilometres — are the same and courses are often non-standard distances (or approximate guesses). Training for cross country can help runners re-learn how to listen to their bodies and gauge workouts based on effort, not numbers.

It works new muscles. Training on soft, uneven terrain engages and strengthens muscles you don’t always use on the roads, including small stabilizing muscles in your feet and ankles. It also engages your brain; it’s remarkable how much more you need to pay attention when flying over undulating terrain compared to a paved road.

It lengthens the running season. Unless you’re training for a destination race over the winter, late fall can be a dead time for road racing. Having a cross country race on the calendar can provide motivation to get outdoors and stay active even as the days get colder and shorter. 

It’s an opportunity to score some PBs. Because most races are non-standard distances, any race may be an instant personal best. And because of how much variation there is in cross country courses, it’s probably best to think about chasing course PBs instead of distance PBs.  

You get to be part of a team. Road running is a notoriously individual sport, but cross country is scored by teams, with points awarded based on how the fastest runners rank. Grab some friends or recruit some teammates through forums like the Saskatoon Running Group Facebook page. Few things give you more encouragement to pass the runner ahead of you than knowing your teammates are counting on you.

The Canadian Cross Country Championships are back in Ottawa this year (though on a different course and hopefully with better weather) and I’ll be at the start line again. The event, which takes place Nov. 26, includes championship races for U18, U20, open and masters competitors.

Sooner, and closer to home, the Sask. Provincial Age Class Cross Country Championships take place in Saskatoon’s Victoria Park on Oct. 22. The deadline to register is Oct. 19. Now living in Ottawa, I now regret not having participated in this event when I lived closer. I hope other masters athletes consider it.