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Insider Look: What goes into a cross country race

The average person doesn’t run 8 kilometers every day, but for student athletes in Belmont’s cross country team, that’s the norm.

What flies under the radar is the amount of preparation, training and recovery that goes into just one cross country race. Between warmups, stretches, ice baths and roll-outs, running is the most straightforward part of the event.

Preparation is key, and junior cross country runner Ben Naegar stressed how important the pre-race routine is to a runner’s overall success at the event.

“There are so many things that go into actually being race ready or workout ready. There is a lot of recovery more so than actual getting up and doing the workout or race.”

One aspect of preparation comes in the form of nutrition. On the day before the race, the thing that matters most is what a runner puts into their body. For Naegar — that’s pasta.

“I always eat pasta, that’s for sure. A lot of it is a team thing, but anywhere we go we tend to always get Olive Garden,” said Naegar.

His favorite dish is the fettuccine alfredo with chicken, which carries upwards of 92 carbohydrates, well more than enough to fuel Naegar for a five mile race.

With the pre-race meal handled, as well as the pre-race stretching and recovery, the challenge of the true cross country race is ready to be tackled.

How each race is approached depends on the outdoor conditions. Typically, Naegar breaks the race down into four distinct sections that require different actions from the runner at each checkpoint.

First there’s the opening 200 meters. It is during this stage that runners want to get out to a fast start, while also not overexerting themselves, leaving them tired for the remainder of the race, Naegar said.

Next up is the first mile, and for some runners it can be difficult because of the exhaustion from a quick start, Naegar said.

“I always think the first mile is the most crucial. You don’t want to be too fast and you don’t want to be too slow and get stuck in the back,” said Naeger.

What’s left to conquer for runners as they pass the one mile checkpoint is the one and a half mile to three mile section of the race. Here is where runners are settling into their pace and things seem to steady up. Some runners have to navigate around slower runners who burnt themselves out in the first mile trying to hold on to an unsustainable pace, Naegar said.

“For the most part, things typically stay pretty steady,” said Naeger. “There will be people who have gone out too hard and they will begin falling back so you have to work your way around them.”

Lastly there is the final three and a half miles to the finish. Here is where the race will pick up and runners will be sprinting for a higher position in the final standings.

“You find out who’s really here to race, and who is tougher than who,” said Naeger. “This is the most difficult part of the race, because you have to stay focused. Their race is always happening before you.”

The push to the finish in a cross country event is extremely taxing on the body compared to the earlier sections. Often runners are breathing heavily and their legs are tired, making each step forward in the event more strenuous than the last.

A cross country race can present a challenge for any athlete. However, it’s the mental and physical preparation that often carries a runner through some of the most difficult courses. And even still, cross country runners look forward to the end of an extremely long race.

“Usually my chest hurts from breathing so heavy, and I’m really anticipating the finish, because I just want to be done.”

This article written by Ian Kayanja. Video produced by Steven Boero.

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