10 Best Cross Country Track & Field Shoes in 2021

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10 Best Cross Country Track & Field Shoes in 2021

Cross country can be wild. Lasting from October to February, it poses plenty of challenges for athletes and their footwear. Muddy areas, knee-deep puddles, obstacles to jump over, steep hills, twisty trails — all in one course. But what helps you get through the race with a higher chance of having fun is the right pair of cross country (XC) shoes.

We have field-tested over 10 spikes and flats to help you choose the best pair. Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced runner, we’ve got a top pick for you.

How we select the best XC shoes

Although it’s a rather small category and only a few brands produce models specifically for cross country, we still want to get the cream of that crop. Here is our method:

  • include all available brands and models (Nike, New Balance, Saucony, Adidas, Altra, Hoka, Brooks, etc.)
  • transform hundreds of user reviews into a simple Good/Bad/Bottom line format
  • give each shoe a CoreScore from 0 to 100 for faster comparison

Quite often, a higher price does NOT translate to a higher CoreScore.

What makes a good cross country shoe

Even at first glance, you will notice that XC models differ from typical running shoes. Here are the four key design components that make cross country shoes a better fit for their intended sport:

What makes a good cross country shoe.png

  • Snug fit. Sleek, streamlined upper feels like an extension of the foot. It’s needed for speedy runs, rapid turns, and uneven terrain.
  • Super lightweight. Around 4.5 oz (130 g) lighter than an average running shoe to keep you feeling fast and agile.
  • Grip. Rubber nubs or metal spikes bite into mud, grass, and other soft surfaces.
  • Minimal cushioning. A thin, low-profile midsole is just enough for the cross country race distance. It offers a better ground feel and control. This setup also forces you to land on the forefoot, which is more optimal for speed.

If you are a cross country beginner - start easy!

Putting on your first pair of XC shoes can feel weird or even uncomfortable. Allow your body to adapt to the new sensation that differs from the accustomed plush feel of cushioned running shoes.

Try 100-500 meter runs on softer ground like grass. Also, limit your meet distances to 3 to 5K (2-3 miles) in the first few weeks.

It is possible to have slight soreness in the feet, shins, calves, or Achilles in the beginning, but if the pain aggravates, we strongly advise consulting a doctor.

Best cross country shoes for beginners

XC shoes priced at $70 and below are typically meant for those who are just starting out. Apart from being easy on the wallet, they are also made more friendly for an entry-level runner:

  • there is a bit more cushioning
  • the fit is slightly more forgiving
  • feel more like trainers

Cross country spikes at $100+ are targeted at competitive, varsity, or even elite runners. They have the lightest weight (4-4.5 oz / 115-130 g) and come with some additional technologies that boost performance, like a carbon plate or unique spike designs.

Most beginners might think that spikes are necessary for cross country, but it’s not always the case. Find out whether spikes are right for you in the section below.

Spikes vs. flats

Quick answer: If in doubt, choose flats.

XC spikes

XC flats (aka spikeless, waffles)

XC spikes.png

XC flats.png

Pros

  • better grip for muddy, sloppy, slippery conditions, grass, loose dirt, steep hills 
  • extra traction helps maintain speed during turns
  • better for courses that include harder surfaces (hard-packed trails, pavement, etc.)
  • allowed everywhere

Cons

  • not allowed by some meets and state federations
  • uncomfortable on hard surfaces
  • not as much grip as in spikes

A few more points to remember about spikes:

  • Beginner XC shoes have 4 spikes, while competitive models have 5-8
  • More spikes = more traction
  • Longer spikes = more traction
Spikes are NOT allowed in California! No spikes in california.png
California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) prohibits cross country spikes in California high school competitions. So, athletes in this area must only wear flats during meets.

Aren’t cross country shoes the same as track and field shoes?

Not really.

True, XC shoes look very similar to track & field shoes, especially the spiked models. But there are a few principal differences:

Cross country shoes Track & field shoes
Cross country.png Track and field.png
  • more cushioning and rubber for longer distances
  • thicker upper to withstand debris, rocks, dirt, etc.
  • less cushioning and stiffer because of the spike plate
  • thinner upper
  • come in three styles depending on the event (sprint, mid-, and long-distance)

Can I use track shoes for cross country? Yes, BUT go with models for long-distance runs and try them out on a practice run before the competition.

Can I use XC shoes for the track? Yes, BUT they work better for longer distances as they are heavier than sprint shoes. They also lack the propulsive stiffness of dedicated T&F shoes.

Getting the right fit in XC shoes

There are a few things you’ll notice when trying out a pair of cross country trainers:

  • there is less room around the toes than in running shoes/sneakers
  • perfect size could be half-a-size smaller than most of your footwear
  • most XC models are unisex, so ladies will have 1-1.5 size smaller than the usual

Shoe fit.png

A few more tips on fitting a XC shoe

  • fit should be snug but not cramped
  • there is half a thumb space between your longest toe and the front of the shoe
  • when in doubt, try going with the same brand that you have for running shoes, as sizing could be familiar
  • if you have wide feet, try Altra Vanish XC, as it has the widest toe box

Other types of shoes for cross country

For practice sessions, especially when you are new to the sport, other types of running shoes could work as an alternative. However, for competitions, it is still recommended to get a proper cross country shoe.

Here are some of the categories that could or must not be used:

Suitable cross country shoes.png

See road race shoes

See lightweight trail shoes

If you opt for trail shoes, avoid the overly rugged models that are meant for technical terrain, as they are too heavy and cumbersome for the nimble nature of XC.

And if your course includes particularly muddy areas, look for deeper-lugged trail shoes (8mm+). But beware that they are more likely to get clogged than spikes. So, for soft ground, we recommend sticking to XC spikes for the best experience. Thin and deep, they bite into the terrain and let go just as easily.