Walking, Hiking & Trail Running

Trail Running, Cross Country & Fell Running | What’s the Difference?

A breakdown of the different types of off-road running

There can often be a spot of confusion when it comes to trail running, cross country and fell running – sure they are all pretty much the same thing as they involve running off-road, right? Well, wrong, actually. While trail running and fell running are often interchangeable, cross country running really is in a league of its own. Read on to get a brief summary on the three running disciplines and how they differ from one another.

With very little equipment required, Fell, Cross Country, and Trail running are all easy to get in to. Photo: iStock

Cross Country Running Explained:

Cross country running is always off-road and is usually based in a forest or open field where there are obstacles to negotiate such as short hills, logs, roots and rocks. A cross country course will usually be reasonably short – 1,750 – 2,000 metres – and competitors will usually complete between three and six laps of the course as fast as possible. Races will often be team events, although some races will be geared towards individuals. In the team event, the times of the top four or five runners from a team of six will be added together, the team with the shortest total time will win the race. The cross country season runs in the autumn and winter months.

Trail and Fell Running Explained:

Trail running refers to almost any running that takes place off-road. Trail running can also be referred to as fell running and visa-versa, although technically fell running refers to running in mountainous terrain whereas trail running is all-encompassing – it includes coastal trails, flat forest trails and more hilly terrain. There is no trail running season as such, events take place all-year-round and trail running enthusiasts will tend to head out in hail, rain or shine.

Photo: iStock

What are the differences between trail running, cross country and fell running?

1) The kit: Trail and fell runners will wear trail running shoes with deeper rubber lugs than a road running shoe. They will also tend to run with a backpack containing water, spare layers and navigation tools as they will tend to be away from civilisation for longer periods of time.

Cross country runners wear minimal gear – often very short shorts and a singlet. Their shoes are also very different to that of a trail runner as they will wear metal or runner spikes to ensure they get maximum traction and therefore speed across muddy, technical terrain.

2) The terrain: Fell and trail running events usually take place far off the beaten track. Isolated coastal trails and mountainous terrain are popular haunts for trail runners. Cross country events will often take place close to a village or town and will often be in a forest or field.

“Isolated coastal trails and mountainous terrain are popular haunts for trail runners.”


3) The course: Cross country running usually takes place on a short course. An average cross country course will be between 1,750m and 2,000m. Competitors will then complete multiple laps of the course, covering a distance of between 8km and 12km.

Trail runners tend to cover much longer distances. Trail running and fell running races are totally varied in distance – they can be anywhere from 10km to 250km.

4) Elevation gain: Fell running will always involve long, steep ascents and descents as the route might take in multiple peaks. Cross country running will never have more than a couple of very short, albeit often sharp, hills to tackle.

Training practices are a big difference between Cross Country and Trail running. Photo: iStock

5) The training: Training for cross country will be quite regimented. The majority of cross country runners will be a member of a club and will meet several times a week to train, sticking to quite a rigid routine. Trail runners however will tend to do most of their training on the weekends. Generally this training will involve long runs on remote trails that they will often have travelled to. It is often quite a social affair as groups of friends will head out together and will walk up the hills and jog the flats and the descents at a reasonable pace that lends itself well to a good bit of chat.

6) The races: Cross country is a highly regulated sport with set distances and a set points system. Fell and trail running races are a lot more varied. Some races will be self-navigated while others will be marked for example. The distances and the difficulty of the terrain can also be very different from event to event.

you May Also Like:

Trail Running Events in the UK | 5 of the Best

Top 5 Fell Running Kit Essentials


Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.