Why Do Women Still Run Shorter Distances in Cross Country?

A girl with braids races cross countryNot too long ago, the thought of women running was enough to give everyone the vapors. But trail blazers like Babe Didrickson, Doris Brown, Bobbi Gibbs showed the world that not only could women run, they could run pretty fast and pretty far while keeping their uteri intact. We may laugh now about the sheer absurdity of these misconceptions, but there are still instances where women run shorter distances than men. This is particularly the case when it comes cross country racing at all levels.

It seems unlikely that members of the NCAA, USATF or IAAF think women are less capable. Women compete in the same distances as men in all types of major national and international running competition aside from cross country on the track, roads, and trails. If that is the case, why are women running shorter distances than men in cross country?

Before we get to why women run shorter races for cross country than men, we need a little context.

What are the races in which men and women run different distances?

If you’ve heard about the issue of race distance and gender inequality recently, it’s likely been in the context of U.S. high school cross country. By the 2016 season all but 2 states had equal race distances for boys and girls cross country.

But this problem is hardly confined to high school. On Monday, the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) announced that going forward, women will run 10k like the men instead of 7k.

In a similar move, the IAAF announced in October 2015 that at the highest level of international cross country competition, World Cross, men and women will now race the same distance (10k). However, at the U.S. collegiate and national or club levels, women still race only 6k compared to 8k or 10k for men. 

If we have proven that women can run hard and fast and long without differential negative effects when compared to men, why does this discrepancy in race distances persist?

Women can’t handle it?

Although most believe that women can handle the same distances as men, there is still a segment of the population that believes that women are less capable, weaker, and unable to handle the rigors of distance training. Indeed, this belief has historically been the justification for having women compete in fewer and shorter events than men. After a newspaper report chronicled how exhausted the women were following the 800m race at the 1928 Olympic Games, the first Olympics to have women’s track and field competition, the event was dropped from the Olympics and did not return until the 1960 Games. Women did not compete in the marathon until the 1984 Olympics. Yet, women did not race in the 3000 meter steeplechase until 2008, a full 108 years after the event was first contested by men in the modern Olympics and 34 years after they were allowed to compete in the marathon. What gives?

Prevalence of eating disorders in collegiate running?

One common belief it seems is that women runners, especially young women, are more susceptible to eating disorders and therefore need less pressure or to be protected from stress. Eating disorders are a huge problem in running and some fear that the prevalence of eating disorders and corresponding injuries on college women’s teams would only become worse if the jump in distance from high school to college was bigger. Currently, most high school girls run 5k in cross country and then 6k in college, where most men run 5k in high school and then 8k or 10k in college.

When it comes to eating disorders, are shorter distances for women really the answer? I think we need to look at the running community, our culture, the way we talk about bodies and running and food, and start there. The question of race distance is largely a separate matter. Eating disorders are so vicious and all-consuming that an added 2k of race distance is unlikely to be a major contributor, relatively, to the long-term physical and psychological damage they can wreak. And many of those women potentially harmed by the combination of added race distance and eating disorder will be training for the track 10k in the spring anyway. 

More pressure on female collegiate runners?

Another argument is that more is already expected of women in their first year of college running than of men, in terms of dropping fast times, scoring conference points, and winning races, so adding additional distance for cross country races would just add to that pressure. The top high school girls in the country are often competing on the national elite level, against pro women, whereas that scenario is less common among male prep runners. For example, in the 1500m at the Olympic Trials this past summer, there were two high school girls in the race, and one more who had run a provisional time but did not make the Trials. The men’s side had no high school athletes. 

Coaches and the runners themselves seem to have a lot of faith in the four-year trajectory for men: a male runner is all but guaranteed to get stronger and faster over the course of college, so the expectation is that he will gradually improve at the 8k or 10k and there is less pressure to contribute as a freshman. With girls there’s an almost opposite notion: she will not get faster with age, puberty, in fact, will slow her down, so better to get all those races in before her hips fill out. This attitude is made worse by the small increase in distance between high school and college for women, which creates an expectation that they will perform at a higher level and contribute to their team earlier in their college careers.

The reality of increased pressure is valid, but increasing the race distance for women might encourage some coaches, at least good coaches, to put less pressure on women in their first year of college running, and adopt the long view like they more frequently do with the men.   

Race distances set for female middle distance runners?

Perhaps the major reason why many college coaches are so hesitant to increase the women’s racing distance is that adding kilometers would hamper the cross country success of female middle-distance track runners. College teams who succeed in cross country mainly through the performances of middle-distance track stars would become less dominant if the distances were increased. This reasoning privileges the success of one type of runner over others: 10k-oriented track runners would do better in an 8k or 10k than a 6k.

Inclusivity is certainly important and higher participation is good for the sport, so if the shorter distance makes more people able to participate then it’s worth considering. For that reason, an upper cap on the distance seems wise. Increase the distance too much and it will start to discourage participation. Milers can still be contributors in cross country running an 8k though, they just might not be as successful as they are on the track, which is okay. Everyone doesn’t need to be, nor should be, equally good at every sport. Though of course there is much overlap between the two, track and cross country are fundamentally different sports, and I believe this distinction merits consideration.

Of course, the same is true of male mid-distance runners, that they are less likely than true distance guys to be major contributors over long XC races. But since men’s cross country has been long distance since it began, historically successful cross country programs often go hand-in-hand with strong distance track programs, whereas for women, since cross country has been and continues to be a shorter event, good cross country teams are more commonly made up of fast middle-distance runners, as is the case with Villanova, for example.


Two high school runners hold hands as they run up a steep hill
Women runners might surprise some people with their capabilities.

Cross country, at its heart, is a long distance sport, as has always been the case on the men’s side. But I argue that women have not been competing in true cross country. We are still denied the opportunity to participate fully in the sport we love and it’s time for change. Having women race a shorter distance contributes subtly to the suggestion that we are less capable: because women do not, it implies that we cannot.

Despite the fact that women’s sports have gained so much ground in the last few decades, there is too often the tendency to view them in comparison with men’s sports and consider them just the softer, slower, watered-down version of the real deal. Women’s shorter race distance contributes to this, making women’s cross country seem like the kiddie version of the true distance sport.

What do you think?  Are their additional reasons for women to run short cross country distances I’ve left out?  Should cross country race distances be the same for women and men across all levels?

I am a runner based in Boston. I am also an AmeriCorps member and soon-to-be grad student. I like to write about gender disparities in running and the mental aspects of training and racing.

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  1. This is a great article, Chive. I agree that cross country distances should be the same for women and men. There’s no physiological reason for the current disparity, and I really do think it’s a holdover from an era when women were considered less capable and too fragile to participate fully in athletics. Maintaining the disparity today just reinforces those stereotypes.

  2. Caveat – I did not run cross-country in college – I played a different varsity sport, but I’ve followed this debate a bit because here in Canada, we largely have un-equal distances. At a first glance, I was all for equal distances, but when I did a bit more reading, my perspective started to change. The fact is, women are slower than men. To run the same mileage to train for the longer distance race would take them more hours than it would for a man – which means more strain on developing bodies. Throw in the fact that the hormone changes going on for a college-age female are dramatically different than they are for a man (it is not uncommon for women to actually get slower through the end of high school/start of college due to naturally increasing fat/weight, before they start to get faster again, while generally men just get faster as they build muscle with their hormonal changes), and you’re looking at two different sets of athletes. Equity does not always mean to the be the same.

    Good article from Lauren Fleshman here as well, in rebuttal to one about the Canadian system – http://asklaurenfleshman.com/2015/11/discussing-equality-in-ncaa-cross-country/

    Great piece and a good discussion to be having!

    1. Hmm. Yeah, it almost seems like the problem is less a male/female disparity, especially at the college level, but more of a physical development disparity where some late-adolescents will be too taxed by a 10k, while others wouldn’t. The problem seems that the sport is one set distance. And I agree that if we want parity we should not simply make a woman’s race longer, but consider bringing the men’s race “down” to the shorter distance. The solution should be based on the what the aims of the sport are: if the aim is to be inclusive of a more diverse range of runners than a shorter distance makes sense. If the aims are for the race to be more of a test of endurance, then a longer one makes sense. I would say it makes sense to look at the sport as a whole, both men and women, to set distances. I do get uncomfortable saying that women generally need x, while men z because of hormones, etc. I think that is dangerous territory, personally.

      1. If the goal is to be more inclusive then why not have the guys do shorter distances to include some of the more mid-distance type guys too? I think its quite a stretch to say that 10k for men is good for an 800 runner.
        I also don’t really get the argument regarding strain on developing bodies and it being harder on females (mentioned by Jesse). Women mature EARLIER than men. By college a female who has developed according to normal physiologic curves should basically be done. If she’s underdeveloped in college than she’s either at the very end of the bell curve, or if its secondary to disordered eating then the onus of that should be on her high school life. Conversely, with the later male development curve many males are still growing and developing into college.
        Additionally, as the races get longer the performance gap between males and females shrinks (think ultras) so one could even argue that a longer distance is playing into the STRENGTH of female physiology
        The argument that I have heard that is only semi mentioned here (in Jesses original comment) is that it just takes longer for women to run the same distance. Personally that argument annoys me. Who cares? If you don’t like watching it– don’t.

        It annoyed me to no end in college that the women ran shorter. If we ran 10k I would have been a seriously more competitive runner in cross country. If its supposed to be a distance sport, make it distance running. The continually lowering of the time standard for the omens olympic trials marathon has showed that if you raise the standards for us women (in our relative infancy in competitive sport) then we will rise to meet the standards. In mind my it is horrific that the NCAA has not yet followed suit with that mind frame. If you challenged us to run 8k or 10k fast in cross, I’m sure droves of distance girls would rise to that. Give us the chance.

        1. All very excellent points. I particularly agree that the “it takes longer argument” is ridiculous. There really is no good reason – at least none that I’ve heard – why the race distances should be different for men and women.

  3. I agree that many of the reasons why we assume women can’t run longer distances are simply excuses to not deal with the larger societal problem surrounding gender issues and athletics. While I don’t believe that men and women have to be engaging in the sport in the same ways, I do believe it’s important to reshape our societal attitudes surrounding the capabilities of women.