9 of the best cross country running shoes in 2021
The ultimate guide to choosing the very best cross country running shoes (and nine of our top picks).
There are very few sports as exciting as cross country running for athletic enthusiasts, there’s something about the mud, hills, and countless falls that gets the blood pumping, whether you’re a runner or a spectator.
Despite this, if you are lacing up to race this October, then finding the best cross country running shoes can be difficult – as you’ve likely already experienced. Therefore, in this article, we will highlight nine of the best pairs for men and women, including a range of spikes and regular trail running shoes that work just as well on the rough, muddy, and often hectic terrain.
We also have a plethora of advice for choosing the best shoe for you, general advice on cross country running, and a short FAQ.
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The best cross country running shoes
If you’re relatively new to the world of cross country running, or perhaps haven’t raced in the depths of the mud and hills in a while, then choosing a shoe can be difficult. Therefore, we’ve done the hard work for you, selecting each shoe based on prior experience, multiple reviews, and further information.
1. Nike Zoom rival cross country running spikes
- Six spike design for superior grip
- Anatomical heel reinforces proper running form
- Overlays provide additional support and increased durability
- Ideal for beginners
- Can be used for both track and cross country running
- May require a half size up if you have particularly wide feet
To begin with, we have the Nike Zoom rival men’s cross country running spikes (a women’s version is also available). Unlike other spikes, these are ideal for beginners, not only thanks to the affordable price tag, but the versatility, allowing you to run regular track and also cross country with the same pair.
Following on from this, like most competitive spikes, you benefit from a six spike design, providing superior grip on the toughest of surfaces. Despite this, some runners may need to choose a half size up if they have particularly wide feet – just something to keep in mind when looking for XC shoes.
- Cushioned midsole provides a lightweight and supportive ride
- Six spike design offers excellent grip for XC running
- Anatomical heel
- The spikes feel light on foot to provide you with that extra kick in your stride
- Speed laces ensure a snug fit to increase comfort & performance when racing
- May run a little tight
- Not the best choice for those with wide feet
Next up, we have a fairly similar XC running spike, also from Nike. For starters, this spike also utilises a six spike design for improved grip in the mud and wet surfaces. However, unlike the pair above, the Zoom Victory 5 contains speed laces to ensure a snug fit to increase comfort and performance.
As to be expected, these cross country running spikes are also lightweight and breathable, providing that extra kick in your stride we all need when chasing that personal best.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that this pair also run a little tight and are perhaps not the best for those with wide feet. This appears to be a trend with Nike spikes (and other brands), so it’s all about finding the best shoe for you.
- New Balance REVlite technology is lightweight & comfortable
- Mesh upper for increased ventilation
- Aggressive outsole design for fast running on the toughest of terrains
- Smart lacing system secures the midfoot for a comfortable and responsive run
- Narrow design (may require a half to a full size larger than normal)
The New Balance XC 7 v3 cross country running spikes are a great alternative if you’re not a fan of Nike. To begin with, you will benefit from an aggressive outsole design, allowing you to attack the toughest and slippiest of terrains with confidence. Second, New Balance’s REVlite technology is a welcomed addition, lightweight and comfortable on the foot.
Much like the Nike Zoom Victory’s above, this pair from NB also utilise speed laces for that secure and comfortable fit. However, once again, the shoe is particularly narrow, so you may require a half to a full size larger than normal, especially if you have wide feet.
- Hydrophobic mesh upper design enhances breathability and comfort
- Five spike design
- Innerflex midsoles provided additional grip
- Plenty of room in the toe box
- Can be worn as a trail running shoe without the spikes
- Other spikes seem more durable
The Altra golden cross country running shoes utilise a signature hydrophobic mesh upper design to enhance breathability and comfort, excellent for cross country running. Unlike the Nike spikes, these make use of a five spike design, but still provide great grip and traction when tackling those tough and muddy courses.
You will also benefit from an innerflex midsole for additional grip, preventing your foot from sliding and keeping it in place. These cross country running shoes are a much better-suited option for those with wider feet, providing plenty of room in the toe box without sacrificing durability.
- Lightweight design
- Mesh upper and no-sew overlays provides a secure and comfortable fit
- Responsive to various terrains, offering excellent grip
- Competitive price, especially when compared with larger brands
- Can be worn with or without the spikes
- Not the best for those with wide feet (they run a little narrow)
- Sole runs a little thin
- Spikes are not included
Next up, we have the Saucony Kilkenny cross country running spikes, a competitor to many other popular XC shoes. For starters, the lightweight and breathable design make these ideal for racing, further complemented by the excellent grip when the spikes are used.
Similarly to the Altra spikes above, this pair can also be worn without the spikes. However, we recommend always using these for cross country running. Nonetheless, although the spike is competitive, much like the Nike spikes as aforementioned, this pair from Saucony is not recommended for those with wider feet. Also, there are definitely more durable shoes available, with some runners reporting the soles to run rather thin on these spikes.
- EVA midsole is responsive and lightweight
- Six spike design offers increased grip and stability
- Superior moisture management technology
- No-sew overlays reduce friction and improves grip
- High durability
- Not the best choice for those with wide feet
The final XC running spike we have for you is the Adidas Adizero (spike version). This is a remake of the popular road running shoe for cross country, delivering equally as good performance all at a competitive price.
The signature EVA midsole is responsive and lightweight, complemented by the regular six spike design for added grip, stability, and comfort when racing through mud and other obstacles. Unlike other shoes, including the pair from Saucony above, the Adizero’s are super durable, able to take a beating and last a long time when properly taken care of.
Despite this, these do also run slightly narrow. If you have particularly wide feet, you may benefit more from a different shoe, such as the Hoka One One gore-tex speedgoat, our number nine choice which you can find below.
- Graphene grip provides unrivalled traction
- 8mm rubber studs provide grip on soft, hard, and even rocky terrains
- Snug and durable fit
- Super-versatile but equally as good for running in the wet or mud during the XC season
- Lightweight and non-water absorbing provides a comfortable and fast ride
- Treads may wear down faster in comparison to other trail shoes
The first trail running shoe on our list is the popular Inov-8 X-Talon G 235. While not intended exclusively for XC running, the 8mm rubber studs provide unrivalled grip and traction across all terrains (including mud).
The fit is snug and durable, while it’s also super versatile, non-water absorbing, and lightweight for a fast and comfortable run during the cross country season.
Sometimes, packing a trail running shoe alongside your spikes can be a great idea, as sometimes, spikes are not the way to go (whether the ground is too hard or too soft). However, the treads on these shoes may wear down faster in comparison to others, especially if you also run on tarmac and other non-intended surfaces.
- 8mm studs claw through mud and provide excellent grip
- Water dispersion on the studs further improves grip and waterproofing
- Improved protection in the forefoot area of the shoe
- The world’s toughest grip (longer lasting and stronger than others)
- Not the best on the tarmac
- Some users may find these a little too tight
Another shoe from Inov-8, this time, we have the immensely popular Mudclaw trail running shoes. If you don’t already know, these shoes contain the world’s toughest grip, made for the most challenging of terrains. Oh, and they’re also super durable!
While the shoe can be worn on all sorts of surfaces, these trail running shoes really come into their own on mud, hence the name “mudclaw.” For those particularly muddy XC tracks, you’ll want nothing else on your feet, making easy work of the toughest conditions.
In comparison to regular spikes, you benefit from greater protection in the forefoot of the shoe, excellent for navigating obstacles, and even better when running on rocks and other potentially dangerous terrains.
We should mention, however, that these are not the best for tarmac (but that was to be expected). Similarly, some runners may find these a little tight, particularly if you have wide feet. But in general, the fit is true to size, so many runners can (and do) benefit from the well-designed, popular shoe.
- Gore-tex waterproofing keeps your feet dry whatever the weather
- Light and responsive midsole for fast and responsive running
- 5mm stepped lugs provide enhanced grip on the toughest of surfaces
- Vibram megagrip rubber outsole provides excellent traction
- Water-resistant upper
- Wider forefoot design, making it ideal for those with wider feet
- Better suited to trail and fell running as opposed to cross country
The final XC shoe we have for you is the Hoka One One gore-tex speedgoat. While it is not intended exclusively for cross country running, it can certainly be included in your arsenal.
So, what makes this shoe so special? For starters, although the shoe is designed for the trail, it is lightweight and responsive, allowing for fast running. However, the 5mm steeped lugs provide enhanced grip on some of the toughest of surfaces, allowing you to focus on your run.
In comparison to the regular Speedgoat shoes from Hoka One One, this one contains a gore-tex design, this is basically enhanced waterproofing designed to keep your feet dry in the worst conditions. This is a huge advantage when racing on those particularly wet and muddy courses, providing you with extra grip and much-needed comfort.
Furthermore, the forefoot design is wider than other shoes out there. This makes it a great option for those with regular or wider feet – something which many spikes fail to cater towards. The shoe, however, is better suited to trail and fell running, but if you find it comfortable, on the right XC track you’ll be prepared to put in a great race.
What is the difference between cross country running shoes and track shoes?
If you have a pair of track shoes or spikes, then you may be tempted to lace these up for your next cross country event. However, are these safe to wear, and what’s the difference between the two lightweight shoes?
Generally, cross country running shoes and spikes contain more cushioning than track shoes, mainly in the forefoot and rearfoot. In comparison, track spikes are lighter and contain less cushioning, designed for increased speed and worn to enforce proper and quick running form.
If you’re working on a budget or don’t want to purchase a pair of cross country running spikes, you can always wear a pair of trail or fell running shoes. Alternatively, you may consider attaching cross country spikes to your track shoes (just make sure they are not white…).
Is it okay to wear trail running shoes for cross country running?
Depending on the course, some runners may opt to wear trail running shoes for cross country running. These can be useful for harder ground and particularly muddy courses, providing you with more grip and traction, possibly allowing you to run faster.
If choosing to wear trail running shoes, however, you should choose a pair with a deeper lug depth for extra grip and support. Despite this, on tracks with less mud and softer ground, typically traditional cross country running shoes and spikes are likely to be the better option.
Often, many runners choose to bring both a pair of spikes and trail running shoes with them for race day. This allows them to switch up if necessary before the race, ensuring they provide themselves with the best possible shoe for the optimal race strategy.
How to choose the best cross country running shoe for you
Much like Cinderella and the glass slipper, not all spikes and shoes will work the same for each runner. Running in a shoe too loose or too tight offers obvious downsides, while equally, running in a shoe that is not comfortable may not only cause blisters and other discomfort, but may increase your risk of injury, too.
This is why it is important to take the time to find the best XC shoe for you, perhaps trying on multiple spikes, trail shoes, and other options available. It is worth noting that most cross country running shoes are unisex, so women, in particular, may need to choose a size one to two sizes smaller than usual.
Other advice you may wish to consider when choosing a pair of XC shoes or spikes include:
- XC running shoes typically have less room in the toe box
- You may wish to choose at least a half size down or up than usual (more for women if opting for a unisex pair)
- Your foot should not be too tight but it should be comfortable and somewhat snug
- Comfort is king – choose a shoe that fits well and provides great cushioning and support
How do cross country running spikes work?
Running spikes (and XC shoes) work differently from regular running shoes. For starters, running spikes enable you to run faster on given terrain, providing you with extra grip, greater spring and push off from the forefoot, and not to mention, an overall lighter design.
Unlike other shoe options, with spikes, you have an option of length (how long of a spike you choose to use). If the track is particularly muddy, then you may choose a 12-15mm length, but for drier courses, anywhere from 3-8mm is fairly standard and recommended.
Cross country running spikes are usually the go-to shoe for XC events, mainly due to the lightweight design that offers superior grip on various different courses. Of course, however, you may also see trail and fell running shoes, such as the popular Inov-8 Mudclaw trail running shoes (as seen in this article).
It’s not just about shoe choice – you also need to dress for the weather
While your choice of footwear for cross country running is crucial, you also need to dress for the weather. While this may seem like fairly obvious advice, we often see far too many people underdressed on race day.
Ideally, you should bring a few extra layers and a waterproof jacket with you on race day (or a race weekend). Consider packing a pair of tights, extra socks, running gloves, and other warm running essentials. Wear these before your race to stay warm, and after your race to prevent you from getting ill.
While this is rather straightforward advice, staying warm will improve your performance. Oh, and you’ll have a much more enjoyable time!
Frequently asked questions
To finish, we’ve gathered together a handful of popular frequently asked questions about the best cross country running shoes and XC in general. You will find these below:
What are the best shoes for cross country?
The best cross country shoes are typically XC spikes. However, you can also wear trail shoes such as the popular Inov-8 Mudclaws.
Are men's and women's cross country running shoes different?
Often cross country running shoes are unisex. If choosing a unisex pair, you may require a size down (if you are a woman) or perhaps a size up for a true fit. We recommend reading the size guide before purchasing to avoid disappointment.
How are cross country shoes different?
XC shoes are different as these are more robust and designed for the rough and often muddy terrain. These shoes provide you with excellent grip to navigate the toughest of courses and obstacles.
Matthew is an avid runner, freelance writer, Durham University graduate, and the founder of Running101.