Seeing the Forest

Although cross country may seem like a risk-free sport, there can be a host of hazards behind every turn. A well-maintained course and structured supervision are key.

By Dr. Richard P. Borkowski

Richard P. Borkowski, EdD, CAA, is a sport safety consultant based in Narberth, Pa. The former Director of Physical Education and Athletics at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., his most recent book is titled The School Sports Safety Handbook, published by LRP Publications, in Horsham, Pa.

Athletic Management, 12.5, August/September 2000,

Cross country is an athletic director’s dream sport. It’s inexpensive, has no facility upkeep, and no crowd control problems. Spectators, if any, don’t yell at officials—most dual meets don’t even have officials.
Adding to its attractiveness, cross country is also a low-risk sport. It is not, however, without hazards. Overall, it has three major concerns: the risk of injuries, the observation of runners, and the monitoring of courses.

Avoiding Injuries
The wear and tear on an athlete’s legs during a cross country season can easily lead to overuse injuries. But such injuries can be curtailed if precautions are taken. And these precautions depend on having a well-educated coaching staff.
The first step is to make sure that athletes are taught how to run properly. Coaches must also be well trained in the proper work-to-rest ratio for this sport and how to establish progressive workouts that include warmups and cooldowns. It’s also critical that coaches take seriously any athlete’s mention of strains and pulls.
Overuse injuries can also be lessened by discouraging continual running on hard street-like surfaces. In addition, running shoes should be carefully chosen and replaced after three months or 300 miles of use.
Tripping and falling is another common injury in cross country. Despite the success of some African runners who compete shoeless, appropriate shoes and socks are a must for American high school athletes. One coach suggested to me that failure to tie shoes tightly caused the most accidents (A loose shoe can both cause tripping and not give the runner full support for the foot).

Practice Runs
A high school team was instructed to run 45 minutes, turn around, and return. No route was given and no one had a watch. The high school team bumped into a college team and followed them. Several high school runners could not keep up, got lost, and returned to school three hours later. That is not the way to run a program.
Instead, the coach should always have a specific route that allows him or her to observe the runners as much as possible. It should be specified to athletes where they are to run and which routes they should avoid. Checkpoints should be established to observe the runners, or a coach should run with them. If the coach cannot run, a capable assistant should do so.
If teams run on streets, administrators must be doubly cautious. Instruct the coach to establish specific routes, require running on sidewalks, obey all traffic signs, and assign group captains. Also, stress that coaches must check on the athletes continuously by either running with them or following with a bike or car. A second coach, faculty member, or parent can also help in risk management.

A Safe Course
Safety cannot be forgotten during meets. The first step is to create a course that permits sight lines and open areas for observation by coaches and administrators. Some schools use a short course that athletes run twice because it permits coaches more opportunities to observe and check the runners.
More tips on maintaining a safe course include the following:
• The starting line should be wide enough to accommodate all teams.
• The initial running area should be a lengthy straightaway to avoid mishaps caused by entanglements.
• All trails should be as wide as possible.
• There should be areas to pass other runners.
• No trail should be narrower than four feet.
• The end of the course should also be a lengthy straightaway.
• Maintain buffer zones for spectators.
Flags and/or lines on the course also help everyone stay “on course.” Flags should be flexible, six feet tall, and visible; low flags can be a hazard. When using various colored flags to indicate right, left, or straight directions, make sure athletes have been instructed how to read them. If you use lines, ground paint should not cause injury to the eyes or skin, in case a runner tumbles.
The course should also be checked on a regular basis. Holes, ruts, and puddles may appear from day to day, therefore, courses that were clear the previous week may be compromised. Don't forget the possibility that foreign matter may make the course slick. Three out of four coaches mentioned that the primary cause of runners' falls was wet leaves; the fourth coach cited broken glass.
When at an away or championship meet, a member of the coaching staff must always check the course his or her athletes will run. This is the traditional “walking the course,” but should not be eliminated even if the team has run the course before that season.

Uniforms should be bright and recognizable (runners should never be confused as to who is the competition and who is a spectator or wayward walker). To keep muscles from getting cold, a warm-up suit must be provided. Earphones are not a part of the uniform, and are a danger that should be prohibited. Equipment for the coach should include a whistle, bull horn, and cellular phone. Emergency numbers and directions to the nearest medical facility are also necessary equipment, as well as a medical kit and emergency-consent cards. A water and ice supply is very important.
Creating maps of various courses and practice routes is another risk-reducing measure. A coach can make a simple diagram of the course and other running areas (particularly street and road routes), which can be copied and used over the years.
I would add to the equipment list a portable lightning detector, similar to those found at golf courses. I once prevented a meet from starting because the detector’s beeping pattern indicated lightning was a possibility. Most of the parents and the coach felt I was “losing it,” until the first clap of thunder.

The nature of the sport makes supervision a key concern. Coaches must plan every practice with supervision in mind, and training rules must be discussed. Runners should be informed of all rules to follow, such as to stay on the selected course and to stay alert at all times.
The simplicity and perceived freedom from injury of this sport can be a deterrent to cross country safety. Don’t let this happen at your school. Keep "XC" a low -risk sport.

For more information on overuse injuries, please visit our Web site at and type “overtraining” into the search engine.