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How To Get Ready For Cross Country During COVID-19

What to expect and how to prepare this season depends on countless factors.

Cross country looks different than ever before this year. So how can we best prepare for an unprecedented season shaken by a pandemic? It depends. 

Ideally, preparation is tailored to goals, and goals often hinge on competitive seasons — those timelines coaches, athletes, parents, and fans have sketched out in their calendars years in advance. 

Well, the novel coronavirus has crossed out, erased, rescheduled, or punted most plans, including sports seasons. Cross country, traditionally run in the fall, is shape-shifting as you read this. The final form it will take depends on where you live, who’s in charge, where you go to school, individual scenarios, invisible germs, and the havoc they wreak. 

Where We’re At

Photo of iPhone with NY Times news story displayed: "U.S. Now Has More Known Cases Than Any Other Country"
Photo: Brian McGowan / Unsplash

Across the U.S., everything looks messy. That includes cross country. It’s a patchwork quilt — a very colorful, moth-eaten, not-yet-half-finished team project with a moving-target deadline. It looks this way for several reasons. 

First, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic with far-reaching effects. 

Second, there’s no nationwide plan for dealing with the pandemic, let alone figuring out how sports fit in. 

As the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee states in its loose guidelines, “Not all states are using the same criteria, and what is allowable during specific phases will vary from state to state, or even within a state.” 

It’s up to state, regional, and local officials to set up guidelines for activities, and school districts, principals, and coaches to implement them. Myriad factors influence these leaders and organizations. Many folks have already had to change course mid-stride.   

Doug Binder, editor at DyeStat, has been monitoring the state of high school cross country in all 50 states. “Utah is off to the races this fall. Nevada is not. Virginia has canceled fall sports. Pennsylvania is pressing on (against the recommendation of the Gov[ernor]). And some of the final decisions on fall sports haven’t yet been made. The cans keep getting kicked down the road. Families and kids are waiting and in some cases praying — or demonstrating — to play,” he wrote in an email. 

“This virus is big enough to get everyone’s attention. One out of every 1,838 people in the U.S. has died,” Binder says, pointing out, however, how varied the response has been. “In New Jersey, it’s 1 in 533 people that have died. The NJSIAA is trying to play shortened seasons starting in October. In Hawaii, one in 30,000 people have died — and the HHSAA canceled all sports for the remainder of the year.”

One national championship, Nike Cross Nationals (NXN), has canceled its end-of-season meets. At the college level, the NCAA canceled fall cross country championships after most conferences nixed their seasons. The USATF Junior Olympics, Footlocker and AAU XC championships are still slated for now.

Whether or not we run practice and race in competitions hinges upon more than if it’s technically allowable. Parents and coaches wonder: Even if you can run cross country, should you? Is it safe for you, your team, and your family? Are your loved ones at higher risk? If you’re able to compete, are the benefits of practicing or competing worth the risks? How risky is it, actually? Also, is it morally, ethically responsible? Or do you care? What about the people you’re running with? What about their parents and grandparents?

Those are big questions without a clear answer. There’s no guaranteed path to health, safety, or wellbeing. Herein lies a big hairy lesson that, like Sasquatch, wanders the woods and keeps adults looking over their shoulders: Nothing is certain. Even if we wishfully say it is. The future is a mix of hope, daydreaming, assumptions, ideas, and destiny. We cannot see it. 

That’s one reason I tell my athletes that all training should be written in pencil. We — especially runners with their eyes on a finish line — like to look forward. We like to hitch our lassos to something out of reach, as Melody Fairchild explains in our book, Girls Running

Can we hazard guesses? Sure. Can we make plans? Yep. But we must remain flexible and adjust as conditions and forecasts change so that we can bend, not break, when expectations don’t match reality. So that we can keep our eyes open and respond accordingly to what’s unfolding, with our best selves, in line with our values as human-athletes. 

How To Prepare For The Unknown

Shoes, iPhone, ear pods, and mask against blue backdrop.
Photo: Getty Images

The good news? We have major clues about how to prepare ourselves for the best possible outcome. Here are seven ways to bring your A-game, no matter the season:

Heed health officials

We’re still learning about COVID-19 and its symptoms and complications, but the CDC says the best way to prevent it is to avoid being exposed through person-to-person contact. To reduce your risk:

  • Maintain physical distance from those outside your household. At least 6 feet!
  • Wear a mask. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends cloth face coverings in public. Take one with you when you run and cover your mouth and nose when you can’t keep your distance from others. 
  • Wash your hands. With soap and water for at least 20 seconds. 
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with your elbow. No spitting or snot rockets!
  • Opt outside. Especially when meeting with people outside your household.
  • Stay home if ill, exposed, or testing positive. Follow local guidelines.

Act as if you’re contagious

Neither young people nor fit athletes are immune to COVID-19. You can have it without symptoms and simultaneously spread it to others.

Follow new rules 

At summer practice, teams previewed new protocols. For example, the Sayre School cross country team in Kentucky met in pods of 10 or fewer and physically distanced during practice. Liz Dietrich, assistant cross country and head track and field coach, worked exclusively with the girls’ team, rather than the whole co-ed squad. The team runs different routes and starts speed work in waves. 

We have had multiple public health protocols in place, including having hand sanitizer readily available at each practice and everyone wearing masks during warmups and cool down. Coaches have to be masked at all times unless engaged in aerobic activity, so I arrive at practice masked, warm up with the team masked, take off my mask for our run, and then put the mask back on as soon as we return to our starting point for cool down stretches,” she says. 

Athletes should anticipate temperature checks, symptom screens, and a dose of contact tracing. Be honest and transparent about contact with people outside your household, and any potential exposures. Respect the guidelines if you’re not cleared to participate. 

Welcome the unfamiliar

Seasons that are slated are shorter than usual. Meets may have spaced-out (or odd) starts and finishes with fewer competitors and spectators, and without post-race gatherings. One of the first meets this month, the Hoya 2-Mile Invitational in Georgia, moved to a two-day format and added 12 races with approximately 50 kids per race. 

Head cross country and track and field coach Jason Scott of Harrison High School, which hosted the meet, urges athletes “Please follow meet guideline[s] about wearing a mask,” because “these guidelines are to help YOU have a season.” He recommends meet directors communicate plenty about new guidelines so there are no surprises come race day. 

Adjust training

First goal: Stay healthy. Keep your immune system strong. If you get infected, it can take weeks to recover and introduce additional issues, including issues with inflammation and organs, including hearts and lungs.

Second goal: Gain fitness, especially endurance. The type, volume, and intensity of physical conditioning should fit the tentative schedule for each team’s year. Whether teams trained extensively this summer or cross country has been moved to spring, coaches should periodize short- and long-term training plans, incorporating recovery. There’s no need to go ham — especially for teen athletes. They are still developing and, depending on their training age or experience, as long as they stay uninjured and train consistently, with adequate fuel and rest and motivation, they’ll improve.  

It’s okay to step back

Coach Dietrich says some athletes have opted out of the season due to COVID. “This is very sad for me personally, as I feel very invested in and care a lot about every athlete I have the privilege to coach, but I completely understand and respect their decision. These kids are dealing with so much uncertainty right now, and for some of them, taking a season off may be necessary for them, so I support each athlete making the best decision for him or herself,” she says. 

Coaches who’re invested in the well-being of their athletes should be supportive, understanding of unique predicaments, and helpful — and can suggest at-home training if it’s feasible. 

Take care of your mental and emotional health

Photo: Hans Vivek / Unsplash

Athletes might feel anxious or bored, and notice people around them acting extra stressed. To deal, keep open lines of communication with friends and trusted confidants; opt for relaxing activities (like easy running, yoga, meditation, drawing, and journaling); and get enough nutrition, sleep, and rest. Coaches are incorporating more holistic programing, including book clubs and discussion circles, into their team activities. Mental health professionals like therapists provide telehealth services (extra helpful when feeling overwhelmed or depressed), and tackle issues like eating disorders, which stress can trigger. 

Elizabeth Carey is a writer and running coach based in Seattle, Washington. Her first book, GIRLS RUNNING, co-authored with Melody Fairchild, is available at your local bookstore and here.