If you’ve got a dog, it’s time to put them to good use. Forget being pulled along by your canine friend on your daily walks – get fitter by trying canicross, the European sport originally designed for sleigh-pulling dogs.
In the past year, dog ownership in the UK has shot up by 44%. Lonely lockdowns have made Brits realise that we need companionship, and what better chum could you possibly have than a woman’s best friend?
However, as many of us are called back to the office or saying goodbye to more time spent at home, our dogs might be feeling the brunt of this harsh post-lockdown reality. Perhaps you’re beginning to struggle to fit in dog walks, commutes and your favourite gym class. The result? You’re knackered and your dog is under-exercised.
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Luckily, there is a way to satisfy canine needs and our fitness goals together: canicross. Rather than just going for a jog with your dog, canicross – also known as cross country running with dogs – is all about you and your dog running together as a team. It might sound simple, but this sport requires communication, precision, and getting the dog to run in front of you while you guide them with verbal cues.
Your dog needs to know obedience commands and you’ve got to be able to keep up. And in my experience, it’s a true test of the bond between you and your dog.
Why swap daily walks for canicross?
Like bog-standard human-only running, canicross is great for overall fitness and muscle strengthening. It’s also great for your mental health and, as previously mentioned, can increase your bond with your dog.
While you probably know that running has been proven to help keep your heart healthy and your blood pressure steady, Canicrossing in particular can help preserve bone mass for a healthier old age, as well as boost the immune system and help with sleep. That’s because canicross tends to happen off the beaten track, which tends to allow for a more visually stimulating experience than running through urban environments.
But this isn’t just about you: your pooch can also look forward to reaping a host of physical and mental benefits. If you’re noticing your dog becoming destructive or engaging in boredom behaviours like chasing their tail obsessively, then canicross can help by forcing them to focus and listen out for commands. Paired with long-distance running, you can look forward to an afternoon or evening disrupted only by your dog’s gentle snores.
How to run safely with your dog
The first question that might pop into your mind is: “Can my dog do canicross?”
Health issues aside, any dog can do canicross, but you need to work within the breed’s limitations. A pug is never going to be able to match the speed and stamina of a German shepherd, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do some short jogs.
The first thing to know is that your dog has to be fully grown before you start training for canicross. This usually means waiting until they’re at least a year old; up to that point, their body is still developing and growing.
If your dog is still a puppy or a terrorising teen, then you can set the groundwork in place by implementing the foundations of canicross through obedience training. Your dog will need to understand verbal cues when do you eventually start running together, so teaching it “let’s go” or “wait” commands could be invaluable to you and your dog’s safety later down the line. Oh, and if you want to avoid running into a tree, it’s also a good idea to start getting them used to “right turn”, “left” and similar changes.
If you have an older dog (aged seven or over), they might be able to run but it probably won’t be as fast as a younger dog. They might need more recovery time after a running session too, so if you’re hoping to run day after day, you may want to schedule in a few solo sessions to give your dog a break.
As ever, if you’re unsure about whether your dog is suited to canicross, talk to your vet.
How to fuel your dog to run
Much like human runners, dogs need to have the right nutrition and hydration for performance too.
“If your dog’s activity levels are rising, it’s important to ensure their nutritional needs are still being met, which may mean moving to a more energy-dense diet, higher in key nutrients such as fat and protein,” explains Zoe Russell, nutrition officer for Skinner’s.
“It’s important to do your own research when it comes to your dog’s diet because every breed has individual needs and what works for one dog may not work for another.”
It might sound odd, but adding fruits such as blueberries, banana and apple to your dog’s diet will help to boost their vitamin and mineral intake, as well feeding them on a diet that includes meats such as rabbit, turkey and beef. You can also add salmon oil to their daily dishes, which is supposed to be a kind of superfood for dogs – great for their coat, skin and cognitive health.
Your dog will also need to take on more water, as Russell explains: “If a dog becomes deficient in water, then you will start to see the signs of dehydration, which can quickly lead to serious health consequences.”
What gear do you need to have to start canicross?
Canicross, like any sport, needs decent equipment and sportswear. You wouldn’t run a 10k without good trainers, and your dog shouldn’t do canicross without a decent harness.
The harness is made for pulling; any brands that sell harnesses that promise to stop your dog from pulling is lying. They’re supposed to pull. The key, however, is making sure that your harness is of good quality and well-fitted, which will prevent your dog from picking up any pulling-related injuries.
You should also look for a harness that has an ergonomic fit. By opting for a Y-shaped harness, you avoid putting pressure on your dog’s chest which could cause breathing issues after a while. Pulling harnesses should have an attachment point at the base of your dog’s tail. If the attachment point is the the middle of the back it’s worth avoiding, as you’ll end up putting stress on your dog’s spine.
When we do canicross, my pup, Mr. Chips, and I use a Freemotion harness from Non-Stop Dog Wear. A bungee lead connects us, by attaching my running belt to his harness. By getting rid of the handheld lead, I’m able to keep my arms free to run naturally and I’ve found that my back is under a lot less pressure as a result.
As with running solo, it’s important that you’re wearing trainers that fit well, a good sports bra, and leggings. In colder weather, wrap up with a running top and body warmer. I sometimes use a high-vis waterproof running jacket – although simply having a head torch is useful in the dark if wearing layers isn’t comfortable.
How to get started with canicross
Like with any sort of running, gradual training is best. There’s no point trying to run 5k non-stop on your first session; you might be fine alone but running with a dog requires a gradual build.
Unless they were bred for it, dogs tend to be used to short, speedy runs rather than endurance long-distance trails. This is why it’s important to takes things slowly as you could cause your dog muscle or joint issues if you overdo it.
Invest in good kit
Canicross is a high-impact sport, unlike slow jogging, so while you might see some visual differences quicker than normal exercise, it can also be hard on your body. This is especially true if you’re running with a larger dog breed, and that’s why having good equipment is so important. There’s nothing worse than a sore back after running with a pulling machine.
Non-Stop Dog Wear has collaborated with William Oliveria, a Brazilian canicross athlete and physical educator, to create canicross-specific strength exercises to help you on your training journey. These exercises start with diaphramatic breathing and include mobility, core strength and coordination segments.
Warm up and cool down properly
You don’t need us to remind you that it’s important to properly warm up and cool down around exercise, but often, we still refuse to do so. Its arguably more important in canicross because should you get injured, it’s not just you who ends up missing out.
Join your local club or running group
There are classes and clubs across the country that can help with training. Dogfit UK has canicross sessions everywhere from Enfield to Hexham, for example, and Canicross UK has jog sessions in across the south coast. Some Parkruns also allow you to run with your dog as long as it’s on a lead, and that can be a great introduction to running together.
Watch out for potential issues
You want to be mindful when looking up routes to try. Be conscious of:
- Surface: rough surfaces can wear your dog’s paws so it’s best to look for soft trails or gravel roads.
- Traffic: train at less busy times of the day to avoid cars and try to avoid roads that have a lot of cars, trucks or motorbikes.
- Temperature: on warmer days, choose a shaded trail so your dog can cool down in water along the way. If the floor is too hot for your bare feet, it’s too hot for your dog’s paws.
Use it as an opportunity to get closer to your pup
Of course, the main aim of canicross isn’t to be the best or quickest; it’s about spending time with your dog, strengthening your bond and doing something fun.
Take it from a veteran canicrosser – once you start and see the difference in your dog, you won’t be sorry you tried it.
Want to get stronger before heading out for a canicross outing? Give our four-week Strength Trainers for Runners plan a go.
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