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Ben Robinson | How to train like the fastest canicross duo on Earth

Ben Robinson | How to train like the fastest canicross duo on Earth

JEANETTE: Today’s guest is actually the fastest 5k runner in the whole world. Assisted by his dog Blake, Ben Robinson from the UK beat the world record with the time at 12 minutes, 24 seconds. I met him at the World Championships in Canicross in Sweden some months ago to find out how he is training. After they won, he was already more than 30 seconds ahead of #2. How is that possible?

BEN: It’s a combination of factors. I just had really good preparation. We started preparing for this race in the spring. Throughout the summer, I did whatever I could with Blake in terms of heat acclimatization, and obviously in the end we actually had slightly warmer temperatures than expected, but Blake was able to deal with those. Obviously I’m very lucky that Blake’s an exceptional dog. And just massive athletic preparation myself as well, away from canicross, and then just put the two together, and the result was pretty good for us.

JEANETTE: There’s a lot of good runners out there, but you seem to be one step ahead all the time. How are you training?

BEN: I train in athletics and canicross, obviously with the dog. A lot of my training will be on my own, but at the same time I place a great importance on working with Blake. I think we’ve seen in the past some really strong athletes, but then maybe don’t have the bond with the dog. So all the time, even when I’m training say an average week where I’ll train most of the time myself, I’m with Blake, walking him, whether that’s on lead, whether it’s off lead, scooter training, free running. I’m always with him. He lives at home with the family as well.

So I think it’s a combination of my athletic ability, obviously his incredible ability as a sport sled dog, and then still keeping that bond and importance on that bond.

JEANETTE: How does a normal week look for the two of you?

BEN: An average week, I would run most days. Maybe the odd rest day, so one day off. Probably two interval sessions for myself, one hills-based session and then one long run, and then the rest of the run is just made up of a little bit of recovery work. For Blake, in season, probably between three and four harness-specific sessions, which would mostly be scooter with just the occasional bike session as a speed and maybe the occasional canicross just to get my legs used to it, certainly in season.

And then hit up a couple of free runs with the rest of the team dogs. They all free run as a group, so they run hard together, and then a couple of days where he’ll walk on harness. I use obviously the half harness, the shoulder harness, but he will pull. I always let him pull on the walk, so that’s like a high resistance session for him.

And then I always give the dogs at least one rest day. Sometimes two if I feel they need it, but a complete rest day where they’re only at home, only in the garden, nothing at all, no walk, no run. I think there’s a lot of importance on the recovery for the dog as well.

JEANETTE: Do you have any breaks throughout the year, like a week or a month or something like this with alternative training?

BEN: Yeah, I always try and find a couple of stages across a calendar year where we have a few weeks of no structured training. We just do what we feel like, just enjoy time together, just the free run and the walk, but nothing else. It will depend a little bit where that fits on the seasons. That’s quite a hard thing to manage.

Obviously, I manage my own training around an athletic season and cross-country and road running, and then obviously for Blake, there’s the domestic season at home and then there’s an international season, and they don’t always agree, so a lot of the time it’s dictated to by that a little bit. But we’ll always try and find some time to rest too.

JEANETTE: How is it for you two to rest?

BEN: We’re quite active, still. Blake will accept it for maybe a day or two of complete rest. He’s used to that, obviously, in the week setup that I described earlier. But after that he’ll want to do something and he’ll get quite pent up. So yeah, there has to be some activity in there, like activity if he’s been out, free run a little bit. So more a little rest for the mind. I take him away from the harness work so he’s not having to think, he’s just doing what he wants to do. If that’s run hard, he can.

For me, a little bit easier. Obviously I’ve got the family at home, so a rest from running is okay, but I’m busy and they’ll keep me busy, the kids. Some time spent with the family is nice as well after a really intense preparation.

JEANETTE: How is running with a dog different than running just by yourself?

BEN: It is different and it isn’t. I obviously run track. What I generally find is it’s like me running a much, much shorter distance. My effort in canicross with Blake would maybe be like my 400 to 800 meter running, but obviously the addition of Blake just means I can keep that pace going for much, much longer, up to 5k distance. My 5k time is probably equivalent to about my 800 meter time without him, a flat out 2 minutes. He keeps me doing it for 12-13 minutes.

JEANETTE: You and Blake have the fastest 5k time ever. Can you tell us about that day?

BEN: Yeah. We weren’t really sure what we could do. I knew we could run under 13 minutes, but I wasn’t really sure how much. Just really fancied an attempt at going at the 5k distance hard. Obviously, we picked a good fast course for it and just really had a go, just went out hard. He was in really good shape, and I was just really pleased. Around 12:24 in the end.

Interestingly, I think there’s a little bit more to cut, maybe, even in the last kilometer. We had to go back past some of the early starters, and I had to go quite wide with him, off the track, onto grass. So I’d like another go in the near future. He’s in good shape this year. He’s really matured well now. He’s coming up to 4 in January. So I think if I can get my shape in a good place for next season, then maybe we’ll have another attempt.

JEANETTE: What’s the best age for a canicross dog?

BEN: I don’t think I really know the answer yet. Blake is, as I said, coming up to 4 in January, and I would say he’s improved the whole time to date. I think he’s the fittest he’s been at the moment. He’s really matured. He’s stronger. I’ve been able to do more training with him this year than I have before, keeping him in excellent condition. So I’m just really excited to find out if there is any more from him. I think next year can be as strong if not stronger. Hopefully he can even improve from there.

But I would say he’s approaching peak, so I think 3 to 4, and then it’s just a case of obviously holding that fitness for as long as possible, so hopefully a good few years left of Blake at top performance.

JEANETTE: Are you thinking of getting another dog to get ready for when he’s retired?

BEN: Yeah. Obviously we’ve got a team at the moment. My other large European sled dog, Nero, has been coming on really well. In preparation this year, I’ve prepared them mostly on scooter, as I’ve said. A lot of their training sessions, they’ve been neck and neck. In the end, I trusted Blake just for what he’d do in the championship, but canicross, I’m very similar with Nero, so he’s a good backup.

I’ve got my smaller girls who I can’t run quite as fast in the short distance sprint because they’re a lot smaller. They’re 20 and 24 kilos, and Sophie is 26, 27. But we have now got two sons of Blake. We bred Blake and Sophie ourselves at home, and both myself and my father have kept a pup, so we’ve got two of Blake’s sons. They’re just 6 months old, so we’re hoping that they’ll follow in his footsteps as well.

JEANETTE: How do you work with a puppy and a young dog to prepare them for this sport?

BEN: To date, for the first 6 months, I’ve just really let him be a puppy. He’s just at home. As our others, he’s with the family. The most he’s done in terms of preparation is just come with the team to the odd training session, so he’s used to traveling with us in the van, he’s used to seeing them get excited, seeing them have the harness on, seeing them run. But he’s done no specific preparation; he’s just obviously done some short walks and a short amount of free running with them.

But after this preparation, I’ll go home and by the end of this year I’ll just start some very short runs with him. I like to do his first run just to assess where he’s at, just him on his own, so I won’t take him with any of the team. I’ll take him on his own, try just 100-200 meters, and see what he does. Then I’ll vary his sessions. Some he’ll see the others, some he’ll follow the others, some he’ll go on his own.

I like the dogs to be able to do anything – prepped Blake in the same way – and just gradually build the distance up so that hopefully beginning of next season, after a summer of light preparation, he can debut in canicross.

JEANETTE: Do you ever train longer distances than what you run in competitions, or do you stay around 5k?

BEN: Yeah, I’ll always go a little bit over. As with my own prep, I don’t like the 5 kilometer to be the maximum as I think it leaves a little bit of a weakness toward the end of the trail, particularly if it’s been a challenging trail. So Blake would’ve certainly prepped some sessions up to 6k or just beyond. But the other dogs, my smaller dogs, do a lot further. My girls I’ve run as far as 13-14k in harness, and hopefully in the future I’d like to run a half marathon with them and maybe even look at events such as the TDM where it’s multiple events across the week. So they will do a lot further. But yeah, Blake’s certainly above distance, but not too much.

JEANETTE: When Blake is running, it’s full speed from the start, but he cannot go for that pace for like 14 kilometers or something. Do you have a command or something to tell him that “this time you can slow down a little bit”?

BEN: I think it’s certainly possible. Obviously I’ve got friends in the sport that have done that. Certainly I’ve mentioned TDM, and I know a lot do call their dog off for downhills and that. It’s not something I’ve tried to do with Blake. I’m quite happy that that 6k+ preparation keeps him in a good place for the 5k racing that we’ll do. He’s all or nothing. He’s all out.

With the girls, you can control them a little bit easier, yeah. The way they’ve trained and that, their mindset’s a bit calmer. Nova, our smallest hound, she’s from the middle distance kennel. She’s always pulling, she’s always working well, but her mindset is for the long haul. She’s in it for the long run. She’ll run all day. But she’s not necessarily really, really pushing everything she’s got in the early stages. She’s just happy to get out there, get running, and keep running.

JEANETTE: How is it to run with such a big and such a fast dog? You seem to be flying up the hills, and downhill it looks quite scary.

BEN: Actually, with Blake I feel in unison quite well with him. Blake in great shape is only about 28 kilos, so actually, versus a lot of the other top teams, he’s a little bit smaller. I think that helps me quite a lot. I’ve been able to see the differences running him versus say Nero at 34 kilos. Corners, downhills, I can make a lot of time with Blake because I’m able to run flat-out. As we talked about earlier, I don’t attempt to slow him on the downhill, and I can still make the downhills quite well. But it certainly feels like a sprint when we get to those technical sections.

JEANETTE: Running technique is quite important when it comes to canicross. How do you train this, and what’s important to keep in mind?

BEN: Yeah, running technique is massively important. I’ve always been a firm believer with canicross that core stability work is hugely important as well, because the dogs are always pulling us away from that ideal core setup and position we’d be normally in. So I do a lot of core work just to be able to hold good running form, and just a lot of running-based drills in training, in warmup and that for main sessions.

I’ve been running since a teenager, so I’ve put a lot of emphasis on that to be able to run well, and then a really good core stability preparation to stay in that form when the dog starts to really pull you.

JEANETTE: Can you give us some specific exercises, some examples?

BEN: For core stability exercises, anything you want to look at doing limb to torso-based exercises. Things like leg raises can be really good, or rollouts, things like that, and also planks, any static core stability where you hold the position. Trying to avoid common exercises like sit-ups and crunches, because actually they’re not so good for the core. There’s a lot of spinal flexion there, which is something that actually we want to avoid. So try to focus on the limb to torso movements and the static isometric hold exercises.

JEANETTE: Have you ever had any injuries?

BEN: I have, yeah. I’ve been fairly lucky since starting canicross, but as a youngster I had various injuries. But when I look back, they’re probably more down to growing pains and things like that. Since coming into canicross, nothing really specific to canicross. Just been unlucky 2 years. One year a break in the foot, but it was just literally hitting a stone, unlucky timing on the trail. And a tendon issue in the foot as well, possibly which is related to tightness in the lower limb from a lot of trail running. But not anything canicross specific, luckily.

JEANETTE: Now you have been running in the World Championship, and that’s a big competition. Everybody has expectations that you are going to win. Do you ever get nervous?

BEN: Yeah, I do get nervous. I’m okay with that. Nerves are good. I couldn’t run what I ran at the championship in training because of the lack of adrenaline and nerves. But I’ve always as well been good at controlling those nerves and know that the race is down to me and Blake. No one can affect me and Blake on the day. So when I get nervous, I just remember that. I think I’m here and people think that for a reason, and I’ve just got to get on the trail with Blake and do what we both do – deliver.

JEANETTE: I would like to know a bit about your race prep. How do you prepare the days before the competition and the day of a competition?

BEN: The days before, obviously I’ll taper down. A lot of the time my running will be less, Blake’s running will be less. A couple of days before a major competition, Blake will do very little. I will literally keep him quiet, keep him calm. Keep him with me, again, so he’s happy in the environment, but just keep him very quiet. Short walks only. For myself, always just a little bit of a jog the day before, a few fast strides just to get the legs moving.

And then on the morning, just try and keep calm, really. Try to keep as much as normal as I can. Hydrate massively. A lot of hydration, a lot of good nutrition. Good meal the night before, big breakfast, and then a good warmup for myself and the dog. Nice walk around in the morning together, and then a more intense warmup for myself probably about half an hour before. A little bit more of a jog, faster run, and some drills. And then just get out and get ready to go.

JEANETTE: Do you warm up together with Blake or do you warm up separately?

BEN: I’ll warm up separately. I’ll give Blake a walk initially, say maybe 40 minutes before, get him out, give him a good walk, and then he’ll pop back away to rest a little bit longer. I’ll warm up myself, and then again, a good 10 minutes before the race, then I’ll be together with Blake, walking, waiting, and just getting ready to go.

JEANETTE: How important is the warmup?

BEN: The warmup is massively important. Even more so for canicross I think than running in general, because obviously that max effort thing, the dogs don’t know pacing. The dogs don’t know starting slow, building into anything, so you can never do that. The dog’s going to go flat-out from the start, and they’re going to force you to go flat-out from the start. So both from an injury risk perspective and also from a performance perspective, to not warm up would just feel horrendous. You probably wouldn’t hit the same pace at all that we do, and there’d obviously be a huge, huge injury risk to both myself and the dog.

JEANETTE: Also after the competition, I guess you do a cooldown?

BEN: Yeah, I’ll stay with Blake initially, make sure Blake walks around again for a similar period of time to before. So 10 minutes, 15 minutes afterwards, I’m with Blake, making sure Blake’s okay. Keep him moving so he doesn’t stiffen up at all. Make sure he’s had water and is happy. Then when I’m comfortable with that, he can go away and rest and I’ll get my own cooldown done, which would be a couple of kilometers jogging, just very, very easy, and trying to stop the legs being too sore for the next day. Especially when there’s 2-day competitions.

JEANETTE: Yeah, like here at the World Championship, there are 2 days in a row. That must be quite hard.

BEN: Yeah, that’s been extremely challenging, especially this time round because we came straight from Belgium as well. We were at Belgium for the European Championships. We had 2 days of racing, and on the second day we had a second race as well in the relay. Then we had about 3 days between including traveling from Belgium to Sweden, and then we’ve raced 2 more days. Had a day off yesterday, luckily, and then we’re back for the relay today. Got one last show.

JEANETTE: What do you do the day in between?

BEN: Yesterday, in between that, it was just a case of a light jog. Obviously overall I wanted to enjoy the rest day, watch the rest of the competition, and really try and clear the legs a little bit. But I did get out for a little jog. We had a little look at the relay trail, actually, just so we were familiar with that and used that to try and loosen the legs a little bit and get ready for today.

JEANETTE: You’re running the relay in a couple of hours. Are you excited?

BEN: Yeah, I’m massively excited for the relay. I’ve always loved the relay. It’s really exciting. It’s great team spirit. We can come together and actually compete together. Obviously a lot of athletes have finished their competition as well, and they’re on the sidelines just supporting their nation. The buzz is normally the biggest you’ve seen all weekend. This year especially, we’ve got some really, really fast teams in there. Everybody seems to have focused on the relay and put strong teams out, so I think it’s going to be a really good race.

JEANETTE: And it’s a mass start. Usually you start one by one; now it’s a mass start. What are the challenges or the good things about a mass start?

BEN: The excitement. It’s really exciting. Obviously for spectators, it’s great. They love mass start. For us, it’s about safety. We’ve got to try and get away safely. Hopefully we can find good space. Hopefully they give us good space on the start line.

Then for me personally, it’s just about getting a quick start. I’ll always start fairly fast with Blake anyway, and I just want to try and get a quick start, get out of the way of any potential danger tangles, anything like that, and try and control the race from the front. We’ve got three of the top four from canicross elite men. We’ll take the start in relay today, so I think it will be hotly contested to get out in front.

JEANETTE: You are going home with some medals this year as well. You have won the World Championship twice and also the European Championships twice. What’s your next goal?

BEN: My immediate next goal at home will be the British Championship. We go straight back and we’ve got the first race of that in 4 weeks’ time. That’s a series of races, three series over the rest of the season now, so just stretching into the new year as well. We have to compete at least two out of the three of those weekends to score in the British Championship. I’ll be going for my sixth consecutive British title, and that will be Blake’s third as well, attempt at third. So that’s the immediate goal.

JEANETTE: Could you tell us how the British tryouts work for the World Championships? Because you have a lot of good runners.

BEN: Yeah, those races it’ll be three weekend races, 2-day races, so six races in total. Your best four from six scores will count, and that will rank you within each of the classes. Then if the subscription level is high for the next European and World Championships next autumn, that ranking will be used to select the British team.

JEANETTE: You’ve been a part of the team for some years now, and as the sport develops, what do you think canicross will look like in 5 years, 10 years?

BEN: I think it will be a huge sport. It’s getting massively more popular. The ease of the sport obviously is appealing to people. One dog, yourself, and some good equipment and you’re there. People love to run with a dog. I think people find it exciting. I think it motivates people to get out there. So I think we’ll see a lot of people. We’re seeing a huge growth in the UK, and you can see it worldwide as well. I think there’ll be a lot of people and I think it will be very competitive as well.

JEANETTE: Yeah, the level seems to be quite hard. You guys at the top of the result list, you train really seriously.

BEN: Absolutely. We approach it really seriously. We’ve got massive goals. It’s really competitive at the moment, like you said, in UK and abroad. I think that’s only going in one direction, so I think that will get stronger. I think we’ll get more guys at the top and we’ll see some really exciting racing in the next few years.

JEANETTE: What does canicross mean to you? And having a dog, of course.

BEN: Canicross means everything to me now. It’s my goal to try and be the best I can, try and be the best ever. My goals don’t stop at one championship; I want to try and run all the dogs successfully across all distances, all terrains.

I wouldn’t be without a dog at home, either. All the dogs are family dogs, pets at home with us and the children, and that’s important to us. We love them as pets first and sport dogs after that.

JEANETTE: Everybody has something they can improve to get even better. You seem to have reached quite a high level now, but are there any specific areas you would like to be even better at?

BEN: Yeah, I think I can still improve. Certainly on maybe short distance or track. A couple of the injuries I mentioned earlier put me out of some track seasons, so although I got good preparation nearer the championship, I didn’t get the track season that I want. So I think I could work on my speed on the track on short distance and hopefully help me in those early stages be a bit more comfortable at that max speed. I still believe we can go faster, and I’ll be working hard to try and prove that’s right.

JEANETTE: As far as I know, you’re also coaching others.

BEN: Yeah, that’s been really nice. I started that about 2 years ago, following the World Championships in Poland. Started getting athletes on board and helping them achieve goals as well. I’ve coached on and off around about 20 athletes, mainly with online support, online programming so they can structure their own training and make progress, as well as one-to-one chat advice in terms of the dog preparation and mental preparation as well, approaching the championships.

Everybody’s got on with that really well. We’ve seen a lot of people make personal bests and achieve things they set out to, and we’ve even started to see some medals now at an international level from some of the guys I coach. I’m really proud of all of them, from top to bottom, just for getting out there and putting their effort in and achieving what they wanted to achieve.

JEANETTE: Is this something you would like to do more of and develop even further in the future?

BEN: Absolutely. I’d love to work more with athletes, coach more athletes. Training camps is something, although we haven’t done yet, that we are considering and looking at, both in the UK and abroad. Yeah, it’s definitely something I’d want to move more into and work more.

JEANETTE: Do you get many questions on social media and in person?

BEN: Yeah, I always get a lot of questions. Always highlighted at championships. People messaging you just wanting to know a lot of what we’ve talked about today – your preparation, your motivation, and how you approach these things. Everybody wants to talk. It’s really good. It’s a good opportunity to speak to people across the world and help and try to grow the sport.

JEANETTE: When we talk about motivation, do you ever get sick and tired of doing this? Or is it always fun?

BEN: I’m never tired of it. I’ll reach a point where I’ll want a break and just want a little bit of time with the family. Obviously, this preparation, the weeks leading up to this, I had to prioritize preparing to be at this level. I’ve been away now 2 weeks. So it’ll be a chance to go home and just spend some time with the family, have a few weeks where I don’t put training first. But the motivation will return and I’ll be ready to come back and do it another year.

JEANETTE: There is one question we ask everybody on this podcast, and that is: if you had to do another sport with your dog, what would it be and why?

BEN: That is a good question. Am I allowed to say scooter?

JEANETTE: No. [laughs] Something without the harness, if possible.

BEN: You’ve got me there. There’s not too many other things I think Blake would take too well. I don’t think he’d do obedience or agility or anything like that. So I’d probably still have to involve running. I’d probably go with scooter. I’m not too good on the scooter myself, but he still takes to it pretty well, so I’d go with that.

JEANETTE: Thank you so much for taking the time to join us on this podcast.

BEN: Thank you very much. It’s been great to be here. I’m looking forward to – let’s get out and finish this show at the World Championships and the relay now.

JEANETTE: Good luck.

BEN: Thank you.

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