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Running

How to prepare for a canicross race

If you enjoy running with your dog and want a greater challenge you can sign up for a canicross race.

There’s a lot to consider and many things you have to remember when preparing for a competition, so we have gathered our athletes’ best tips for canicross races.

Where can I find canicross races near me?

Mushing organizations in every country usually have a schedule of canicross races. You can also find official and unofficial competitions on social media.

If you need help finding canicross competitions in your area, you can contact the local club.

You can also participate in virtual canicross races, allowing you to compete in the comfort of familiar surroundings without other teams. Virtual races are a great way to get started with canicross competitions!

Before competition day, you have to learn the rules that apply. 

Prepare for the distance

To give your dog a positive experience, it is important to train and prepare well before your first canicross race. If you plan to do a 5-kilometer race but only train for 3 kilometers, the results will be unfavorable.

- Your dog doesn’t know he is racing 5 kilometers that day. He will run like crazy the first 3 kilometers because that is what he is used to. He trusts you to prepare him well for what you want to do with him, says multiple world champion in canicross, Tessa Philippaerts.

You are also advised to practise skills like being calm in the starting areaovertaking other dogs on the trail and crossing the finish line at full speed.

Unix canicross

Canicross race checklist

For your dog:

Which vaccines your dog needs may vary. Some countries only require rabies and kennel cough vaccines, but it is highly recommended to have all vaccines because you will be meeting many dogs.

- Each country has its own rules, each national federation has its own rules, and each international federation has its own rules. It’s always recommended to read the race rules well and to also make sure you know the vaccine rules of the countries you are visiting and travelling through, says Tessa.

  • Dog waste bags
  • Food and water bowls
  • Water

- Often, there are water bowls available at the finish, which all the dogs can drink from. When dogs share the same bowl, there is a risk of diseases. Therefore, it is safer to use your own, says Tessa.

  • Dog food and treats as required
  • Water, and possibly recovery powder

For you:

  • Running belt
  • T-shirt
  • Shorts or tights
  • Running shoes
  • Warm-up jacket and pants
  • Clean, dry clothes to wear after the competition
  • A warm jacket
  • Shoes to wear before and after the race
  • Food and drinks

Other:

Make sure all your gear is in good condition before the competition. Don’t use brand new and unused gear when competing.

Race Checklist Shareable

Plan with time to spare

- I make sure that everything I need is prepared before competition day. If I am relaxed, my dog will be as well, says Tessa.

Plan your drive with time to spare, and consider local traffic conditions such as road work or traffic jams.

You should arrive at least one hour before registration in order to have time for warm-up, and other preparations. Sometimes there might be a meeting for the competitors or team leaders before the competition starts. Check your invitation for more information or ask the organizers if in doubt.

When to feed your dog

Tessa does not feed her dogs less than five hours prior to a canicross race.

- That is my golden rule. It is very dangerous to feed your dog right before you go for a run. Their digestion is very slow. There is a risk of stomach torsion. The day before, I feed them before 17.00/5 PM and give them plenty of water. This to make sure they are well-hydrated and that they run with an empty stomach the day after. You will also avoid your dog pooping on the trail.

Giving your dog enough water before training or racing is important, though.

drinking dog

- Preferably 1.5 to 3 hours in advance. You can do this by teaching your dog to drink a small amount of water before the first trainings and gradually increase the volume. Some dogs do not like to drink a lot of water. To help them drink, you can put something in the water, such as a very small portion of dry food, energy powder, or a spoon of meat. In our case, a pump or two of the Wild Fish Omega-3 does the trick.

Do not forget to let your dog out for a pee after 15 to 30 minutes.

- After the race, we walk to the car, where they get water with recovery powder. Thirty minutes after the run, I feed them the first portion if they calm down. Later in the evening, they get another portion, a little bit more, which should be enough to recover. I always add plenty of water with their food so I’m sure they get enough in their system.

Walk your dog before arriving at the arena

Before you arrive at the arena, Lena Boysen Hillestad recommends walking your dog. She has 25 World Championship gold medals in Nordic style, sled, and dryland, and has plenty of experience in setting her dogs up for optimal performances.

- Preferably walk your dog some place it can run loose, without stress, she says.

Some dogs poop once, others twice.

- You have to find out what’s normal for your dog. Our dogs usually poop once in the morning, and once before the start of the race, says Lena.

Rest

In order to perform well at a canicross race, it’s important to be well rested.

When arriving at the competition it can be smart to be aware of where you are parking. Even though it’s practical to park near the starting area, it’s a very intense place, which might be stressful for your dog.

- We prefer to park further away, so the dogs get a calm environment. If we’re at a race that lasts several days, we park at the same place every day. This decreases the risk of diseases, says Lena.

Do what you can to make your dog comfortable, both when traveling and at the arena. Make sure that the temperature in their crates is good, that they have a comfortable surface to sleep on and that they have access to water.

Check the trail

When competing in canicross, it is good to get familiar with the trail. Study trail maps in advance. You can also walk through the route to examine the surface and identify turns and potential challenges along the trail.

Some competitors prefer to bring their dog when going through the route, others don’t. If the trail inspection is the same day as the competition, it might be a good idea to let your dog rest. Be aware that not all competitions allow dogs on the trails.

Warm up

To perform well, and avoid injuries, a thorough warm-up is important before a canicross race.

In the morning of the competition, multiple world champion and unofficial world record holder in canicross, Ben Robinson, likes to take a walk with his dog.

The more intense warm-up starts about half an hour before the race with jogging, faster run and some drills.

- The warm-up is massively important. Even more so for canicross than running in general, because it is a max effort sport. The dogs don't know pacing! They go flat-out from the start, and they're going to force you to do the same. Both from an injury risk perspective and also from a performance perspective, to not warm up would feel horrendous. You probably wouldn't hit the same pace at all that we do, and there'd be a huge injury risk to both myself and the dog, he says in our podcast, Unleashed.

How to handle a mass start

Single starts are most common, but mass starts do happen in canicross.

- Mass starts are a bit tricky. Some dogs get overexcited and reactive, while others are scared and stressed. Some dogs are totally fine with it. It is very important to know your own dog in these situations and to take precautions.

Tessa suggests starting some seconds behind the pack if your dog seems unsure or tense in mass starts.

- Or, just don’t race with that dog when you know it is a mass start.

Line out and starting routines

Having a calm and focused dog is advantageous in the starting area. Practice good starting and line out routines before your first competition. Make a plan for how you want your start to be, and lay the foundation for the years to come by being consistent from the very first moment.

If your dog tends to get stressed in the starting areayou should do your warm-up routine further away from the starting area and approach the starting area as close to your start as possible.

Warm up with a smile! Don’t let nerves or negative thoughts get the best of you. Remember that you’re at the competition to have fun with your four-legged teammate!

Line out canicross

Distractions along the trail

At canicross races, there can be many distractions on the trail. Before attending your first race, you should practice overtaking other dogs and finishing the task even though there are exciting things happening all around.

Listen to your dog

It is important to be aware of your dog’s wellbeing during the race and not to push him/her to overperform. According to the canicross race rules, you should always be behind your dog.

Praise when done 

The first thing you should do after you cross the finish line is praise your dog and make sure he/she is well taken care of.

Lychee cuddle

- That should always be your priority! Even though people want to congratulate you or talk, the dog should be your focus after finishing. He or she is the hero of the day, says Carlien Harms, Dutch and European champion in canicross.

Clean your equipment

Dryland competitions often leave your gear dirty. Before traveling home, make sure you clean your equipment such as your dog harness. Proper maintenance ensures that your gear works better and lasts longer.

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