Canicross races are great fun for both dog and owner, but figuring out how to prepare for a competition in canicross is not always that easy. Multiple world champions Tessa Philippaerts and Ben Robinson share their best tips on how to train for a canicross competition.
Both of them create personal training programs for canicross athletes worldwide.
How to train your dog for canicross
A dog needs many skills to be successful in canicross. For example, they need to be able to stay relaxed and conserve energy in the starting area, overtake other teams with ease and cross the finish line at full speed. In this article we focus on the physical training you can do to prepare your dog and yourself for a canicross race.
Remember to warm up your dog and yourself before every canicross training or race.
1. Have fun!
The most important thing when you train for a canicross competition is to have fun with your dog!
- Ensuring that training is fun is the least we can do for our four-legged teammates, says Tessa.
She strives to keep every training session short and fun, leaving her dogs with a feeling of succeeding and wanting to run even more.
2. Start with a short distance
Many ask what the right distance to start with for canicross is. A canicross race is usually around 5 kilometers, but distances can be both shorter and longer.
- A common mistake is to start with distances that are too long. I hear it so many times: “It’s a dog; it can run forever”! Yes – your dog can probably run longer than most of us humans, but it doesn’t mean that it is healthy or motivating for him or her. You don’t go running 10-20 kilometers, either, if you have never run before. We manage to train and build up the distance for ourselves but often forget to do the same for our dogs, says Tessa.
Your dog will probably run like crazy at long distances the first few times, but very soon he/she will lose motivation or learn to run at a slower pace.
- For canicross, we want our dogs to pull as hard and as fast as they can. Therefore, keeping training session short and fun is important!
For fully grown and fit dogs, you can start with one kilometer and build it up in the form of intervals. For young dogs it is important to build up training very slowly. For the first few trainings, 100-400 meters will do. Gradually increase the distance.
3. Allow your dog to rest
- Just like us, dogs need some rest. Many people think their dog has to be tired after a run to classify as a good training session. But how would you feel if you had to cross a line for every training session you completed? Hard to keep motivated, right? Tessa asks.
World’s fastest canicross athlete Ben Robinson’s dogs always get at least one day of full rest during the week. On these days they just hang out in the garden.
His dogs also get longer breaks from structured training throughout the year.
- Then we do what we feel like, just enjoy time together with freerunning and walking, but nothing else, he says in our podcast, Unleashed.
4. Varied training
It is, of course, possible to do canicross with your dog every day, but our athletes do not recommend it. They prefer a more varied training program that includes activities like freerunning, slow power-walking with resistance and swimming.
You can also benefit from training bikejoring to build strength and speed.
- I might run canicross with my dogs one time every week to two weeks. It is so hard on the body to run with a big dog. It would take me too many days each time to recover-time which I prefer using on training myself properly to run better. My dogs always join me running free or running next to me on a leash when I warm up and cool down from my own training, Tessa says.
How often you can do canicross depends on your dog. Always listen to your dog’s needs.
5. Train as you compete
If your races will be 5 kilometers, it is important that you also train 5 kilometers.
- If you only train for 3 kilometers, the results would be unfavorable. Your dog doesn’t know he is racing 8 kilometers that day and 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 Tessa.
Ben usually runs a bit longer than the distance they meet at canicross competitions.
- I don't like the five kilometers to be the maximum. I think it leaves a little bit of a weakness toward the end of the trail, particularly if it is a challenging trail.
6. Build a strong bond
Many athletes are strong runners, but they don't necessarily have a strong bond with their dog. This connection is essential to Ben, and he is convinced it makes a big difference.
His dogs are a part of the family, and spend every day with their humans.
Trick training can also help strengthen the bond between the two of you.
How to train yourself for canicross
1. Run without your dog
Being a strong runner is essential to being able to help your dog as much as possible. Therefore, you should also run without being attached to your dog.
Ben runs most days during an average week.
- Maybe the odd rest day, and probably two interval sessions for myself. One hills-based session and then one long run. The rest of the run is made up of a little bit of recovery work.
When running with a dog, your average pace is much higher than it would be without the dog. Therefore you need to prepare for your 5-kilometer run in a different way than a runner running without a dog, with a slower average speed.
2. Strengthen your core
Ben has always been a firm believer that core stability work is hugely important for canicross athletes.
- The dogs are always pulling us away from that ideal core setup and the position we would normally be in. I do a lot of core work to be able to hold good running form, and a lot of running-based drills in training, in the warm-up and for main sessions. For core stability exercises, I recommend doing limb to torso-based exercises like leg raises, rollouts, planks and other static core stability where you hold the position. I try to to avoid common exercises like sit-ups and crunches. There's a lot of spinal flexion there, which is something that we want to avoid.
Together with canicross athlete and physical educator Willian Oliveira we have developed a canicross specific strength training program you can follow.
3. Think right
When competing in any sport, and especially when you have an animal as a teammate, it is essential to have balance in your life. Otherwise, you won't be able to perform at your best, according to Ole Einar Bjørndalen.
He successfully managed the challenges and pressure that came with a 25 year career as a world-class biathlete. During his career, Ole Einar won 13 Olympic medals, 45 World Championship medals, and had 95 individual World Cup wins in biathlon. He has also competed in skijoring for fun.
Ole Einar was one of the first athletes in Norway to get a mental coach.
- One of the routines we had was planning every single race. We discussed every detail in advance, then wrote down an agreement that I signed. When you sign something, you need to keep your promises!
At the Olympics in Nagano in 1998, Ole Einar's mental strength was put to the ultimate test.
Hear more about that incident and how the written agreement helped Ole Einar through one of the biggest challenges of his career in the episode of "Unleashed."