An intro to canicross: how to start running with your dog

Running cross-country with your dog – AKA canicross – is superb fun and open to everybody.

Running with your dog isn’t just about chasing after it if a rabbit appears on the horizon. No, these days it’s an all-inclusive sport that, if you so wish, also hosts World and European Championships.

Welcome to canicross, a sport that sees humans and their dogs both enjoy everything running has to offer in terms of physical and mental health. 

Running with your dog might even help you run a faster 5k. Canicross runner Ben Robinson holds the world record for running 5km (just over three miles) with a dog, with an astounding 12 minutes 24 seconds. By comparison, the best time on the track for a human is 12:35.36.

Woman runner with her dog on a lead, going fastCredit: Cushla Lamen
Canicross runner Cushla Lamen with her dog, Mayhem

What is canicross?

Canicross is a simple, dog-powered sport where the dog is harnessed and attached to the runner by a bungee.

It started with mushers training their lead sled dogs when there was no snow. But today, the sport – whether it’s jogging with the dog or running in organised races – has developed into a rapidly growing pastime, enjoyed by all number of four (and two) legged competitors. 

Canicross is open to dogs big and small

Running is a generally inclusive sport, and canicross is no different. All sizes, speeds and ages can give the sport a go, with everything from chihuahuas and Jack Russells to Dobermanns taking part in past events. 

“That’s what makes it so great,” says Cushla Lamen, who competes with her dogs and is the current British over 50s champion. “Of course, for major competitions, there are preferred breeds known for their size and speed, but for everything else it’s a case of turn up and run.” 

Lamen has a good understanding of dog fitness because of her job as a canine myotherapist, which uses massage to treat pain and discomfort caused by a variety of conditions. 

Greyster dog and owner running on a muddy track with a canicross running lead attaching the twoCredit: Shutterstock / Pavel1964
Greysters make good competitive canicross dogs – but all breeds can take part

At this point, I feel the need to suggest my westie – Benji – surely isn’t up to the task, given his size and love of a good sniff rather than the fast times and miles in the bank I prefer. Lamen draws my attention to a picture showing canicross pup Parker – a dead ringer for Benji – powering along, every bit an athlete in the moment.

“He’s called Parker because a member bought him when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and now, he really helps her cope with that. He’s amazing,” says Lamen.

So, canicross is open to all. “A lot of people start with their pets, although you can progress,” she explains, highlighting the popularity of a greyster (a type of sled dog) as the dog of choice for the big competitions. 

Kit you’ll need to run with your dog

It’s important you get the correct gear for both you and your dog’s safety and comfort. Sizing and fit is important and, if in any doubt, make sure you check your dog’s measurements before making the purchase. There are many different options around but expect to pay around £80 for a complete beginner’s pack, which includes: 

  • harness 
  • belt 
  • bungee line
  • kit bag

However, if your dog already has their own harness, then a belt-and-lead set will cost significantly less – this Barkswell set is £20.99 from Amazon.

Featured product

Barkswell canicross kit

RRP: £20.99

Barkswell canicross kit

Harnesses are designed to build up your dog’s strength and fitness and to encourage them to pull into it.

It’s a good idea to have your dog in harness only when they are doing the “work” intervals, so they associate the harness with pulling forward. 

How to start running with your dog

If you’re already a regular runner and want to start taking your four-legged friend with you, you’ll have to rein yourself in and allow time for sniffing and other activities from your dog.

If you’re really keen, Lamen’s advice is to get a run in beforehand because the run with your dog will be very different. It can take a few minutes for your dog to settle down, but you’ll be surprised how quickly everybody adapts – owner and faithful friend.

You need to plan for all of the obvious practicalities too, such as food, water and poo bags, before setting out.

When you first begin to take your dog out, start small. “It’s best to run just about a quarter of a mile or so as a beginning distance,” Lamen says.

You and the dog need to get used to the kit you’ll need and the time it takes for any dog to get used to the commands. “Have patience and use the same command several times in quick succession to really build the understanding,” Lamen continues. “I use a countdown to get them all going and get the harness on.” 

Woman and dog run together through a forestCredit: Cushla Lamen
Current British over 50s canicross champ Cushla Lamen out for a run with her dog

You can incorporate sessions into your usual daily walk. For example, walk for 10 minutes first (allowing your dog to pee and poo), do 2 x 200m (approximately 220 yards) canicross running, and then walk for 10 minutes so your dog has a good warm-down.

From there, it’s very much like running with a human, in that there’s a six or eight-week countdown to a competition, preceded by a period of easy running where both dog and human tend to just run for the enjoyment of it all. “I might ride my bike while the dogs run alongside me for more speed,” explains Lamen.  

And remember,  always reward your dog with verbal praise and attention at the end of a run so it’s a positive experience for them. 

An example canicross workout

This workout mixes walking and running (both jogging and sprinting) with strength training and fun activities for your dog. It’s best done with your dog off the lead so find a safe trail to exercise with them on. 

Start your trail with a fast walk for five to 10 minutes to warm up, then increase your pace to an easy jog. Every time your dog stops to sniff something, do strength exercises such as some squats or lunges. When they start to walk again, continue to jog or walk. If you and your dog are feeling energetic, you can mix in some random bursts of fast-paced running. 

The goal is to keep your heart rate elevated for the whole duration and to vary the intensity of your workout. It’s fantastic for developing your aerobic and anaerobic fitness as well as strength, speed and muscular endurance. 

Exercise recovery is just as important for your dog as it is for you, so always give them at least one rest day, sometimes two.

Paul Larkins

Written by Paul Larkins

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Paul Larkins has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors. But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide.