For many, Canicross is more than just a hobby. It is the perfect way to bond with their dogs, keep fit and meet likeminded people. One of the many advantages of Canicross is that, once the bug has bitten you, there is always a new challenge to work towards and new knowledge to learn to help you get the most out of the sport.
Sarah Gillam is a DogFit trainer and elite Canicrosser who has competed at both national and international levels. She helps people improve their running while avoiding injury. Here, Sarah shares some thoughts on training and talks about her own journey from beginner to taking part in Canicross events all over Europe.
How did you get into running and, ultimately, Canicross?
I was super sporty growing up, throwing myself into things as diverse as trampolining, karate and field hockey. I saw running as a way to help me stay fit and progress, especially with hockey. By the time I reached my 20s, I was working in the sports industry and went to a few running and marathon trade shows. I really loved the vibe from all the runners and it made me think, maybe I need to give this a go.
From there, I went on to train for 5K and 10K races, slowly building up to half and full marathons. I’ve competed in several ‘iconic’ European marathons and half marathons, including Paris, London, Barcelona and Berlin. After a while, I added triathlons to my list of sporting challenges. I loved the diversity of training methods for swimming, running and biking all at the same time. However, I liked the running part most of all, so I soon reverted back to purely running events instead. I was living in Berkshire and had access to some truly beautiful training routes. I took part in mud runs and adventure races – the muddier the better!
It was this that introduced me to anicrossing. I was taking part in a Brutal 10 trail running event one day, and I saw some people taking part with their dogs. It looked like amazing fun! Although I didn’t have a dog at the time, I’d been planning to acquire one for years. Shortly afterwards, I acquired my first cCanicross dog – a six-week-old ‘Springador’ puppy called Jess – a cross between a Springer spaniel and a Labrador. She is very clever, full of energy and a bit crazy. The perfect temperament for Canicrossing!
How have you found Canicross with such an energetic dog?
Canicrossing is the ideal outlet for a dog like Jess. She comes from a pedigree working line and has boundless energy and motivation to just run and run. She loved doing Canicross right from the start. When she was old enough to begin training, we started out by enjoying morning jogs together using the harness and line but not running at full speed or having any thoughts about formally competing.
We were content to do that for a couple of years, but then we began to enter more Brutal 10 style events when Jess and I both ended up covered in mud, but deliriously happy. I was still playing hockey then, so I’d get up on a Saturday, go and do a 10K with Jess and then turn up at the hockey pitch covered in mud!
After moving to Germany in 2016, we looked around for more Canicrossing events. We found our first one that same year. It was all very serious. Participants were started off one by one, a minute or so apart, rather than all joining in one mass start. It felt like you were doing the race on your own, working as a team of two with your dog. We loved that and did a few of these types of events while we got settled into our new home. It made me realise that, if I could teach Jess how to pull properly, we could actually move up to the next level in competing on a wider scale.
We are lucky where we live in mid-East Germany, as there are not only several canicross events that are reasonably local to us, but we are also a manageable drive away from the Czech Republic and Austria, where the sport is also gaining traction. We have also taken part in triathlons in various countries that involve dogs taking part as well, which Jess and I have both really enjoyed We have even taught ourselves to cross country ski together too as there is a lot of snow in the winter here. Cross country skiing is harder to master than its downhill equivalent – and that’s before you even add a dog into it as well!
What do you do to improve your competitive Canicross time?
I have created a mixed training schedule to target all the different areas that need attention. I do a lot of running sessions without the dog – at least three times a week to help me improve my personal fitness levels. After all, they say that the limiting factor in most canicross partnerships is the human, not the dog!
I add in at least two Canicross training runs per week as well, depending on the weather and conditions. My other Canicrossing dog, Poppy, is a Scandinavian hound who came from Belgium. She is quite a small dog who seems to have been born to Canicross, so she runs extremely well and doesn’t put as much strain on me as a larger dog might do if they were pulling too much at me all the time or needing to be corrected a lot on the way round. This means I can go out to train more often with both Poppy and Jess, which is great.
I also do a lot of strength and flexibility work at home using mainly bodyweight and some lighter kettlebell weights to help build up my stamina for longer running distances. Core work is important too, to help you stay light on your feet with a strong upper body. I have recently taken up sports yoga, which is harder as I get older, but very important if you want to keep up your running speeds. I work with a lady in the UK on specific moves designed for runners to help with mobility in the hips, glutes and lower body.
What are some of the common mistakes that runners make when attempting to move up to the next level?
You must create realistic goals for yourself and break them down into a series of shorter term goals to make them seem more manageable over time. If you work towards a big end-goal too quickly, this can be a huge mistake as you could risk injury to yourself or your dog is you push too hard, too soon. Listen to your body and be patient with yourself and your dog so you can improve as a team using a structured plan and pre-agreed timescale. Make it fun and look for different routes to shake things up and make it more of a novelty for the dog.
Having said that, while it’s lovely to have some variety when you go out for your runs, if you are aiming for a specific faster time or a set longer distance, you must make sure that you are working towards that goal in a more focused way. For example, I have a longer stage race coming up in a few months’ time that is 12km long with a 500m elevation.
So, I have been increasing my distance bit by bit for that so that I can reach that distance reliably while I still have plenty of time to work on my and Poppy’s endurance. In particular, Poppy needs to learn what it feels like to run that distance and also to know when to stop safely at the end.
How do you coach someone who wants to increase their speed?
If you already have the distance sorted, keep this going during your training so your stamina doesn’t drop. Add some specific speed goals to help keep you motivated and push you to the next level. For example, when I was working towards my first 5K Canicross race, I had a target of breaking 20 minutes. When we smashed it, I was delighted and set myself a new speed goal. Poppy and I completed a 5K course in just 14.23 the other day. She is such a good dog to race with so I can set myself new times like this and enjoy working towards them with her.
When it comes to increasing your speed, home gym workouts can really help, as can work on your actual running technique. You need your body to be working as efficiently as possible so you can run as fast as you can without expending energy pointlessly on flawed technique.
Consider what speed actually is. Runners need to think about their stride length and their cadence, or number of steps you take in a set time period, such as one minute. The more steps you can take with longer strides, the faster you will run. You can increase your stride length by working on your power and flexibility, especially around the hip flexors. Cadence will improve through doing loads of canicross runs and interval training. Keep to short breaks in between reps though, so that your legs still feel heavy when you set off again to help them build muscle. Having a strong-pulling dog can also help you to speed up pretty quickly!
What about people who want to train for longer distances, such as marathons?
Training for distance is totally different to training for speed. You still need to work towards improving your strength, but you also need a lot of power to keep going for longer. You must increase your more flexibility and suppleness so that you can (hopefully) stay injury free for the whole course.
Injury prevention is the biggest challenge when it comes to extending distances as running involves repetitive movements that can lead to knee pain and other niggles. You can combat this by integrating more flexibility work into your training and using tools like a foam roller to release tension in your muscles and so prevent strains.
On top of all of this, keep building up the distances you run slowly but surely when you are out for your Canicross training sessions and you should start to see a difference before too long.
How do you work with people to improve their running technique?
I offer a running analysis service where I watch people run to see what their style is and to see if I can spot ways to help them improve. They send me videos of themselves running, filmed from the front, side and behind and I can look at how their body is working and things like their stride length, hip muscles, hamstrings. I make the runners aware of any issues I find and offer recommendations to help them improve. I send all this through in a report for them to read and take action.
I also help people select the right running shoes for their individual requirements. It’s amazing what a difference the right pair of shoes can make. Some people need cushioned shoes to allow their foot space to move more, while others need rigid shapes to hold their feet firmly in place. It’s not so much about the brand as the type of shoe that best suits the way that you run and the physical shape of your foot. Try out different options until you find the right one for you.
I also suggest different exercises to combat muscle tightness and to increase strength and flexibility over time. Different types of stretches help different muscles recover and build up mass. Static stretching can certainly aid flexibility, but there are also gliding stretches where you move into different positions to help your body adjust and stretch out further each time. This approach helps extend the range of movement in both muscle and joints. I am a big fan of foam rolling to help balance the body and make sure the left and right sides are working in tandem.
What do you love best about training other people for Canicross events?
I love building relationships with people and sharing feedback and training tips. I work with my clients to tweak their schedules according to how they are feeling, or how busy they are. So they are still running and training, but with fewer set goals around time and distance. Sometimes, this can lead to people enjoying their fastest times or longest distances ever as the pressure has been removed and they can simply kick back and have fun.
In fact, that’s really what I love best about my work – seeing people enjoy themselves while keeping fit, enjoying the great outdoors and bonding with their dog. It’s also how I came to choose my company name, Train and Smile, as I believe that the more fun you can have while working towards a goal, the more likely it is that you will reach it. It’s so key to have a positive mindset.
The most important thing to remember is that you are working as a team with your dog. It’s a team sport, so you need to listen to your canine team member and ensure that you are giving them the correct signals as you run. It is often more about the feeling being pulled through the line than the verbal commands. If your dog knows how the line and harness feels when you need them to switch direction, they will react much faster and help you both maintain a good speed. The stronger you can make your bond, with your dog, the better you will run together and the greater your confidence will become. Relax and enjoy it and your dog will quickly follow suit.
You can find details about coaching with Sarah by clicking on the image below.