Mental Health and the power of Canicross

Posted by Ginetta George, 31st March 2024

Podcast Blog: Episode 41
In this episode we feature Daisy Hickman, one of our DogFit Ambassadors, who shares her story and Canicross journey.

For ten years, Daisy dedicated herself to long-distance trails and club running events, however six years ago, began experiencing debilitating panic attacks during her runs.  After numerous medical tests she was eventually diagnosed with exercise induced panic attacks and the pleasure of running seemed completely lost.

However enter Pepper, who came as a puppy and when she was old enough became gave Daisy the confidence to consider running again.  As well as being great company Pepper became Daisy’s anxiety antidote. The connection they shared on the trails made Daisy feel less alone, providing a distraction from anxiety and a sense of being looked after.

It would be really good to just hear about your early days when you started getting into running and how that came about?

I’ve always been really, really outdoorsy. I was climbing up Snowdon when I was eight years old as part of the school adventure club. I was always in the school sports, representing the school, always outside climbing trees with my brother.So I’ve always been really, really outdoorsy.

I think I can probably pinpoint the point where I first started running properly and where this all stemmed from and that was an adventure race. It was an equestrian cross-country course. It was sort of like a bit of a fun run. And it started off with, it was actually my parents, can you believe it? My mum and my dad got me involved. They were like, come on, come down and have a go at it. And it involved jumping out, leaping, clambering over these horse jumps, running through water, jumping over these logs, going under things, going around things, trying my best and I absolutely loved it. But I can tell you for three to four days after that, I could not move. It made me realise how physically unfit I was.

This is probably going back to 2009, I’d say. So it’s going back quite a long way. And I think that was what really sparked my interest. I really thought, you know, I need to sort myself out. I need to get fit. So I then started doing some more adventure races. I was running mainly by myself. I then started doing trail runs, but all on my own. And then I joined a running club and became a club runner, which I thoroughly enjoyed and it really got that competitive spirit for me. And this is probably back in 2010, I’d say, something around that. I then started representing the club in various events. I did a half marathon in 2012. That was my first half marathon. And then in 2014, I did my debut marathon. And I actually did really, really well in it. It was a multi-terrain, very, very hilly marathon called the Broadway Marathon. If you ever want to do it, you can do it. And really after that, that was when it all started to go downhill.

And that was 2014, in the winter of 2014 and to be honest with you, that’s when the anxiety started to get the better of me.

So could you describe what happened in those anxiety attacks?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, obviously people are quite aware of what anxiety is and what it can feel like and that sort of pit of your stomach. I never really got any of that, which is really weird.

It was almost like the panic attacks came out of absolutely nowhere. I think it probably was after that marathon performance that I then set myself these incredible sort of like plans. I was like, right, I’m coming back next year. I’m going to do it again. I’m going to come first. I’m going to break my record from last year. And unconsciously I was suddenly placing all this pressure on myself. And hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? This is nearly a decade ago and I’ve done a lot of self-reflection in that time and a lot of things like what went wrong. I think it was really a big fear of failure as well.Suddenly I was like, oh my god, I’m actually really good at something. But actually now I’ve got to deliver, and how am I going to do that? So I sorted myself out, structured a training plan for the next year. I got everything all sorted. I did a half marathon, which again was a trail run in the middle of the summer. It was June 2015. That was my first proper race ready for the marathon, which was in November that year. And that was where I had my first full-on, full-blown panic attack. And I remember it was at mile 10. And it was a really warm day. It was quite windy. I was in a good place. And then suddenly I remember just turning up the strip of field and running up it. And suddenly I was completely immobilised by my breathing. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was breathing through a straw. That’s how I described it. Massive amount of tightness around my neck. All my fingers, all my limbs went tingly. I was just stopped in my tracks. I was sick. I felt sick. I was all sweaty. My heart rate was sky high. And I thought something is seriously wrong. And I remember walking the last three miles back to the finish line, walking across that finish line and just going to my car and just crying my eyes out and going, there’s something wrong, there’s something wrong. And so that’s how it sort of started. And then, of course, I was really confused by all of that. I was really worried. And then I kind of looked at that as a one-off, and went to the doctors about it. And they sort of said, well, look, maybe you’re overdoing it a bit. So just bring it back a bit. And I didn’t have another one.

And then I did the Broadway marathon when I was all ready to go. Did my Broadway marathon. I was feeling really good. Got to mile 12. I was still feeling quite good. It was quite windy.
It was cold. And then I knew for the next five miles, I knew it was pretty much uphill, sort of 1500-foot of ascent. And I knew it was going to be tough. I got to mile 17, which was the sort of pit stop bit. And I just had another massive panic attack again. And I couldn’t catch my breath.

I felt sick. Fortunately, there were some ambulance crew people there, medics, and they didn’t help really. Well, they did help, but they didn’t. I felt like they didn’t help. They did a pulse oximeter test on my finger. Yeah. And my stats were 84%. Of course, that made it worse. What I didn’t know is because I’ve got poor circulation in my fingers that it wasn’t getting a good reading. And that was my first DNF (did-not-finish) that I had.

It would be really good to get a bit of understanding of how you went from having those symptoms to actually finding out what it was?

I’ve suffered with anxiety for quite a lot of my life anyway. I’d had my first panic attack by the time I was probably 10 years old, but I thought I’d gotten rid of it by then. And I didn’t really have one again until this mid-run panic attack. So I’d obviously gone to the doctors the first time. They told me to sort of take it easy a little bit. They did a few blood tests.They did some tests for anemia. I think I was slightly anemic at the time, so they gave me some iron. I thought maybe that was the reason why, but that didn’t help.

I then went back with shortness of breath. They did a load of asthma tests for me. They did allergy tests like the cat and dog test and they even considered something called vocal cord dysfunction, which is where your vocal cords go into spasm. I then had an ECG as things got really serious and something came up that I’d had, it looked like I’d had some kind of cardiac infarction, almost like a heart attack. And the doctor referred me to the local cardiologist and he did every single test on me and he said, you’re absolutely fine. It’s just something that happens with endurance runners where you have something called athlete’s heart, where one side of your heart muscle is quite a lot bigger, so it can make the ECG look like something’s happened to you. So I was given the all clear by the cardiologist.

This is probably two years worth. So at this point I completely stopped running.I was cycling. I was commuting to work on my bike. And I think really the main thing with all of that was that I just put myself under such tremendous pressure. My body was screaming at me to slow down and to stop. And the stresses, other stresses that were going on in my life, I was going through quite an emotional, emotionally abusive relationship at the time. That wasn’t helping. And so I think it was all of that all in all together that caused that. And to this day, I still don’t know whether I’ve actually cured it. I don’t think I have cured it.

And I think I will always live with this, but it’s about those techniques to deal with it. I was told not to run. I was constantly searching for lots of different reasons for why I was feeling like this, but not once did I ever think to myself that it was a panic attack. I didn’t realise. And I was referred as well to have some CBT and some talking therapy. And also I was given some really, really good information about how to do sort of mindfulness and relaxation techniques, but not whilst running.

Do you use those techniques in your everyday life?

Yes, I think I’m in a very different place now, which is a good, a better place, a good place. And I’ve done a lot of self-reflection as well over the years.I think also having consistency is good for me, having a reliable job, having a reliable relationship, having pepper, all of that has been a big help for me. So that less of that unpredictability and that unknown, I think that was the fear. And also realizing that actually in the last however many years, six years, I’ve actually been okay without running.I’m loving getting back to running, but I was okay without it.

I was Daisy the runner, that’s what I did. Everyone at work knew me as Daisy the runner. And I have a bit more to me than that now. I think I’m always going to have to keep in touch with myself just to make sure that I’m not going that little bit beyond and sort of obsessing over things, over races, over heart rates. The Canicross really helps with that.

What made you get the decision to have a dog and how did you discover Canicross? How did that suddenly appear in your life?

We got Pepper as a puppy. She’s now three years old. She’s a Border Collie. I love Border Collies. My gran had one and that made me really want one. I was quite, like I said, into the outdoors. My husband and I love walking. So we wanted a dog that was going to be a great walker, have loads of energy and be very athletic. And funny enough, asking about the Canicross, I knew of it, but it was actually almost Pepper that introduced me to Canicross. I used to go out walking with her at lunch just to give myself a bit of a revival because I work from home.

And this is probably when she was only two years old. And I’d wear a lead that I would wrap around my waist in like a bag thing. And she used to just start trotting off.

And I thought, you know what? Pepper wants a little bit of run. So I used to go running with her and literally was more of a jog. And I started doing this little route. It was only 20 minutes and I started doing it every day. And sometimes I’d walk it and sometimes I’d just jog it. And that’s what started it off. And then I started getting competitive with myself and I was like, we can do it in more than 20 minutes. We can do it in 19 minutes. We could do it in 18 minutes. And actually then I started looking at the Canicross. That’s where I found DogFit. And I was like, oh my god, This is brilliant. Got my kit, and I have not looked back since.

I just had visions of her on the laptop, looking up dog fit, putting in the harness consultation form. And then nudging it towards your direction. But no, that’s really lovely. And I guess the pressing question now is what’s the difference between when you were running before on your own and experienced all the anxiety attacks opposed to running with Pepper?

Anyone can do it for a start. You’ve got lots of options. You can run. So if I suddenly become injured, there’s that possibility of being able to go on the bike with her. Or there’s canny trekking, for example. When I was running before, it was sort of like, oh, I’m injured. Oh, right. That’s it. I don’t want to do anything else. But Pepper is always there, if I get injured, she’s still going to be there. She’s still going to want to have a walk and she’s still going to want that exercise and she still loves it. And when I see her little ears prick forwards on our Canicross runs and she just goes for it I love it. And I don’t think I could ever take that away from her. I chat with her. She is like my little mate on the run.I will almost pep talk to her. I’m sure if it was the other way around, she’d be pep talking to me. But I’m like, come on, Pepper, let’s get up this hill.

And I think that has really helped because it’s someone to share it with. She also kind of keeps an eye on me every now and again, especially when we’re trail running, my ankle will go and I’ll make a bit of a stumbling sound or I’ll cough or something. And she turns around, she looks at me and she’s sort of like, are you all right, mum? I have fallen over once. I went head over heels. Fortunately, I was absolutely fine.But she came up and she was in my ear, nuzzling me, licking me, checking I was okay. And that’s something really special.

We’ve got this incredible bond from this and that’s something that I didn’t think I would ever be able to have with a dog.

What advice would you give to someone listening to this that maybe has started to feel anxious about being out and running?

There’s loads of different things that you can do. I’ve done so much work on this over the last year that I’ve been running with Pepper. One thing that is a major sort of revelation to me is that, of course, running produces similar physiological symptoms to a panic attack. So you might have shortness of breath, a high heart rate, nausea and sweating, all very similar. And there’s lots of things you can actually do to help deal with these feelings. Firstly, I think the main thing is identifying your triggers. As well as understanding why you’re feeling like this.

So for me, I know it’s people passing me, so if people are going past me whilst I’m running. Other competitors, I start thinking should I be running faster? Hills, cold air, cold wind is also when my heart rate starts getting high. I don’t do well in windy conditions either.

Once you’ve identified your triggers, it’s about actually trying to manage that. If you don’t know what your triggers are, then it’s just listening to your body, like, hang on, what’s making me feel anxious right now? What is it? And sometimes it doesn’t come to you. It doesn’t come to you straight away. And sometimes it does need some of that self-reflection afterwards to understand. And time just to be able to look back and say, actually, I was in quite a stressed place at that point in time, but I didn’t recognize it.

Trail running is a great way aswell. It’s a great distraction. You’re focusing your mind on the present, whether that might be jumping over a log, fallen trees. Another technique that I use is I’ve learned to run slow. So I keep my heart rate down. I start to know what my heart rate is. I shouldn’t be analyzing my heart rate, but this is for trying to avoid any kind of panic attacks. If my heart rate is over 160, for example, that’s because I’m in a race. So keeping my run slow and if I feel my symptoms coming on I just slow down. Walking is absolutely fine.

To me before, walking was a failure. I didn’t ever walk. I’d rather just stop and feel like I was dying. Do you know what I mean? And another thing I really started to experiment with now is mindfulness whilst running. So this could be breathing for example matching my inhales to my strides. Okay. So inhale for two, exhale for two, depending on obviously what my pace was or how fast I was going. Or thinking about the cool air hitting the roof of my mouth, and I can feel it going down into my lungs, filling my lungs up, and then coming back out again. It’s a really good anchor for that mindfulness. Rhythmic body movements. Now sometimes I’ll be running along, and I’m doing this with my fingers, and I’m just focusing on just doing that, especially on the long runs because we do a lot of long runs together, and I do that quite a lot. So if you ever see me doing that in a race, it’s just me.


Those are some really good tips. How long would you say you’ve been using these tips?

I’d say probably only for the last 6 months, when I took the plunge and entered some races. When I know my heart rate is going to go high in the races, I’ve had to start working on that. It has really, really helped so far and I’ve had no symptoms and no panic attacks to date, and that shows progress.

Are you doing any dogless runs now or are you just sticking to Canicross?

I tend to stick to Canicross, but I did a dogless run the other day which was a great achievement for me. It was really hard work and I don’t think I’ll be doing it again in a hurry.
And of course, I didn’t have anyone pulling and helping me along. I definitely don’t think I would have got back into running if it wasn’t for Pepper.

That’s so lovely to hear. We caught up with you at Run Reigate and obviously you were competing there and looked like you were having a great time. But have you got some other events now in the diary that you’re going to run with Pepper?

Yes, I’ve got Reading 10/20 this Sunday. You either do 10 miles or 20 miles and I’m doing 10, fortunately for me. And it’s a multi-terrain race. And then I also have the Brecon Beacons trail running, trail events company, which I’m really looking forward to.
They do sell it as a half marathon, but looking closer, it’s 17 miles. So that’s going to be interesting. Pepper and I have, we’ve got a little shepherd’s hut and we’re treating it as a bit of a day out. And you know, I know not many people would want to be doing that on a day out, 17 mile run, but I’m really excited for it. So that’s at the start of May and that’s our sort of ultimate thing.

Just to close, from your experiences now that you’re an experienced Canicrosser with Pepper, what would you say to people who are thinking about giving Canicross a go? What would be your advice be?

Well, firstly, of course, go to DogFit and get yourself kitted out. That’s one of the main things, of course, because I think having the gear always helps as well, making sure you’re knowing you’re doing the right thing in the right way and the safest way possible for your dog and for yourself. I think from my perspective, just start off slowly with your dog, start by walking, doing walk runs so you build that stamina up both for yourself and for your dog and find your niche as well.
I didn’t think that I’d get back into long distance running, but actually listen to your dog in some ways and what do they enjoy doing? Do they enjoy the short, faster runs or do they prefer to do longer distances? So it’s really finding that niche and then exploring the events page, of course, on DogFit.

I mean, I stalked that page for quite a while, just looking through, thinking, oh, if only I could do that race. And actually, do you know what? You can do it. It doesn’t matter. Everyone’s so friendly. Everyone is so inclusive. And that’s what it should always be about. You and your dog having fun. You get to meet loads of other dogs, don’t you? And have dog cuddles, which I love!

Check out Daisy’s instagram @petalpawsdaisy to see updates of her and Pepper.

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