The what, why and how – Strength & Conditioning for Canicrossers

Posted by Ginetta George, 27th April 2024

Podcast Blog: Episode 42
In this episode we feature Cat Batson, an experienced personal trainer as well as a DogFit Trainer for the Henley & Marlow area.

We delve into the what, why and how of strength conditioning and hopefully reassure you that it doesn’t need to take up too much of your time and is something that every one of us can do and should do to complement our aerobic activity.

Could you share a bit about your background and what you do in terms of helping people with their fitness and performance goals?

I’ve been working as a personal trainer and had my own business for the last 15 years. I work with a variety of people, everything from elite athletes to everyday people wanting to improve their fitness. I work with them covering everything from 10K’s, marathons, triathlons, ultras, but also cycling. Also older people that want to know how they can maintain their strength and keep their balance as well as progress their fitness into their ageing years. 

Would you mind just explaining what strength and conditioning means and why it’s really important? Not just necessarily for people as they’re getting older, but for everybody.

The term strength and conditioning has been around for a long time. It’s looking at those muscles that we use in running or cycling, or like I said, just everyday use, and making sure that they’re strong and supported. 

So not just your primary muscles, but strengthening your core as well. For example, if you’re running down a ridgeway and it’s quite rocky and hilly and you’re trying to balance yourself  from side to side so that you don’t just step on a rock and tumble, it’s your core that helps keep you upright. 

It’s being able to go from side to side. It’s the stabiliser muscles that don’t let those knees wobble. So all of those things kind of come in together and support us in all of these activities that we do…but it’s just making sure that you’re working those particular muscles to keep yourself supported. 

Cat_Batson_DogFit Trainer

So are there particular S & C exercises you would recommend specifically for Canicrossers? 

Yes, definitely. Because you’ve got a dog that’s pulling you and they’ve got such a low centre of gravity, what I always say is focus on that core strength.

The best way I can think of it is if your core is weak, imagine you’ve got a canoe on a lake and that canoe has a big old barrelled gun. If you’ve got that cannon on the boat and it attempts to shoot that ball it’s just going to go “plop” because the water is making it have no stability. But when you do it on land, which is firm with a stable centre, when you shoot it’s going to go far. So it’s the same principle when you have a nice strong core, you’re going to have much more power in speed with that strong core than you would if you were soft and squishy.

So you’re saying that the core exercises are probably the best thing that you can be doing if you’re Canicrossing? 

Yes, so that’s where I would start with the core. And then again, a little bit of upper body work because as we’re running up those hills, we’re using our arms to really be able to keep up with our dogs for one. But then also lunges and squats, we want to be able to make sure our glutes are supporting us and are powerful enough. By glutes, I mean your bum! To make sure that it’s nice and strong because those are our biggest muscles and those are the ones that should be doing all the work. Not your quads, not the front of your legs, not the back of your legs, not your calves. Your bum should be doing a lot of that support, which will help your knees and your legs to be able to power you through running quicker and stronger. 

So are there exercises specifically for the ankles and just to help with balance that people should be thinking about? 

I would consider mobility exercises for this. I tend to do in conjunction with strength and conditioning. So things like working ankle flexibility, working foot core, which is a term which is your core work for your feet, because your feet are going to take a lot of beatings. And particularly if you’ve got a young, strong dog and you haven’t gone down a hill before, you’re going to find out very quickly just how much you use those feet when you’re trying to brace yourself or trying to fly and keep up with them. 

But doing those certain little foot exercises, making sure your toes are strong, making sure the bottom of your foot is strong, all of those things come into play when it comes to your strength and conditioning.

You don’t necessarily need equipment for a lot of these exercises then?

Not really. I mean, you could use, when I do most of the exercises, it’s equipment free, you can increase it and improve it with something like a stability band or a couple of little dumbbells. But pretty much you can find stuff around your house to just get yourself started. 

How many times a week or is it something you would do before you’re going for a run or you try to fit in two or three times a week as a separate activity? What would you recommend?

So I tend to be very focused on my training. So if I’m going to be going out for a run, I’m already sweaty, so I’m going to do my workout on top of that. Or I’ll start with my workout and then I’ll go for my run. It tends to work out better if I go for my run first, because then I use that as my warm up. And then everything is supple and ready to go when I start doing my strength training. Then what I would say is a minimum for strength and conditioning of three days a week. 

But that being said, I would rather have somebody work out two days a week than one day a week. And if something happens, I’d rather you workout one day a week rather than no days a week. So there’s always the optimum, three to four days a week. 

But life happens and things go on. And then if you can only get two or one in that week, well, don’t beat yourself up. Focus on the next week. 

And are you talking for 20 minutes, half an hour or longer when you do these sessions?

Ideally I would go for 45 minutes. 45, you can add a little bit for your cool down.

But again, if all you can do is 20 minutes, make those 20 minutes count. Something is better than nothing. 

And the exercises that you were referring to earlier, we’ve got a video, haven’t we, that you’ve created for everyone. Would you run through what you have put on there? 

I’ve created this great little video. And it’s really simple, with really simple exercises. 

If you’re time limited, I would focus on some of the core oand make sure that I did in order to start my program and start getting me on track. And so stuff like squats, lunges, lateral lunges, single leg, a couple of single leg things, just because when you’re running, you’re always on one leg. So particularly if you’ve got sometimes when you’re running with a dog that’s powerful, you don’t have any feet on the ground. 

So a lot of stuff like that. And then again, it’s working some ankle flexibility and some foot exercises to make sure that your feet can handle what you’re about to do. And these exercises you’ve put together on the video, if you are time poor, these are the minimum ones you should at least do, the essentials.

So what I like to think of it is if you start with the essentials and commit to doing those again, ideally three times a week, once you start to see that benefits after three to four weeks down the road, once you start to actually, you may not see it, but you’ll feel it. Then you can invest a little bit more time. 

Cat Batson Certified DogFit Trainer

One of the things that obviously people do think of with strength training, strength and conditioning is, is it going to make me bulky? Am I going to suddenly look like a weight lifter?

You would have to really commit to working out every day, you know, watching your food and doing heavy, heavy weights in order to get that look. You know, I work out all the time and this is as good as it gets. But yes I do get that a lot. Particularly from women who worry about bulking up. And I always say when it comes to strength and conditioning, it’s about, you know, low weights, high reps. So we’re using low weights. We’re using our own body weight. These are not things that are going to build you up. They are going to make you stronger. They’re going to make you more powerful, but that’s never a bad thing.

What about age? Because obviously somebody who’s in their twenties in theory can do a lot more, might be able to lift heavier weights than someone in their fifties or sixties. Is there any advice around that?

The older you get, you do, the only thing I would say is you need more recovery time. You can still do the same, you know, the exercises, particularly again, when it comes to strength and conditioning, we’re low weight, high reps, which again, benefits an ageing person because that is, you’re not going to be straining yourself to be able to do these exercises, but it will, it will strengthen you and make you stronger. So when you start doing those, just make sure you give yourself time to recover.

What results have you seen personally from clients that have adopted a strength and conditioning programme with you on top of their regular running?

Most of them are ones that have started using my methods in conjunction with training for a marathon. So, you know, everybody always kind of picks, “Oh, I want to do a marathon”. So, you know, fine. So if they are Canicrossing, when I create their program  I will give them their strength and conditioning exercises, but I’ll also tailor it to help them with their Canicross. 

And then what’s interesting is those that go on and commit and do their regular training. It isn’t, it isn’t long before I hear, “Hey, I’m, I’m running better”.  And this is great.

So strength and conditioning is not just about improving your speed, power and endurance and all of those things, but it’s also about your mind and how much, once you start to feel a little bit of confidence in yourself, because you’re working better and you’re achieving. Then you start to feel so much better about what you’re doing and what you’re capable of doing. 

Is there any particular examples. Some of your Canicross classes go up to longer distances. And you’ve done quite a few events with some of your clients? 

We’ve just finished a 10 mile Canicross at the weekend. And again, it’s just helping get people confident to feel like, “hey, I can do these longer distances. If my dog’s happy to do it, why don’t I give it a go?”  And again, it’s instilling in them, this is doable. This is very much something that can be done. But also, I try to get them to do a little bit of running aside from just with their dog, because you want, you want to be able to build up that power. You want to be able to build up that strength. 

You don’t always want to have to rely on your dog to do the work for you. You want to be able to help your dog. Your dog is a partner. It’s a partnership when it comes to Canicross. You should be doing your end of the deal and they are pulling you. So if you can get your side done and make sure that you’re strong and, and agile so that you can handle things. 


Cat Batson

But just to finish off, what advice would you give to somebody starting Canicross and the reasons, and obviously the benefit it brings, and also dovetailing that strength and conditioning in there as well?

I always say, when you’re first starting out, start with your strength and conditioning. Get that solid because it will only benefit you. And even to the point now where a lot of my newbies are coming on, I’ve almost tailored it to say, right, you have to start, even though your dog can take you, you know, you can run 10k quite happily, I prefer you to start in my, in my smaller run group, because these are people coming off injury. These are people or dogs coming off injury, or whatever. But it gives you that time and space to work your commands, make sure you’re doing that, and also so you can feel what it’s like without having to go, I need to keep up with the people that are doing the longer run. But it’s just getting yourself started. Get yourself going and just check it out, because it’s so much fun. 

That part will fuel you to go, “okay, what can I do better?”  – And what can I do better would be strength and conditioning, start training yourself because it is so much more fun when you’re strong, and you feel more capable of being able to handle your dog. I run with new dogs all the time, and the number of you know, the number of times I’m going it’s so powerful. 

But if I didn’t have if I didn’t have my base layer of strength and conditioning, there’s no way I’d be able to handle those. But it does make it so much more fun and enjoyable when you are just that little bit stronger and more, again, mentally prepared to undertake it. 

You can find out more about Cat and her popular Canicross classes here:

Cat also offers personal training and you can find out more here:

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